Brighter Berkshire – background and set up by Alison Foster 

I have put the following summary together to help bring in one place a summary of the information about how and why Brighter Berkshire started.

We are in the process of trying to pull all the information on the activities for the year and evaluating its impact and hope to publish this soon. We are volunteers with full time jobs and families trying to do this with input from a range of people who have been involved over the year, so bear with us.

But do come to our event in Newbury on 18 January here where we will share some highlights from the year, hear about impact from those involved and share our early thoughts about the future.

Why Brighter Berkshire?

As most of you will know, Brighter Berkshire has been the name for the initiative of a ‘Year of Mental Health’ in 2017. The aim of this was to increase awareness (through local conversations and activities) about mental health to help reduce stigma.

By doing this we hope it will also increase local opportunities for people who have mental health challenges. By this we mean if there is more conversations and better understanding there will be more awareness of the information already out there to help when you have a mental health issue. That there will be support when people need it from family, friends, employers and services and/or more people will be able to come together around mental health to have a bigger voice in helping to improve services should this be needed.

We have operated as an informal group for the year with passionate volunteers. A lot have direct experience of mental health challenges. They have offered their skills, time and commitment to our shared aims. Many volunteers have used mental health services or know someone with mental health issues. They have linked mainly to specific activities during the year. We have learned so much from the work and also the wider community and we are now taking some time to review this with the aim of setting up a Community Interest Company, as a direct result of the encouraging feedback we have had.

How is started

It actually started with the culmination of a few things at the same time. I have always been passionate about mental health. This stemmed from personal experience and I later went on to train and work as a mental health nurse.  I have had varied jobs in the NHS and I was also an advisor and awards judge on the Positive Practice in Mental Health Collaborative for a number of years in a voluntary capacity.

When I moved to working more flexibly outside the NHS it allowed me to apply to be Chair of Healthwatch in West Berkshire, where I noted mental health was a priority for them. I was part of discussions across Berkshire with friends and colleagues and Labour Party members about concerns linked to mental health as early as June 2016 and how we thought stigma was a huge factor preventing people from getting more involved. I had previously seen in Hertfordshire that the Council had run a ‘year of mental health’ campaign which appeared to engage a wide range of people in the community. I went to visit the director of public health there to find out more. I came back and shared the concept with people I had been talking with, who were then very excited about it.

However, there was 6 Councils in Berkshire so I didn’t know how something like this would work here. I set out to speak to local Councils to see what they thought of the idea of signing up to a ‘year of mental health’ which would help raise awareness, bring people together, help reduce stigma and surface some innovation or solutions to some of the local mental health issues.

The Councils thought this was a good idea. Some took more of an interest than others initially to help start it up. Myself and two fellow members of the Labour Party, one from Newbury and one from Reading came with me to Wokingham Council to meet public health officers from there and Bracknell. It was there they said to think about giving it a brand which would help people engage but also something which might give it the opportunity to have a legacy after the year. It took some bouncing around the small group of us on email to come up with Brighter Berkshire and a £29 online logo maker to help with the logo.

In my role as Chair of Healthwatch West Berkshire, I had an introduction meeting with the local MP Ricard Benyon in Newbury and my CEO Andrew Sharpe and explained what we were trying to achieve. Richard was very encouraging and supportive of the idea and contacted the local Council asking if they could support it and asking if he might attend a health and wellbeing board meeting in March to understand more about what’s happening in mental health and how we might use this initiative to help raise the profile of mental health locally.

He wrote to all his Berkshire MP colleagues, Labour and Conservative to encourage support and suggested we might need a planning meeting where he would be happy to attend.

BBC Berkshire

Before our first planning meeting on the 16 December 2016, I was talking with my neighbour Polly Faulkner, who works at BBC Radio Berkshire and who I personally had worked with 5 years previously in a volunteer capacity on a fostering project she was involved in with. She said she thought the BBC might be interested in what we were trying to do and she facilitated a meeting with them. They also attended the planning meeting, heard two speakers share their story of mental health experiences and the beginnings of the show began.

The BBC decided they were going to have a monthly show hosted by 3 people with experience of mental health issues and launch it on 16 January 2017 as a part of the Brighter Berkshire ‘Year of Mental Health’ initiative. So we decided this was going to be our launch date. We have worked in partnership with BBC Radio Berkshire show throughout the year, helping to shape, develop and publish content from the monthly show Talking Heads and have provided speakers occasionally to talk on mental health issues that have arisen during the year. The show has since been awarded with two prestigious national radio show awards for the work they have done.

We were lucky to be able to start getting information out without much cost using free online tools, skills and time people had and the venue for the planning meeting was highly reduced but I was going to fund, in the hope we might get funding at a later stage once we knew what kind of things we might do and so what we might need to ask for funding for. The things we were going to do needed to come from the planning event feedback and ideas from those working with us so far.

After this we were swamped with emails, suggestions, offers to help and requests for us to come and speak or have events. We had some volunteers but we needed consistent administrative support and so as someone working almost full time, I needed to get some help and I personally paid for additional administration support while we tried to work out how we might develop.

We started to apply to local charitable funds but many needed us to be set up as a charity or community interest group so we could get funding, We also started to receive offers from people and businesses to donate funds but we did not have an organisation or process for this. So we were thinking all this through, while managing all the activity, doing our day jobs and supporting families. Despite our passion and commitment, we were starting to get very tired and stressed out about how we might take this forward.

Berkshire Community Foundation, Funds and Fundraising

In this time, Berkshire Community Foundation (BCF) approached us and said they had decided their campaign this year was going to be mental health and they were keen to work together with us, to help raise funds for local mental health.

Additional funds allocated to the NHS for mental health have rarely gone to voluntary or charity sector which provide much needed early intervention and support services and in many cases, including Berkshire. This is the area which has seen most cuts from Councils & NHS funding. It felt a great opportunity to take some action and help raise some funds locally for these gaps in mental health.

BCF suggested becoming a Community Interest Organisation (CIO) within the BCF umbrella and that as a CIO it would make it easier to apply for funds to help with the campaigning. We agreed to this as it appeared a great idea and we would have some established support. They set about trying to help us to try to secure funds and we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on this basis.

We had a response form a charitable trust who said they could support funding if we were an established organisation. We explained the MoU we had with BCF and our intentions to formally move to the incorporated CIO model with them and they agreed that they could award the funds to BCF as part of the Brighter Berkshire campaign for promotional materials.

BCF have managed these funds for us which has paid for material or support to help raise awareness of mental health locally which has gone on Tee-shirts, postcards, pop up banners, leaflets, some venue support etc. There is still some remaining funds here which we are using as part of the continued BCF Year of Mental Health which run til March as their partner.

Despite applying to other funds as a potential CIO within the BCF, we were unsuccessful. After 3 months we were now in the position of having to think about setting up as a separate entity if we wanted to apply for further funds.

But we continued to focus on supporting the many activities people wanted to work with us on and engaging with local services on the feedback we have been receiving. We were struggling to find the time to establish formally. We were managing on the initial grant for the time being and thought it would be more useful towards the end of the year to think about what a formal structure might look like should it be felt it was worth doing after the year end. This is where we are now.

Since then we have together helped to raise £200k for local charities and projects. There has been an application process where BCF received £630k in applications. The successful applicants will be awarded funds in March 2018. None of the funds raised have gone towards the activities of Brighter Berkshire or have been paid to any volunteers working on behalf of Brighter Berkshire. They have all been put into a fund to be given out in March 2018 through the well-established application and assessment process.

Areas of Mental Health Focus

We know that one of the contributing factors to an increase in mental health issues are the links to poverty, where people of minority groups and women are disproportionately affected. In addition to this we have a government policy of austerity which is having a significant effect on the availability of support services due to cuts found mainly in Councils to early intervention and prevention services. From what we have gathered in Berkshire throughout the year and wider evidence, the impact of cuts to these services are driving up demand and pressure for the more crisis intervention services, which in themselves due to the gap in workforce in these services, is having a negative impact also.

The picture is complex and different people have different needs and different levels of support. We don’t proclaim to be experts at all in this field but the year has involved many experts along the way at different points. For some, the year has helped them feel more able and confident to talk to someone they care about relating to the way they feel and therefore get more immediate support without feeling judged. For others we have helped to bring people with more severe mental health issues to come together and provide a clear set of asks from local services to enable the development of a more co-produced set of support services. For others who have lived with severe mental health issues for a number of years and rely on disability benefits and are very angry with the government for the policy for mental health, we know they have not been happy with the involvement of Conservatives in the initiative.

To be clear, there are many who have been involved in Brighter Berkshire who would completely agree with the sentiment of these views, that austerity and poverty are making some mental health issues worse or causing some mental health issues. I have myself spoken many times at events and on the radio highlighting this issue – which I have shared widely.

But Brighter Berkshire is about raising awareness of mental health itself to help increase conversations positively so we help reduce stigma. The core group of people who helped start Brighter Berkshire involved Labour activists who were very happy to work on, and support the campaign and messages until August when the online abuse from a couple of people for doing so, became too much. We took sounding and direction about our activity throughout the year through core team meetings we had, feedback from events, email communications with volunteers and requests from wider community about events and activity.

Elected Politicians

The involvement of politicians in the initiative was in line with raising awareness of mental health issues and helping have more conversations. The reasons for the involvement of elected members – who represent ALL of the constituents in their area was described here.  

There has been a small group of people who have been very angry with the involvement of Conservative politicians and they have focussed only their contribution and have amplified it out of proportion with the whole initiative. A small and powerful example of this is we have made 2966 tweets and they repeatedly focus on less than 5 involving conservative MP’s. We have spent a huge amount of time in meetings, emails, and online with a couple of these people, explaining reasons for this engagement and demonstrating that it is not disproportionately biased towards one party over another, but to no avail.

Posts are made in social media forums which have been deliberately taken out of context and they know to be untrue or paint an untrue picture with some of the accompanying accusatory commentary. They will for example show supporting posts for Conservative politicians made by Brighter Berkshire but not show the clear involvement and support of other elected politicians which can be easily found online and have been sent to them.

We also have no real obligation to engage in this way, repeatedly, as we are just an informal group of people wanting to help reduce stigma locally. But we want to be open, transparent and listen to concerns and respond to them. However, the persistent pursuit of something underhand, false accusations with no evidence which we have repeatedly responded to, it now appears very clear that the truth is not something they are keen to hear. They are looking for something sensational for the ‘press’ as they talk openly about their press strategy.

It has been very upsetting and distressing for some of the volunteers involved in Brighter Berkshire to see some of the very personally derogatory comments made by people in this small group and it has amounted to a sustained campaign of online bullying and harassment for over 6 months.

They have attended events which are intended to show how music or comedy can help with some mental health issues and where people in these areas have put on an event to get people talking mental health or raise money for local mental health charities. They have shouted their message against the government at people attending, yet these are not government or conservative run events.

Most upsetting to me, is that they have pursued looking for angles in my personal and work-life to complain about or have a negative impact on me as a method of trying to find negative information and discredit the initiative. Individuals from this group have contacted volunteers who have been involved in an activity and asked them about their personal relationship with me.

I have been involved as a volunteer with this and other areas because of my passion for equality and mental health and desire to bring people together to help make a difference.

We believe the people doing this to be very destructive to the aims of engaging people in talking mental health because people trying to understand mental health or engage people have told us they find their approach and manner extremely distressing and puts some people off engaging in any discussion about mental health.

For this small number of people, Brighter Berkshire clearly isn’t for them. But the attacks they have launched against volunteers has caused mental health problems for some in itself. Volunteers don’t have the time this group has to constantly refute the negative, incorrect, disparaging personal statements made. They prefer the positive approach taken by Brighter Berkshire on engagement which so many have reported to us that the initiative has helped them throughout the year. We can totally understand if the approach we have taken is not something they agree with, what we find very hard is the personal derogatory comments, the pursuit of personal information or attempt to very publicly discredit an individual as a way to discredit the initiative. This is why we are categorising this behaviour as bullying and harassment.

We are now currently looking into legal action to try to stop this harassment and abuse.

Events, activities, engagement 

We have tried to keep write ups of our events here and regular updates produced here and have also engaged in many discussions and meetings with services, service users, people with experience of mental health issues and carers, and local organisations who we think might be able to help raise awareness or increase local opportunities for people with mental health challenges. All done on a voluntary basis.

Evaluation

We have received many encouraging and helpful comments from our survey HERE already and would encourage people to contribute to the development of the next stage of Brighter Berkshire here. We have been having many discussions and getting views on what the CIC might look like and have pulled together our first thoughts HERE. If you have any comments on the structure, focus, activities of a CIC then please email them to us at brighter.berkshire@gmail.com

We will bring all this together in a report to help reflect on what, if any, difference was made and what might be the best way to focus any activities (should we get funded) going forward. Our first cut of this will be at the next network event on the 18 January here so do please come along.

We look forward to hearing what you think and working with those already signed up to work with us in the future.