All things to all men

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I keep saying to myself that I will do a bit of a reflective wash up after each course – to think about what I have learnt, what went well, what didn’t, what could be improved. So. Here I go.

I just ran a course on the 19th & 20th August – in my workplace. Slightly larger group than I have done before mostly, thanks to being able to get one of the larger “board” rooms which are usually occupied by branch meetings, large video conferences, or appearances by our senior management. Another thing that differed from usual was that it was two consecutive days. Feedback in the past has been that people find it hard enough to get one day away from the office in a week, let alone two – but August is a quieter month for some, and as my co-trainer was travelling from London it was more convenient for them to do it in one chunk.  After all, that is how the course is designed to be delivered – though it does feel quite intensive, and very tiring.

So – logistics wise. The room itself was a bit strange. It is large – the left hand side of the room has a big screen, which had rows of chairs laid out infront, theatre style – (and a smaller screen behind them); the right hand side of the room has a large board room set up, table with chairs around.  This presented a bit of a dilemma, as we needed trainees to see the screen for the presentations and videos, but the table area was more appropriate for group exercises, and general discussions. I initially intended to stick with the theatre arrangement, and move over to the tables for the exercises, but I could tell it wasn’t really working. People weren’t talking to eachother as much as usual, they were a bit closed off, – and not surprising as they were sat with their backs to others. So we decided to switch things around at lunchtime, and moved the tables over so people sat around – but could still see the screen.

We (the trainers) were happier with this. The group did seem to open up and gel a bit more then. However the table layout was mentioned negatively in some feedback, as it meant looking at the screen side on. I guess you can’t please them all – everyone has their own preferences. I still think I would do the same, as I don’t think we would have got the same development in the room had we stayed in neat little rows.

The room was relatively well air conditioned – with opening windows (like hens teeth in our building) – which again, was great for the trainers, who were overheating, but some people found it cold. On balance, having been in overpopulated tiny rooms that turn into saunas – I think it preferable, but I wonder is there a middle ground to be had anywhere in the building. All of the rooms make you feel like Goldilocks – this one is too hot, this one too cold, this one is too small, this one too big…  We can only work with the resources we have.

I had been a little concerned about the slightly larger group, wondering if I woud be able to keep control, if discussions would go on longer than we had time for, etc. but it was alright. In the end we still had three spaces below maximum, and it worked pretty well. Had there been more “talkative” attendees it might have been different but there was a balance really of the quieter and the “loquacious”.

Content wise – I will be honest and say it wasn’t my most successful session. We still got good feedback, but sometimes I come away feeling like people have really benefited / enjoyed / learned / bonded. Not so much this time. And I think it comes back to the issue of trying to be all things to all men. The people there were wanting quite different things, I think – some of them got what they were looking for, some of them maybe didn’t.

What is the course for, after all? We aim to raise awareness of mental health issues, challenge stigma, educate about symptoms and treatment, and give people some skills to use in offering first aid for people in mental health crisis situations. There is applicability in a work setting, and it is discussed, but it is a very holistic view. What you get out of it comes down to a number of factors – what is your level of understanding about mental health when you come in, what are your expectations, and can you empathise with what you are being shown? Everyone has different learning styles, so there are different kinds of content: statistics, images, video, group exercises, personal reflection. Different people in the same group will find different aspects more or less useful. Personal anecdotes and background discussion add depth to the content – but sometimes people want more.

The course is very recovery focussed, because that is the most important message. It is about giving people with Mental Health issues hope – because for the vast majority, recovery is possible, with the correct treatment and/or support. It is also about letting everyone know that recovery is possible, and that consigning people with Mental Health problems to the rubbish heap of life is not only wrong on a personal and moral level, but also a massive waste. Friends and family need to know that they can play an enormous role in helping someone recover, employers need to know that if they support a member of staff with mental health issues they will remember, and could be repaying that investment and belief for years to come, once they come through the other side. For there is another side, for an awful lot of people.

That being said, some people comment that they don’t get a real feel for exactly what some of the people talking about different issues in the videos were feeling before they reached the stage of recovery they are in. Sometimes we talk in euphemisms, which mean a great deal to someone else who has experienced a feeling, but nothing to someone who hasn’t. Perhaps there is a need for a little more bluntness.  But then – I don’t really want other people to understand how I feel. I wouldn’t wish that on them, if they didn’t need to. What I do want, is for them to take my word for it that it is as bad as I make out, and not assume I am faking / exaggerating / weak.

There is a note of caution in this kind of work – just as best practice reporting on suicide does not give details about the methods used, lest it encourage others to follow suit, – we don’t want to trigger worsening of individuals conditions by dwelling on the dark details. But sometimes it might be important to describe more clearly the way we feel and thing in our worst moments, to those who only ever see us when we are well.

We had a couple of more senior people in this group – which was interesting, they seemed more practically driven. How can I use this to support my staff, what does it mean. Which is heartening, as we certainly need to see managers thinking this way – and improving their understanding. However I think some of them were frustrated by the more basic elements of the course, feeling that what they needed to get out of it could be done in a shorter time, in a more directive way. But – MHFA doesn’t assume any basic level of knowledge, and it is not just for managers, or people with a good grounding in health already. Part of the important learning for me is about self reflection, and sharing amongst the group – and that only comes with time.

Which brings me back to the two consecutive days – it has its benefits – a good focus, perhaps. However I do think that a little gap in between, ideally including a weekend, gives time for processing, absorbing, discussing – and somehow makes for a more satisfying experience. Which is an interesting thing for me, as I always kind of wanted to be able to do it as originally intended. I don’t know. There’s also the issue of feeling rushed, and like people want to be back at their desks – which is inherent in a) being in the same building as said desks, and b) not being external trainers.

I only flicked briefly through the feedback, which was mostly good. some people rating my co-trainer better than I, some vice versa – only natural as I say – we will all have preferences, and relate more to one person’s style than another.  I don’t think I was at my best, but I’m my own worst critic – so long as other people are happy I will have to take their word for it.

My next training will be in Hebden Bridge, on 19th / 26th September – if this goes ahead. I currently don’t have sufficent bookings, so if you are interested do get in touch as soon as possible as I have to cancel in early September or I have to pay for the room anyway! If these dates are no good for you please also get in touch as I will be looking to plan something else in Calderdale soon.

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