For most of my life I have been living with the mental health condition, mixed anxiety depressive disorder. I have made the personal choice to keep this to myself and not disclose it to others. Although I hope to be brave enough one day to be open and honest about it and not feel the overwhelming shame of having poor mental health.
I am not convinced that I am not alone in this. Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Mind, the mental health charity, has found that 92 per cent of the British public believe that admitting to a mental illness would damage their career.
My formal diagnosis came in 2005 and I dipped in and out of medication and therapy, but really not taking care of myself at all. Spotting the signs of when the big black cloud was looming, but choosing to ignore it and hope it would go away of its own accord.
I would often lose days, if not weeks of sleep, panicking about my impending doom or relaying conversations I’d had ten years ago and reliving all the scenarios that I could have done differently. I would have reoccurring daydreams of accidents that have never happened, finding danger in the most innocent of things, almost becoming terrified of leaving the house to avoid harming myself or anyone I care about.
I had chosen not to disclose the diagnosis, and for many years I have hidden the symptoms. They are masked, veiled, denied by me – because being depressed is incompatible with the identity of someone who considers themselves as strong and supportive.
Sometimes it was an exhausting and alienating task to come to work. To disguise my illness, I tried my best to be the very opposite of what depressed people are. I tried to become the funniest, the smiliest and the most supportive colleague at work. At times, the performance successful and I felt a fleeting sense of being invincible. However, this feeling would quickly disolve, and leave me feeling utterly alone, dark and lost. A colleague once said to me that she thought I was the most positive person she had ever met and that everyone enjoyed working with me. I couldn’t say anything to her in that moment. But if I was to speak my truth, it would have been to tell her that I was probably the darkest and saddest of her colleagues at that time. That darkness frightens the hell out of me – so I keep it to myself.
Previously I have felt that in the best case scenario of me disclosing my illness, would be that colleagues will see me as emotionally weak, and in the worst case scenario is that I am unstable or a burden. As a female with depression, I am sure that my experience is quite different from that of a man’s. The stereotype of the hysterical, screaming, emotionally unstable woman rears its head. There are fears of being an outcast in your own community if word gets out means that it is becoming increasingly impossible to “come out” as depressed.
But since working at Amber Family, I am trying to get better. I have been in talking therapy for 18 months and I started taking antidepressants a few years ago. I did this not only because I wanted to perform better at work, but because I don’t want to be ‘that’ person. The person who has to consider every option, both real and make believe, before making a decision.
If I had broken leg, and it meant that walking on it is physically painful and exhausting then nobody would struggle to comprehend this. So why do I, and many other people, feel that they cannot say that some days they just can’t handle the world and I feel emotionally hurt and exhausted?
Although discussions around mental wellness are becoming much more frequent and the stigma is slowly disappearing, I feel the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture is still very prevalent and we have a way to go before the closet depressives like myself will feel confident enough to share their diagnosis with colleagues or friends.
I often envy the parents who come to us and how they engage so well with the services available to them. Our parents are unashamedly being their authentic selves, which makes them so much more brave than I could ever be.
Surely there must be more people like me out there. Can anyone relate to this?
Since beginning my job at Amber Family 2 years ago, one question I have heard variants of more times that I can count is, ‘will too much cuddling spoil my baby?’. Coming to Amber Family off the back of a master’s degree in Forensic Psychology, which very heavily emphasised the role of attachment in an individual’s childhood development and later life successes, made it hard for me to see why this myth was something that was so readily perpetuated within our society.
Personally, I believe that you can never show your child too much love or affection. By offering them as much emotional warmth as you can, you are not only establishing a positive bond with them, but you are also giving them a solid starting point for their own development. Cuddles and other non-verbal communication tools, such as, eye contact, the tone of your voice or even something as simple as smiling at your baby, could make all the difference in how strong the bond, they form with you is.
To put it in more technical terms, the ‘Attachment Bond’, is the emotional connection formed via non-verbal communication between a child and their primary care giver. Whilst attachment will occur naturally, the quality of the bond and the attachment style that is formed, is critical to the child’s future and impacts them throughout their life in numerous ways.
I believe this is something I see every day within Amber Family; many of the parents we work with confide in us about the poor relationships they have with their own parents. They also acknowledge the influence this has had on their entire life and ultimately the decisions they made that led to them being at Amber Family. We are able to see first-hand the impact of insecure attachment and if not addressed, how it can become a cycle of behaviour that passes from one generation to the next. This cycle is something that we at Amber Family are very keen to break.
So, what does this have to do with cuddling? Cuddling is one of the most basic ways to strengthen the attachment bond from the very beginning. Attachment theory largely focuses on a parent’s capability to be both sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs, and the impact this has on the child’s development of trust, resilience and confidence.
As we explain to the parents we work with, via our in-house attachment course; A secure attachment develops when you are able to manage stressors and respond to your child’s cues and successfully sooth them when necessary. This will meet the child’s innate need for security, calm and understanding, which should allow for optimal development as they grow. Overall, the child needs a safe haven, so they know that they can explore the world, but they have a secure base to come back to for soothing and comfort if needed.
We do explain that several other factors could inhibit this development, however the primary care giver, if responding appropriately to the child, will act as a protective factor against external stressors such as the environment.
If the child is given the chance to securely bond to their parent or caregiver, the resulting foundation they have to mature from is likely to be based on a feeling of safety and has been seen to result in:
However, if a child’s need for security, calm and understanding are not met, they are likely to form an insecure attachment with their primary caregiver, which can hinder their development- mentally, emotionally and physically. This generally causes long term problems for the child that can be expressed in both behavioural difficulties and difficulties forming positive, long-lasting relationships as they mature. According to research, children who have an insecure attachment style have difficulties trusting others, as they have learnt from a very early age that those, they should be able to trust the most, are not reliable.
The Insecure attachment types can be broken down further in numerous ways, however most research recognises 3 distinctive types; Disorganised, Anxious-Ambivalent and Anxious Avoidant. All of these insecure attachment types lead to a number of distinctive limitations for the infants later on in life, particularly in regard to emotional attachments. However, it is possible for these individuals to change their relationship patterns through awareness and support, in a way that can allow them to live a more fulfilling life. However, our hope at Amber Family, is that shedding light onto this issue will give our parents the necessary tools to create a secure bond with their child from the beginning.
As attachment is the result of dynamic and interactive exchanges of nonverbal emotional cues, it is something that impacts the child from the moment they are born, some even argue that it begins prior to birth. The aim is to make the child feel secure, safe and stable. It is important to remember that babies are like sponges- they absorb everything and as such they pick up on emotional cues very easily, such as gestures, tones of voice and facial expressions.
The child will also very quickly begin to mimic these cues and begin to signal back to their care giver by crying, cooing, laughing, pointing and even mimicking facial expressions. As soon as the caregiver picks up on these signals they should respond with warmth and affection. As the infant is nonverbal- that is they cannot outright tell us what they are thinking or feeling, when we respond to their nonverbal cues, we give them a sense of recognition, comfort and ultimately a sense of safety.
Some communications we can use to help build and strengthen a secure attachment bond are:
Ultimately, the answer to the question, ‘will I spoil my baby by cuddling and picking them up too much?’, is in my eyes a resounding no! Babies need to be shown that you are there for them to depend on. Ignoring your baby when they are fussing will not teach them to sort their own issues out, because they are just a baby and cannot do that yet. All it shows them is that no one will be there for them when needed. Which is an awful thing to even consider, so why would we let children live with that reality if we can stop it?
Prior to working at Amber, I had been working in various law firms for 5 years. I was working in an office, doing the same sorts of things day in, day out and felt I wasn’t really getting anywhere in terms of a ‘career’. Having worked at Amber for almost 4 years now, I can confidently say that no two days have ever been the same. There is no chance of my job here ever becoming boring, and that’s probably the main thing I enjoy. I actually look forward to coming to work which is a nice feeling! It’s a busy job and there’s such a big responsibility for all of us as we’re working with some very vulnerable people, but it’s a job that you can really get something out of. I’ve been able to complete further qualifications since I started working at Amber and am due to complete an MA this year, which I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do anywhere else. I feel that I have been given such good opportunities for development, which have previously been hard to come by!
Day to day, I come into the office and can be answering the phone to Solicitors, Social Workers, Barristers, Health Professionals and more. We receive lots of referrals from Local Authorities, and it’s surprising how many different reasons there are for families being referred to us. It can be sad to see how many negative experiences people have had in their lives, but it’s so rewarding when they get to the end of a placement and there is a positive outcome for them and their child.
Amber is a much needed service and it’s lovely to see the company growing all the time. With this comes a lot of work in terms of recruiting, training and retaining staff. There’s so much more that goes into recruiting staff at Amber Family than just an interview – there is an interview, shadow shifts, a second interview, inductions and more. We don’t necessarily look for qualifications and formal experience, but look at personal qualities, life experience and being a good fit for the team. It’s nice to see people coming into interviews who are passionate about a career with us and then seeing them go on to progress in their roles and become great members of the team. There’s such a lovely, family feel to the company and I enjoy being part of adding new people into the mix.
If someone asked me if I wanted to be an apprentice when I was a teenager, I would be instantly transported to a greasy car garage, where spotty boys would be doing a two year stint at following their dads mate around, holding a spanner and a screwdriver whilst making a brew or two and learning the trade. Alternatively, I would have considered upping my hours from washing hair as a Saturday girl in the hairdressers to doing five full days a week and a day release at college to learn all techniques of cutting hair and all of the science behind hair colouring.
Every grandparent in that land could be heard saying ‘you need a trade if you ever want make any money’ and it was commonly understood that the only real way to get a trade was to complete an apprenticeship.
An apprenticeship offered little to no money at the time and it would be a full time job alongside a full 2 year college course at the local polytechnic college.
There was no mistaking that being an apprentice was not the easiest way to get a qualification back in the day, in fact, it was probably so much harder back in the early nineties, which is why I probably chose the college route. It left me free to get a part time job which paid enough for me get my own Tammy Girl bleached jeans and a New Kids on the Block LP from Our Price or Woolworths.
Nowadays, Apprenticeships are very different, they offer almost every skill in the education handbook. There are hundreds of subjects to choose from, which vary from intermediate to master’s degree level. They are unique in terms of how you learn on the job, you can apply the new knowledge immediately and not have to wait until you are on a placement to implement your new skills.
As a BA Social Work apprentice, I absolutely see the benefit of this work-based learning method. My college days taught me a lot academically, but it took me years to actually apply it in practice – by which time a lot of that knowledge was old and out of date.
An apprentice is a real job, where you learn and gain experience and (the best bit) you get paid. It can take between one and six years to complete depending on which one you chose and what level it is plus the 20% learning section of your week will be delivered at a college or university.
An apprenticeship is funded from the Government and your employer and is a sustainable way of upskilling the workforce of the future, whilst keeping the valuable talent that exists within the economy and passing it down to the next generation.
As we celebrate National Apprenticeship week, we can celebrate the amazing successes that apprentices bring to the economy and how they will be shaping the future. Have a go of this quiz to see what kind of apprentice you may be.
Like lots of people across the world right now I am having a go at home schooling. I have felt totally out of my depth, trying to understand information that is brand new to me, confusing yet so important to my child.
It has got me reflecting on how parents under assessments must feel when they are placed in the position of ‘not understanding’ being faced with reports that are confusing, inaccurate, long, lots of terminology yet massively important. As an assessor I will read and try to make sense of reports, key documents, and past assessments. Despite having academic qualifications, and an understanding of the topics it still takes me time to unpick information. I feel great deal of empathy for parents that are trying to engage in their assessment but are genuinely overwhelmed by the whole process and because of this, perform poorly in their assessment. Perhaps reaching back to old coping strategies; anger, fear, avoidance and demonstrating an inability to change.
At Amber Family we work hard to make our reports, teaching sessions, and feedback understandable to all our parents. But is this a true reality of social work? Given that Local Authority workers have a set format for reports, limited time and now even less time for face-to-face explanations. I have seen the fear in the face of a parent that is presented with a Local Authority report that is confusing, wordy, and inaccessible to them.
Changing the way we present reports, feedback and information; may appear to be time consuming, daunting and yet another task to complete. However, we should never forget that all social workers are duty bound to adhere to all the professional standards for example:
Value each person as an individual, recognising their strengths and abilities.
Actively listen to understand people, using a range of appropriate communication methods to build relationships.
Practise in ways that demonstrate empathy, perseverance, authority, professional confidence and capability, working with people to enable full participation in discussions and decision making.
At Amber Family we uphold our responsibility to work in partnership with a parent to ensure they can engage fully in their assessment. We have developed a range of resources that can meet an individual learning style. These don’t have to be complicated changes and I believe they can be introduced to all social work regardless of administration constraints. We talk about how parents like feedback at the start, so we have a basis to work towards. We use bullet points to break down lengthy texts and create a clear message, we agree clear expectations, we use ‘to do’ lists, and visual planners.
It’s not just parents with a learning need that require uncomplicated, clear information; it’s all of us….. take it from a mum that has said “Siri what is a fronted adverbial??” several times already this week! I think what I’m trying to get across is we all need information that is clear, accessible, and someone at the end of the phone who can reassure us and explain things. Something that may seem really easy to one person is really confusing to another, as practitioners we are familiar with social care, parenting, safeguarding but the people we work with are not; we all need to be patient, take our time, and consider each other when communicating through paperwork.
As a parent myself and a parenting assessor I have lots of experience of demonstrating positive parenting as well as observing positive parenting. Unfortunately, there is no official ‘textbook’ on how we positively parent our children and we learn a lot from how we were parented ourselves and from watching others parent. As an only child my parenting experience will be somewhat different to a child who has grown up in a family home with lots of other siblings, I did not have the hustle and bustle of a busy family home; mine was more tranquil and calming, however I do not feel being an only child affected the way I was parented nor taught me anything differently in respect of parenting.
As I have mentioned above there is no official ‘textbook’ on how we should or shouldn’t parent our children however the most important thing is that if we decide to become a parent we except our responsibilities for our children and make them the main priority in our life. So yes, there might be no more nights out with friends, no more buying expensive clothes & shoes and no more sleeping past 7am of a weekend, however this will be replaced by unconditional love that we receive from our children.
A child requires their parents (whether this be both parents or just mum or dad) to meet all their needs, all of the time and to prioritise them above their own needs and wants, unfortunately not all children receive this commitment from their parents. Throughout my career at Amber Family, I have worked with parents who are able to fulfil this role to their full potential and thrive within their role as a parent. I have also however worked with other parents who are sadly unable to do this, sometimes this is through no fault of their own, while some parents make a choice not to prioritise their children’s needs above their own.
Positive parenting can come in lots of different ways and the list is endless however here are a few examples of what I would encourage to all new parents… stay calm when meeting your baby’s needs; make meeting their needs your priority; talk to your baby; sing to your baby; read books to your baby; cuddle your baby; be kind to your baby; protect your baby from others who may cause harm and when possible take some time for yourself, this can be difficult however it is important that we look after ourselves to ensure we can fully look after our children.
For most individuals and families, the Christmas period is a time of celebration, joy, and happiness. It’s a time when people can enjoy their well earned break from work, prioritise spending some much needed quality time with their loved ones, and over-indulge in great food, thoughtful presents, and amazing company. Whether you spend all day in your pyjamas watching your favourite Christmas films with the kids, get dressed up in your new Christmas clothes and visit the family, or even take the time to sit and listen to the Queen’s speech- It really is the most wonderful time of the year isn’t it?
Sadly, this is not the case for everyone, and unfortunately for some; Christmas is instead a time of anxiety and fear. Statistically, the Christmas period is the one that sees the highest increase for domestic abuse. Domestic violence can be an isolated incident or a pattern of incidents that encompass controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour. In previous years, it has been reported that on average, 30% more non-molestation orders, are served in January than at any other time of year. Evidently, there is something about this time of year that brings out both the best and worst in people. Many families, relationships and friendships can be torn apart during this supposedly festive time of year, with individuals of all ages finding themselves in extremely distressing and often dangerous situations.
So, what is it about this time of year that that facilitates the increased rates of domestic violence? Note: It’s important to acknowledge that an individual’s decision to act in a way that is domestically abusive is solely their own, the responsibility lies with them. However, the following are some factors that are known to increase this behaviour during the Christmas period;
So how does the above translate into an increased level of domestic abuse? Parents are put under pressure to please their children and each other; which can easily lead to an increase in stress and disagreements. The undeniable financial burden that is placed on individuals at this time of year, which often leads to increased overtime at work and no time to relax. The relentless social media posts from friends and family that throw people unwillingly into a competition of who’s having the best Christmas. This “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality often ends up overshadowing the whole day. The worry that the kids presents won’t be enough, because as much as we pretend otherwise; Christmas is all about the presents to a 6 year old. There is also the likelihood that individuals will over-indulge in alcohol, which can lead to lowering of inhibitions and an increase in irritability, anxiety, and aggression.
Then there’s the family visits; whilst spending time with loved ones is always welcome in theory, the reality can be somewhat different. Any existing family disagreements have the potential to become magnified, especially when everyone is put together in a confined space for an extended period of time. The stress and added pressure of this can often lead to disagreements and in some cases verbal or even physical abuse. Or it could even be something as nondescript as the dampening of moods due to cold temperatures, awful weather and the weariness that comes with the end of a long year- especially this particular year.
When considering all of the above factors together, it becomes clearer why Christmas can be as much a time of suffering and pain as it is a time of joy and hope. Across the country, refuges and police forces are preparing for a surge in domestic abuse case referrals. According to UK government figures, assault and domestic murders increase by 25% during the holiday period, with incidents increasing by a third on Christmas day itself. Yet despite this rise in cases, calls to the National Domestic Abuse website actually decrease at this time of year. This is likely due to parents wanting to keep everything together for the children, plus being in close contact with the abuser decreases their opportunity to get help. As shocking as these statistics are, for many, this Christmas will be harder than we could imagine.
So, what can we do? Breaking the silence and stigma around domestic abuse is one of the key things we can all do to help reduce rates. Currently, domestic violence is often considered a ‘taboo’ subject, with those who have been abused more often than not being stigmatised by society themselves: “Why didn’t she just leave?” or “Why did you let him get away with it?”, are just two of countless questions thrown around by individuals, who are ignorant to the fact that they are in essence projecting the guilt onto the victim. This often results in those who have been abused believing that they are the ones at fault, thus reducing the likelihood of them speaking out. Breaking the silence is also a key aim of the “Mask 19” program, which is a hotline project that was created by the global women’s network Zonta International. Advertisements for the Mask 19 program can be found in places such as pharmacies, doctor’s offices and hospitals. Many people who have suffered from abuse may not be able to call for help from within their homes, particularly during the Christmas period, so when they use the phrase “Mask 19” in establishments that advertise the program, the police are immediately notified. This program is currently being rolled out all around Europe in the hopes of helping countless individuals leave abusive relationships.
All of us at Amber Family hope you have a restful, peaceful and calm Christmas but if you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or go to www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk. Anyone in immediate danger should call 999.
You are never alone
When Gill and I started working on the concept of Amber Family, she was on maternity leave from the Local Authority and I was working as a Construction Project Manager in the Midlands. Our geographical distance meant that nights were spent on the phone talking about policies, service users, EDT’s, Local Authority’s and what we’d consider suitable attire for our staff who we’d not even recruited yet….in fact, did we have a recruitment policy?! No!
We rented a large, residential property that had fortuitously become available in our local area and we set about dealing with planning permissions, building regulations, CCTV companies, plasterers, carpet fitters, furniture providers, IT providers, data and comms providers – we’d speak to anyone and everyone who could give us a helping hand to realise our dream of opening a residential family centre.
Amber Family was opened on 1st June 2014 and in that time, what a learning curve we’ve had. Having started off with 6 staff and one setting (Gill and I being two of those staff), we now have a workforce of 40, made up of the most brilliant full time and part time staff across three settings, all of which we now own, having handed back our “first” Amber House to the Landlord earlier this year.
At any one time we can accommodate up to 12 families, four in each house and placements last on average, about 13 weeks; we’ve just accepted our 202nd family into placement. We could grow bigger and accommodate more, however, our emphasis is on ensuring that parents get a focussed, honest and robust assessment in a supportive environment and Gill and I still have full control over the day to day operation of the company and our assessments; we wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, what have we learned?
· Your staff are everything; Without them, we wouldn’t have a business, but you need to pick the right people. They’ve got to be “people people!”, have excellent listening skills and empathy, be the right mix of humorous, supportive, encouraging and honest – definitely honest.
· Working with the Local Authorities is good; We love it when we get a new Local Authority to work with and we work hard for all our placing Authorities. On the whole, we like to think we’re good at supporting them as we appreciate the pressure that the Local Authority Social Workers are under and when we work in partnership, we produce better outcomes for our families. We’ve had a lot of repeat referrals from Social Workers we’ve worked with over the last few years and this makes us happy.
· Trust your gut and go for it – Gill and I STILL spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone, seeking confirmation from each other that we are making the right decisions and sending out the correct information. It was a gut instinct almost 7 years ago that we should open Amber Family, and the rest as they say, is history.