Writing that raises the spirits

14th November 1997 at 00:00
An innovative course for mentally-ill people scooped the TESAssociation of Colleges' 1997 Beacon Award. Ian Nash reports.

Gary makes an appeal for better awareness of what is the most misunderstood and stigmatised of psychological disorders - schizophrenia. As vice-chairman of the mental health charity Mind's users group, he wants more resources from the public and private sectors to support educational rehabilitation programmes to help those who have lost self-confidence and self-esteem.

He speaks with the authority of a trained lecturer, the sensitivity of a Mind counsellor and in the language of a poet. Indeed, his poetry has been published.

Therefore, it comes as a surprise to discover that Gary is actually one of the students - he suffers from clinical depression - on the award-winning course at Dearne Valley College for which he is making the appeal.

"Schizophrenia is not a dangerous place to go," he insists. "The majority are not violent people. The thing I have been amazed at is that they lead quite normal lives until they have a spell of illness."

The disease summons up images from the horrific to the pathetic; from Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to press reports of tragic and lonely suicides.

The rehabilitation course at the college wants to demolish the misconceptions around not only schizophrenia but depression, neuroses and anxiety. "In Mind, you come into contact with other people and you realise that what you read in the newspapers and see on TV is not the true picture," he says.

The Dearne Valley coal-mining community was devastated by pit closures in the 1980s and early 1990s. As often happens, in the drive to revive fortunes, those with psychological problems were last in the list of community priorities.

The college approached Mind to tackle the issues head-on and bring back into education those who had been excluded. Initial small-scale projects grew to a programme of courses accredited through the Open College Network.

Appeals by Gary and others have reaped dividends. The course has attracted Pounds 7,500 from bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce\Training and Enterprise Council. Further Education Funding Council money has provided an extra full-time member of staff.

A range of pursuits were considered but one, creative writing, quickly emerged as the most fruitful, drawing on a quality that authors have always understood.

Novelist Rebecca West once said she wrote "to find out what I think". One of the Dearne Valley students, Pat, went further in his assessment of the work: "I write to find out what I feel."

The course has become crucial to his formerly isolated life. "I used to sit at home just doing nothing. Now I'm at college Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings and my life has changed."

Head of the course Helen Ruddock said: "This work challenges the definitions of mental health. A lot of people with mental difficulties put themselves in that category because that is exactly what the rest of the world does."

The discovery of a creative writing ability has done more than bring people back to college who seemed irrevocably lost. It has redirected their lives and careers. For example, Gary is set to retrain as a teacher.

Also, community activities, including radio work, publication of work and drama presentations, have gone a considerable way to restoring self-esteem. It also helped them face their problems.

One student's poem called "A Depressive's Christmas" led to an open discussion of what depression was as others quickly identified with the feelings.

They began writing of their feelings about alcoholism, sleep deprivation and death. It gave college counsellors a powerful tool for therapy in an area where people found it hard to articulate their emotions.

The genius of the Dearne Valley College staff was not just in widening participation but in raising the profile of the college in the whole community. It is also a scheme that is easily transferred to other colleges - elegant in its simplicity.

For these reasons, the college won first prize in the TES\AOC category of Beacon Awards for widening participation along the lines espoused recently by Baroness Helena Kennedy.

Others were close contenders. Waltham Forest College was highly commended for its innovative Horizon Cafe, housed in a property that became available in the former gardens of William Morris's family home - now called Lloyd Park.

A green oasis in the heart of north-east London commuter land, the cafe is run by special-needs catering students and is open to the public. Not only has it raised the profile of the college in the community, it also provides a unique education and training environment.

Paul Garvey, the college business manager, said: "The problem was that the NVQ level 1 in catering did not provide them with the skills to go out and get a job." A training support package including college-based IT programmes helps reinforce basic skills and raise confidence.

The cafe has become a commercially successful stop-off point for parents with children, pupils going to and from school or college and working people on their way home.

It makes Pounds 500 a day in the summer months and the college is aiming at a minimum annual take of Pounds 90,000 to make it self-financing.

Other colleges would argue that they have the same sort of set-up in their own training restaurants, but a separate cafe in the heart of a community is reckoned to be unique.

Canterbury College in Kent also came close to stealing the prize with an innovative scheme to bring into learning people such as Travellers who have been disinclined to attend college.

There were 37 entries for the TES\AOC category Beacon Award. The judges were Lewis Darbyshire, a consultant with the University of Portsmouth, and Ian Nash, FE editor of The TES.

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