Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Self medication

In the wake of Robin Williams tragic suicide has come a plethora of analysis about the nature of comic genius and mental illness as we ordinary folk try to understand why anyone would want to kill themselves. Many of the accounts of his life note his long 'battle' with alcohol and drugs, he himself made comedy from it in that famous interview with Michael Parkinson. Even there amongst the laughter, was deep darkness.

A couple of months ago I met a woman who had struggled with alcohol all her life until a perceptive Children North East family worker noticed something that changed everything. When she was referred to us Paula was drinking a litre of vodka every day and her two teenage children were at risk of being taken into care. Our worker spent a lot of time getting to know Paula and gained her trust.

Paula’s life has been very hard – three female relatives including her mother all committed suicide. All the men in her life have been aggressive and involved in violent crime. But our worker recognised something else beyond this tragic story, a pattern of elation followed by depressed mood.

She encouraged Paula’s GP to refer her for psychiatric assessment and nagged the psychiatric service until they did. Paula was diagnosed with a bipolar illness which was then treated with medication. Since her teenage years Paula had learned to ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol, now she has medication she herself recognises that she no longer needs to drink.

When I met her Paula had not drunk alcohol for 6 months, I found her to be a warm, caring mother who told me the referring social workers had decided that her children will remain with her.

12th August was the United Nations International Youth Day, the theme this year is young people and mental health.Wouldn't it be great if everyone working with young people had the understanding to recognise mental health difficulties before they become problems that ruin the whole of adult life?

Friday, 8 August 2014


Meet Hope a 12 year old girl living in the north east and experiencing poverty. She is a fictional charater developed by young people based on their shared experiences. From today you can become her friend online and learn about her life at 

Hopebook is an exciting development that grew out of collaboration between Children North East and Live Theatre with the creation of 'Hope’s Diary' in 2011. Artistic Director Amy Golding took child poverty data, images and focus group information to a Culture Code Hack held at the Tyneside Cinema in 2012.

The CultureCode Initiative was an opportunity for north east cultural and digital communities to work closely together, increasing their understanding of each other’s work and the mutual benefits of collaboration, by connecting cultural organisations with software developers and creative technologists to see what amazing things would happen.

Hope explores issues of child poverty by placing you within a day in the life of a 12 year old girl called Hope. Hopebook mirrors the way in which Facebook is used. You become friends with Hope who posts about her life and experiences.  The reality behind those posts can be revealed by clicking on an icon.  Interactive games can be played which highlight the obstacles faced by children and young people growing up in poverty. 

We have two aims for Hopebook - to place adult decision makers within the day in the life of a child experiencing poverty and the decisions that they have to face; and to encourage as many young people as possible to share with us their views and experiences. 

Whilst playing Hopebook users are asked a few questions. Including what change they would like to see locally to tackle child poverty. We will use the data from this to inform our work on a children’s manifesto on poverty, that we are coordinating for the APPG Poverty.

This is an exciting development that we think has never been tried before. It has potential to engage large numbers of children and young people nationally in the discussion and debates about child poverty, using a medium that they already engage with, in their millions.  We also believe it has the potential to influence policy makers and decision makers, who increasingly use mediums such as twitter.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Making a manifesto

In February this year 30 young people from the north east, north west and London gathered in parliament to work on a young people's child poverty manifesto. They were representatives from youth councils that  are worried about the impact poverty has on children and young people's lives. They had been invited by the All Party Parliamentary Group of MP's working on child poverty to come up with practical ideas for improvement - a young people's child poverty manifesto. Children North East was selected by the APPG to facilitate this work.

Last weekend the work was concluded during a residential at the Thurston outdoor centre in the Lake District owned and managed by South Tyneside Council. The manifesto will be launched in parliament this autumn so I won't talk about it now. Suffice to say the experience of poor children in school features prominently.

A couple of weeks ago The Children's Society hosted a 'Select Committee' run by young people along with politicians to enquire into poverty and education. Children North East was invited to talk about our 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' project. We believe it is unique in trying to change the way schools pay attention to the needs and experience of students from poor families. We believe that creating a 'level playing field' for all students is an essential prerequisite for better educational outcomes for disadvantaged students of all kinds. The Select Committee will also be reporting in the autumn.

The aim of all this work is simple, with a General Election next May we want all the political parties to commit to policies that will help eradicate child poverty - actually a goal enshrined in law. But for once we want them to take notice of suggestions from those who really understand what  is needed because they live the humiliation of poverty every day, that is the children and young people themselves.