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The Reader at Mersey Care Conference

Written by Dave Cookson, 20th May 2011

Yesterday staff from The Reader Organisation attended Mersey Care's 'Contemporary Approaches to Mental Health: An Exploration' at the Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool. The conference explored various, non-traditional methods of assisting people with mental health problems, including Get Into Reading.

Mental Health Project Manager Mary Weston led a presentation on behalf of The Reader Organisation, speaking to all delegates about the rapid acceleration of The Reader's involvement in Mersey Care services. Mary also spoke about both the pleasure and profound impact of bringing great literature to everyone.

Mary was joined by Mersey Care Reader in Residence Eleanor McCann, who went about challenging a preconception that reading groups were in place just to address literacy, and challenging the idea that cultural practices in health services are additional rather than integral parts of clinical care. Eleanor also presented the following video featuring TRO staff members explaining what Get Into Reading is:

Two service users based in Mersey Care community groups told of how their regular reading sessions were of significant help, Get Into Reading provided them with "something to look forward to," one of the speakers said they were "now in a good place" and encouraged all trusts to become involved with The Reader Organisation before saying that they were "eternally grateful." The fact that the two members of GIR groups were willing to stand up and talk in front of a room full of a couple of hundred delegates from across various organisations was testament to the strength of Get Into Reading, particularly in health care environments.

Other organisations present included Liverpool Philharmonic, Liverpool Tate, Everton in the Community (Everton F.C.) and National Museums Liverpool, with some offering workshops.

Delegates from The Reader Organisation attended various workshops. In the morning Bev went to the Philharmonic workshop whilst Anna McCracken, Casi, Niall, Grace and I attended the Tate workshop. Here we were split up into smaller groups and were given the title of an artwork from the Alice exhibition which starts later in 2011, based on the brilliant children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I was a member of a team including Casi, Niall and Steve from Mersey Care. We were given the title 'The Pool of Tears' and had to draw our own interpretation of the title. We decided to depict the Liver Bird crying into the River Mersey, with all of us putting pen to paper in an attempt to eke out our creative sides. Here we are with our take on 'The Pool of Tears':

You can't see it very clearly, but trust me, it's a masterpiece!

In the afternoon, most Reader delegates went to the Liverpool Philharmonic workshop. This was a fascinating experience led by professional cellist and Musician in Residence Georgina Aasgard. Georgina played some outstanding music on the cello before getting us all to join in, which included singing 'Smile' by Charlie Chaplin. Georgina recalled a moment when following a music session in one health service, a service user wrote a poem about birds, before she read the same poem to us.

In The Reader's workshops Mary and Eleanor ran sessions where they read 'Scaffolding' by Seamus Heaney and the short story 'Permanent Granite Sunrise' by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

The workshops were a success, impressing delegates from a variety of organisations, including service users with no prior experience of Get Into Reading. Mary said the following about the workshops:

One of the group said "I used to think poetry was tosh, too abstract, but this is really human."  Others were quick to apply the message to their own situations, and a number said that they would be passing the poem on to partners or other family members.

Overall the conference underlined the idea Eleanor spoke of in the morning, that cultural involvement in health services is not an out there concept that needs to be met with great scepticism; initiatives such as Get Into Reading should be viewed as integral to helping group members' mental wellbeing.

Speaking about the conference and The Reader Organisation's presentation, Mary Weston said:

When we heard we had been given a presentation slot alongside the Liverpool Phil and Everton Football Club, we were almost as thrilled as we were terrified.  Eleanor and I spent a lot of time planning it, with Cath McCafferty and Kirsty Morrison, our Trust partners.  Eleanor shot a brilliant video, going round The Reader office asking people to describe Get Into Reading.  Maryanne Wolf, at The Reader Organsation conference had threatened to fall off the stage, and thinking this was clearly the easiest way to imitate her dynamic presentation style, I tripped over a ramp near the podium.
After this though everything went beautifully. The two service users spoke very movingly - loads of people came up to them after the session.  I think The Reader Organisation came across as very human, vibrant and passionate, not just from the presentation, but from our presence as a body, with Grace, Casi, Jen, Anna, Bev, Niall and Dave there as well.  We made links with people in the Tate, the Phil, and the Merseyside Dance initiative, and our waiting list for Mersey Care groups has shot up again.

3 thoughts on “The Reader at Mersey Care Conference

Dr Raj Mitra says:

With the support of the Reader Organisation we have set up a reading group for patients in our GP clinic the Lambeth Walk Group Practice.We are the first practice to do this in London.
Over the last 6 months we have now recruited about 4 patients who attend every week for 90minutes.After referring a patient to the group, and seeing them again a few weeks later, one GP has emailed us to say “I saw H today & she is feeling a lot better & says she is really enjoying the group, so thank you!”

One group member has said that she has never really read poetry before but now often says she will share the poems with others. Another person has been every week since her referral, shares openly in the discussions (including some very personal and emotional responses) and seems to never want to leave! The first person to join the group enjoyed it so much that they encouraged a family member with on-going mental health problems to come along, and now they both attend regularly. Though sometimes a bit uncertain about poetry the family member recently said he loved a poem, read it aloud again for the group, and enthusiastically joined in the discussion about it.
I would encourage other GPs in the conutry to also look to set up reading groups in their practices.
Now we are looking for some funding to help pay for the volunteer’s time- all suggestions for where we could get funding would be really appreciated.
Dr Raj Mitra

Eleanor Stanton says:

Dr Mitra – this is fantastic. I was really glad to hear that your patients’ group is going well. It is so encouraging to hear good news stories like this and it sound like the group has already made such a positive impact!
Here in Liverpool, we have just been commissioned to run a pilot project with GPs across the city. We are looking at how GPs might “prescribe” Get Into Reading alongside (or even instead of) drug treatment, especially for those with mild to moderate mental health problems.
We will be setting up 6 GIR groups and asking GPs to refer patients, as well as linking with other health agencies and encouraging self-referrals.

[…] magazine article echoes what our own staff working in health environments have said recently. At a recent Mersey Care conference, TRO’s Eleanor McCann argued that cultural practices in health settings should be considered […]

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