Longleigh Lockdown Stories: Covid 19 – Impact North’s Story

Longleigh Lockdown story - Impact North

We cannot allow time to dim the spotlight we need to keep placing on the mental health and wellbeing of our children… 

The next in our series of Lockdown Stories comes from Claire Hopkins, a founder and director at Impact North (www.impactnorth.co.uk).

We all know that the coronavirus pandemic has massively affected the mental health and wellbeing of so many children, young people and families. Vulnerabilities have become more pronounced, isolation has become more entrenched and, so upsettingly, when home has never been the safe place it should be, social-distancing measures have made homes become prisons where there is no means of escape.

The story that Claire shares is reflective, pragmatic, honest and moving… all of this is what we at Longleigh love about Impact North. We hope that by sharing Claire’s story of Impact North’s journey through the pandemic, we are doing our bit to keep the awareness of our children’s mental health and wellbeing as prominent as it needs to be.

Alongside this story, please head over to our website to view Impact North’s video story: https://longleigh.org/case-studies/.

Our journey to date

Impact North is a not for profit social enterprise, working to improve the mental health of children, young people and parents…….and by God Covid tested this mission!

Life at Impact North pre Covid was, in many ways, pretty straight forward. We received referrals through schools and children’s centres and would offer a variety of psychotherapy services such as consultation to the network and delivered individual short, medium and long term psychotherapy, training and assessments. The team consisted of 16 staff members all of whom would buzz in and out of our small office, having a catch-up coffee, sharing a nag about the printer running out of ink again and generally feeling safe amongst a group of like-minded individuals. But when Covid hit, that all changed dramatically.

The first and greatest challenge was how we would continue to maintain the mental health of our most vulnerable young people. Psychotherapy, by nature, is about developing trusting relationships with people so that they can safely explore their past experiences and working together to build more resilient ways of managing. How then could this possibly be done when we couldn’t even see each other?! How would the young people view us, speaking from the safety of our resourced homes, whilst they most likely lived in circumstances that greatly and negatively impacted on their own mental health? How would we reach out to those families who had very young children in therapy and wouldn’t be able to stay in the room on their own, operate Zoom independently etc and yet so desperately needed a thinking mind to help them with their worries?  How would we help families to both acknowledge and manage the impact of Covid, whilst at the same time promote their own necessary defences (even those that sometimes have got them into tricky situations) knowing that everyone needs to be able to retreat to a place of psychological safety in the midst of high levels of distress? How could we, as an organisation, address our own levels of guilt about needing to put the health of ourselves and our own family members first, before doing what we could to help those of the families we had cared for in therapy?

The journey wasn’t easy. Very quickly we decided that we needed to do an assessment of all the children, young people and families we were seeing. What was practically possible for each family? Who would be able to find confidential spaces in their homes in order to speak or Zoom with a therapist? Who would benefit more from parent – therapist contact rather than child-therapist contact? Who would be too risky to work with remotely and who needed external agencies to provide additional support in this time? Who needed virtual therapeutic resources to help them develop strategies to manage their own mental health? We took the lead from each family in turn and were hugely relieved when we realised that we could continue to offer something useful and bespoke for the vast majority of our clients.

Unexpected highlights

Out of adversity comes change – well, that has been more than true for us in the last six months! I never would have believed that therapy could be done by any other means than face to face. To my incredible delight and relief many of our clients not only progressed through remote work but excelled! But in hindsight this makes complete sense. Many of our young people and parents harbour terrible feelings of shame and self-loathing. How challenging it must be to make the journey to a ‘clinic’, sit with a stranger and manage the emotional intensity of a face to face session. How more freeing it must be to put all of that to one side and be able to focus on the most pressing and deep-rooted anxieties through virtual means? Well the outcomes spoke for themselves. I personally have seen remarkable change with two clients who managed to let go of issues that had haunted them for the best part of their lives and are now looking positively to a future of loving, nurturing relationships with trusted others.

With not being able to work as much with our younger client range we have been able to spend more time working with the network around vulnerable children. Impact North has never believed in working with a child in isolation but as the need for the service greatly outweighs our capacity, we often have to balance the needs of the individual therapeutic work with supporting those who have the greatest impact upon that child.  Ideally, we would like to do 50/50 but in reality it is often more like 75/25. With being able to ‘meet’ more with parents and carers we have had more time to think about the relationship between family members and how this impacts upon both the child and adult’s mental health. We have also been able to meet more regularly with teachers and other professionals who are pivotal in giving the child an experience of a nurturing and thoughtful other. We have also been delighted to work more directly with teachers and school staff who have been struggling with their own lockdown experiences and help them to grow in resiliency and stability so that they can continue to be a lifeline for families.

What have we valued from Longleigh

Isolation has one of the greatest impacts on people’s mental health. Why? Because we need each other’s minds to process and make sense of our worlds. Without it, things quickly start to feel overwhelming and unmanageable. Longleigh, in their typical intuitive manner, recognised our need to be connected with others in the very beginning of the pandemic. Quickly we were invited to ‘Coffee and a Chat’ which made me feel like I was not the only one harbouring a mixture of fear, doubt, guilt and overwhelming responsibility to my staff, the commissioners and our stakeholders.  As business leaders we are often in the position of needing to be the strong ones, all knowing and ever managing. Longleigh created an environment in those calls which encouraged openness and vulnerability, which was in turn nurtured by likeminded companions. For this Longleigh, I cannot thank you enough.

I also greatly valued Longleigh’s flexible approach to our funding following the move to remote support. Any enterprise’s biggest fear is that they cannot produce the results that are expected by ‘commissioners’ and that funding gets pulled. For us this would have meant not only an impact on staff retention, but a sudden loss of service for some of the most vulnerable people in the community. We spend our whole therapeutic relationships building trust and safety – you can imagine how damaging it would be to suddenly tell a child that you needed to leave them to their own distress now and hoped that they would be able to manage it. When you know that we work with Children in Care, repeated self-harmers, those at risk of Child Sexual Exploitation you can understand the re-traumatisation this would cause. Longleigh’s continued belief in our mission has meant that we did not need to disrupt these crucial relationships and that, when the tough got going, we were there to walk with them through it. This is what builds resiliency and good mental health.

Hopes going forward

Although I am hugely grateful that mental health has finally come to the forefront of our nation’s mind, it would have been better for it not to have been off the back of so much trauma and death. But sadly, it is a fact of life that sometimes we do need a jolt of reality before we can see the world for what it is. Children’s mental health has been in crisis for years. Under funding of complex mental health difficulties and not getting the right support early on are two main culprits. However, Covid has meant that none of us have been spared from the horrors and atrocities that it has given us and perhaps this has allowed us to know what it is like to be vulnerable, frightened or overwhelmed? I hope that this spotlight on mental health does not subside in the future. Even when Covid has passed and is a distant memory we need to fight the urge to block out the horrors we have seen and use this opportunity as a way of strengthening people’s mental health for the next inevitable pandemic. Isn’t it better to be prepared and not sorry?

I would also like to put my own spotlight on schools. We know that schools’ core business is education, right? But what I feel lockdown has shown is that schools offer so much more than that. I have seen teachers quickly put aside their own health and wellbeing to go to the houses of our most vulnerable children and sit in the garden until they would come out and see them. I have seen them calling families almost daily to check in and see how things were doing – not giving up even after the third, fourth, fifth failed call. I have spoken with support workers who have clubbed together to build resource packs for children just because they knew they lived in very impoverished circumstances, all out of their own pockets. None of this had anything to do with raising grades or school league tables; it was simply because they cared and wanted to do the best for the children. It is my hope for the future that teachers and school staff be revered for the champions that they are and get recognition for the mental health support that they not only offer children but also need, rightly so, in return for themselves.

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