A ‘reawakening’ through reading: Jack’s Story

Our annual AGM is coming up next week, and we’re looking forward to celebrating a year of achievements with some of our group members from across the country. Many of our group members have gone on to extend their experiences with us past going to a shared reading group regularly, including taking up volunteering opportunities, and it is these often life-changing stories that we celebrate all year through.

Jack came to one of our shared reading groups in a rehabiliation facility on Merseyside, and has since gone on to become a volunteer on our Merseyside Big Lottery Reader Scheme and as part of our Connect at Calderstones programme.

When meeting with us, Jack revealed a life of turmoil prior to joining the shared reading group.

“Before I came to the house I was an amphetamine addict for 20 years and an alcoholic on top…so before the group my life was a mess – a total mess. I lost access to my kids, and I had an active social life but it was all centered around drugs.”

Jack was always an engaged and insightful member of the group, but found it hard at times to accept and listen to other people’s points of view, often becoming defensive or slightly confrontational when there was a difference in perspective. During review, Jack reflected on positive changes he had noted in himself:

“Going to one of these reading groups can only be a benefit, even if you come away with it raging about someone else’s opinion or disagreeing with them, at least you’ve engaged with someone else – you have heard someone else’s opinion. But I’ve found that 99% of the time those opinions are usually worth listening to. I have got better at taking things on board and empathising with people rather than rubbishing their opinion. To see both sides of an argument a bit better, to consider other people’s feelings bit more.”

Jack went on to describe his experience at The Reader as ‘reawakening’ something inside of him:

“It’s more re-awoken things that have been dormant, because you get so used to shutting off the intellectual side of your brain down when you’re in addiction…It’s re-awoken the fact that nowadays nice people might want to know me, whereas 6 months ago, they would’ve taken one look at me and jogged on. It’s re-awoken a sense of self confidence, self-esteem, that I don’t know of many things that would’ve done the same to be honest…

I don’t know about any actual changes in me, rather, reawakening things in me that were there in the first place that had just been suppressed, and now, I’ve been able to exercise and reawaken things inside me, that I suppose I thought were lost, because you do just lose faith in your own abilities, and hope that anything will ever get better. It made me realize that I can connect with other people through something as simple as a book, a story. There’s that real human contact element of it.”

Since successfully completing his rehabilitation programme, Jack has moved back to Sheffield. We have since put Jack in touch with our Sheffield Reader-in-Residence so he can continue his journey with us.

The Reader’s Annual Report 2014/15 will be published next week to coincide with our AGM, featuring more of our group members’ stories.

“By being in the reading group, I exist as a person”: Anna’s Story

The Reader‘s Annual Report 2014/15 will be published later this month, in time to read at our 2015 AGM where we’ll be celebrating a year of successes and triumphs with our group members from across the country.

In the meantime we’re already getting into a celebratory spirit and offering a sneak peek into our Annual Report with some of our Reader Stories. Great literature is at the heart of everything we do, and the impact that reading great literature has upon our group members around the UK – whether seeming small on the surface or goes deeper to reveal something truly life-changing – give us our most remarkable highlights day by day, week by week, and year upon year.

Anna is one of our group members in Wirral, who has been going to shared reading sessions for nearly ten years. She is in her late fifties. One of our Wirral group leaders tells us more about Anna’s Story:

“Life has not always been kind to Anna. She admits that in the past she isolated herself because she was taking care of her uncle and she has also suffered from depression. Last year her daughter died. She continues to look after her father. Anna says:

“Depression is a flat feeling, everything is on one level. That flat feeling goes away when I am here and we’re reading poems and stories together. We might be crying or laughing but that flat feeling isn’t there. I used to be a very quiet and reserved person. But the reading group has brought me out of myself . It’s taken me ten years for me to do but I can put in an input now. I can give my opinions. When I read out loud someone’s listening to me. By being in the reading group I exist as a person. There has been a different Anna. but now I’ve got opinions and I interrupt.”

Anna is a volunteer at Central Park in Birkenhead and often shares the poems we read with one of her fellow volunteers. She attends two of our reading groups now and is a thoughtful, articulate and caring reader. She is also an enthusiastic advocate for shared reading:

“The reading group says – yes, you can come here. You can be part of society.”

Stay tuned to The Reader Online over the next couple of weeks for more Reader Stories in the run-up to our AGM.

Sharing reading across South London

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Shared reading in South London (credit: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity)

“I do feel relaxed when I go back home, because I talked about something, an experience that happened way back. As you share it with others, you relive it – so clearly!” – shared reading group member, South London project

Since 2013, The Reader Organisation has been developing a Reading for Wellbeing project across South London, setting up and training volunteers to run shared reading groups all with the purpose of helping to improve the health and wellbeing of over 1,700 people living in the boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham and Croydon. The project was made possible thanks to a three-year funding bid by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and the Maudsley Charity, and has so far seen a total of over 70 groups meeting in a variety of settings, including libraries, health and community centres, schools – and even Tower Bridge!

We’ve been reaching people of all ages, backgrounds and life situations, using great literature on a weekly basis to help improve confidence, create social networks, widen perspectives and offer a sense of belonging to those who have become especially isolated. In some cases, the reading shared has become a preventative tool for people at risk of poor health, with regular attendance at groups aiming to reduce the need to visiting a GP.

Recently Nicola Crane, Head of Arts Strategy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, visited one of the groups within the South London project to get a sense of how shared reading is working first-hand:

“As the group gets under the skin of ‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot, the session facilitator, Val, pauses at intervals to reflect on what’s being read and prompt conversations across the table.

I can see pretty quickly why the set-up works. This group is hosted in the welcoming environment of a public library. As people gather and the reading starts, an inviting, non-judgemental atmosphere wraps around them, gathered in a corner of the library, like a protective shield. However, the true value of these encounters is in the power of the shared reading. By deconstructing the joys and perils of the fictional characters, real-life stories start to emerge around the table.

Some, like Uzonna, a retired mental health nurse, remembers passages of her life as a young girl growing up in Nigeria. Others like Maria, who was referred to the group through Lambeth Hospital, enjoys the sharing of “different opinions” and how they “tend to agree at the end”. Hazel enjoys meeting all sorts of different people she wouldn’t normally. Since joining, she and others enjoy the group so much they have swapped the computer lessons they used to attend at the library for this weekly reading gathering.

I left the session feeling revitalised, having reconnected with a piece of literature I read long ago and sharing it with a unique set of people. It was eye-opening to see a group of starkly different individuals loyal to their shared weekly dose of prose, easily drawing similarities between the tribulations of a 19th century weaver and their own with cathartic effect.”

Read Nicola’s blog in full on the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity website.

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(credit: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity)

Thanks to the funding from GSTTC and the Maudsley Charity, we have been able to ensure a lasting legacy of the positive wellbeing effects of shared reading in South London. To date, over 30 groups have been taken over by trained volunteers and are proving to be sustainable, with more training planned for the future. The project also includes an ongoing research investigation which will help to determine the impact of the shared reading model on such a wide spectrum of the population at whole.

Here’s to even more shared reading across South London!

Mental Health in Context

*EDIT: This event is now SOLD OUT*

Mental Health in Context
Tuesday 21st April, 5.30-7.30pm
The Women’s Organisation, 54 James Street, Liverpool L1 0AB

Introduced by Vice Chancellor of University of Liverpool, Professor Janet Beer

featuring a guest appearance from Jeanette Winterson, in conversation and reading from her work

with Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, Dr Jane Davis and Dr Eleanor Longden

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Jeanette Winterson will be speaking about how literature was an alternative in her own experiences with mental health

This inaugural event of a new research group at the University of Liverpool will showcase real-life research in the University for the City in vital areas of human well-being.

Working within the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, Mental Health in Context brings together experts in the University of Liverpool from various fields of psychology and culture to consider mental health difficulties within the broader context of the social, cultural and personal realms in order to improve the understanding and treatment of those difficulties in the modern world.

This special event, launching Mental Health in Context and showing its relation to real-life concerns in the city and the region, will highlight four major projects of major relevance to public well-being , including the development of the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing at Calderstones Mansion. For more information on the projects, please see the MHIC website.

Jeanette Winterson, the distinguished novelist who was born and raised in the North West of England, will speak of her own mental health experiences including her fictional and autobiographical writings, including her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her belief in alternative interventions including in particular the uses of literature, and read from her work.

“Dealing with our world is really hard work. It is hard to be healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, in a world where there is so little security and so much fear. Ill health is a response, a consequence of the way we live. It should not be pushed back onto us all as a personal problem. For me it’s the relationship between mind, body, outside world, and soul. The body so often carries the burdens of mental disturbance – usually through addiction, which can be food, drink, drugs, self-harming, or the pathology of wanting to be attractive all the time. Good mental health depends on knowing that life has an inside as well as an outside. That’s why meditation is so good. That’s why reading and the arts are so good. Knowing how to be on your own is one of the keystones of mental health.” – Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette was interviewed by The Reader Organisation’s Founder Jane Davis for The Reader prior to the publication of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? about her experiences. The interview can be found online here: https://readerjanedavis.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/jeanette-winterson-in-conversation/ 

Dr Eleanor Longden exemplifies the nature of the project and the evening: she is someone who has had both profound personal experience of mental difficulties and is also a researcher within MHIC at University of Liverpool. She exemplifies the crucial two-way relation between research and reality, which is the subject-matter and purpose of MHIC. Her TED talk, ‘The Voices in My Head’, has attracted wide interest, amassing nearly 3 million views (and can be viewed here).

Places to attend are free, and can be booked here: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/mental-health-in-context-launch-event-tickets-16237051458

The Reader Organisation: a Workplace for Wellbeing

workplace wellbeing charterWe’re always keen to point out the links between shared reading, great literature and good wellbeing, but our credentials for healthy living here at The Reader Organisation have been given another boost as we have been reaccredited for the Workplace Wellbeing Charter.

The Workplace Wellbeing Charter is an opportunity for organisations to demonstrate their commitment to the health and wellbeing of their workforce. Like the shared reading groups we run throughout the UK each week, the Charter takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that includes leadership, culture and communication, as well as health and wellbeing topics such as physical activity and mental health, promoting rounded discussions between employers and employees. The standards reflect best practice and are endorsed nationally by Public Health England, with our accreditation carried out by Health@Work.

The magnificent Magnolia tree outside the Mansion House that boosts our wellbeing
The magnificent Magnolia tree outside the Mansion House that boosts our wellbeing

Being based in the beautiful and blooming surroundings of Calderstones Park in Liverpool, we were already off to a good start (taking a look at The Allerton Oak and a particularly lovely magnolia tree provides the perfect opportunity to get into the fresh air and clear our minds) but we’re very pleased to report an overall achievement in the several categories of wellbeing outlined by the Charter.

The set of values that shape our culture and working practices both internally and externally, including ‘Great literature is at our heart’, ‘We value innovation and find ways to live with change’ and ‘We celebrate success but learn from our mistakes’, were highlighted as particularly significant:

The Reader Organisation’s values are to be highly praised. It is clear that this set of eight values runs right through the heart of the organisation and is not merely theoretical or tokenistic.

Other stand-out points included the support given to staff in their roles through methods including a personal development programme, action to encourage staff participation to become involved in physical activity and our shared lunches each Monday, bringing staff together with lots of good, healthy food.

We’re proud to be wearing the badge for wellbeing, demonstrating our commitment to encourage positive practices both inside and outside of the organisation.

If you’d like to come and work for an organisation that values good wellbeing, we’re currently recruiting for a number of jobs based at our Liverpool HQ, including a Volunteer Coordinator for an exciting new project working with children and families, a developer for our upcoming Story Barn at Calderstones and managerial positions in Marketing, IT and Operations. See our website for full details on all roles, including how to apply and deadlines for applications: http://www.thereader.org.uk/working-with-us/job-opportunities/current-opportunities

The Reader South West wins at Wiltshire Public Health Awards

A huge congratulations go to The Reader Organisation in the South West, who were winners at the Wiltshire Public Health Awards last night.

Jennifer McDerra, The Reader Organisation's Development Manager for Public Health and Dementia, accepts the Wiltshire Public Health award for improving mental health and wellbeing, awarded to the Wiltshire shared reading project (Photo credit: Wiltshire Council)
Jennifer McDerra, The Reader Organisation’s Development Manager for Public Health and Dementia, accepts the Wiltshire Public Health award for improving mental health and wellbeing, awarded to the Wiltshire shared reading project (Photo credit: Wiltshire Council)

Our Wiltshire shared reading project, running in partnership with Wiltshire Libraries, picked up the prize for improved mental health and wellbeing across the area. Running since January 2014, Library Memory Groups bring the shared reading experience to people living with dementia and memory loss on a weekly basis. With poems and short stories that are read aloud, group members are immersed in a calm and relaxed atmosphere, with the texts being read and digested allowing people to piece together collective personal memories related to the stories and poems, which in turn encourages feelings of wellbeing.

Group members and their family members and carers have reported that the weekly sessions have a positive impact on their mood, allowing them to rediscover and enjoy literature with others and giving the opportunity to make new friends and connections within their community.

The project has also involved volunteers to assist in running the groups, allowing it to extend further across the region.

The Wiltshire Public Health Awards, run by Wiltshire Council, recognise individuals, projects and organisations for their contributions to improving the health and wellbeing of people who live and work in Wiltshire in nine different categories, including the mental health award. This year’s awards saw a staggering 120 nominees enter, so the achievement is something we’re especially proud of.

Jennifer McDerra, The Reader Organisation’s Development Manager for Public Health and Dementia, was at the ceremony in Trowbridge to pick up the award on behalf of the team. A special congratulations goes to Wiltshire Project Worker Josephine Corcoran who has done so much to get the project off the ground and maintained its success onto to award-winning status!

You can read more about the Wiltshire project, and the remarkable effects it has had on group members on Josephine’s blog:
https://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/reading-with-people-who-have-dementia-in-wiltshire/

https://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/remembering-who-we-are-through-reading/

https://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/the-homecoming-of-sir-thomas-wyatt/

A new Library Memory Group will be starting at Salisbury Library in Wiltshire on Thursdays, 11am-12pm, weekly from 23rd April. Other Library Memory Groups in the area currently run in Trowbridge, Warminster and Mere (Wednesdays) and Royal Wootton Bassett and Pewsey (Thursdays). For full details on the groups, visit our website or follow @TheReaderSW on Twitter:
http://www.thereader.org.uk/reading-with-us

Read to Care: Shared Reading groups and Quality of Life benefits for people living with Dementia

BUPA care home 1 online“Isn’t if funny? We come in with nothing and go out with all these thoughts.” – reading group member, living with dementia

The Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool has published ‘Read to Care‘, an evaluation report of a research project investigating the quality of life benefits and impacts for people living with dementia in shared reading activity across Merseyside.

CRILS is a research unit dedicated to investigating the effect of reading serious literature in the wider world, with a view to benefits in health and wellbeing, and is The Reader Organisation’s research partner. In 2012, CRILS evaluated TRO’s shared reading programme for people living with dementia with support from the Headley Trust ‘A Literature-Based Intervention for Older People Living with Dementia’ showed that shared reading provided marked improvements in agitation levels, mood levels and concentration levels for participants, as well as improved social interaction.

Developing from this, TRO was commissioned by NHS North West to undertake a follow-up study of the effects of shared reading in Care Homes in Wirral. The aim of the project was to further investigate the impact engaging in a shared reading group activity has upon people living with dementia, adding to and supporting a growing body of anecdotal evidence.

In ‘Read to Care’, particular consideration is given to:

  • the uses of powerfully emotional literature to trigger awakenings in people living with dementia;
  • the value of literature in offering emotional experiences too often feared to be ‘negative’;
  • the kind of memory that is stimulated by shared reading – different from working memory or from what is achieved through reminiscence therapy;
  • the additional effect on relatives and carers

The conclusions and recommendations of the report show that shared reading groups significantly improve the quality of life of people living with dementia, as well as providing valuable benefit to care workers and relatives in encouragement of remaining human possibilities.

“Reading aloud when others are there to listen, the sense of being in a unified community, has been the privilege of Poets for millenia. And it works. The words – common to all, unite minds and the shared stimulus appears to have an uplifting group effect.” – Melvyn Bragg (preface to Read to Care)

The report will be the focus of a presentation held at the University of Liverpool this November. Professor Phil Davis, Director of CRILS, will present findings from Read to Care, alongside one of The Reader Organisation’s project workers who was involved in the practical delivery of the groups participating in the project. Anyone interested in dementia and the relationship between literature, health and wellbeing is welcome to discover more.

‘Read to Care: Shared Reading Groups & Quality of Life Benefits for People Living With Dementia’ with Professor Phil Davis is on Thursday 20th November, 6.00pm, at Lecture Theatre 1, Sherrington Building, Ashton Street (off Pembroke Place), University of Liverpool.

Cost: £20, including buffet supper.

For more information and to book your place, download this registration form, and return to Joan Scott in the University of Liverpool CPD team at iltcpd@liv.ac.uk or telephone 0151 794 5776.

‘A ripple of triumph’: feeling Better with a Book in secure settings

Lord Howarth
Lord Alan Howarth will be speaking at Better with a Book, TRO’s fifth National Conference

Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s fifth annual National Conference, is coming to The British Library Conference Centre in London on Thursday 15th May, with booking now open. Join us and special guests including Lord Melvyn Bragg, Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan to explore how shared reading and literature can be utilised to improve mental health, stimulate emotional wellbeing and enhance quality of life.

Amongst the speakers at Better with a Book is Lord Alan Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and previous Minister for Schools and Higher Education (1989-1992) and Minister for the Arts (1998-2001). Lord Howarth previously spoke about The Reader Organisation and his experience attending shared reading groups at last year’s Culture, Health and Wellbeing Conference, in a speech about the creative power of the arts to make an impact on the health of individuals and communities.

After visiting one of our regular groups at Wormwood Scrubs, Lord Howarth corresponded with the group’s leader and practitioner Megg Hewlett, Reader-in-Residence at West London Mental Health Trust, to comment on the positive effects he found that shared reading had in the highly secure environment:

“I’m in no doubt that this particular experience of reading helps the participants to think anew about moral, personal and social issues through focusing calmly and attentively on the texts and relating to other people engaged collaboratively in the same activity.” – Lord Alan Howarth to Megg Hewlett, After the Visit, The Reader 53

A series of the correspondence between Lord Howarth and Megg appears in Issue 53 of The Reader magazine, alongside an interview with columnist and former prisoner Erwin James. In light of the recent news restricting the access that prisoners have to books, the piece indicates how shared reading of quality literature can offer bonding, a greater sense of self-awareness and a better understanding of a world outside of the self to prisoners and those residing in secure environments, factors which help to contribute to reducing reoffending. Lord Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Megg and Nick Benefield, previously Joint Head of the NHS and NOMS Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, about the effects of shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments as part of Better with a Book.

In their correspondence featuring in The Reader 53, Megg explains the challenges of reading within a secure environment to Lord Howarth, which include engaging often reluctant readers amongst other factors. Yet once they discover that reading can be enjoyable and uplifting, other significant benefits follow:

“For many I read with a book is as terrifying as climbing a vertical rockface with little equipment and no training. When they first come into the room the terror is often palpable – a being in its own right – and my job is to attend to that part of the person, settle it down, and help them find some joy in something that has only previously given pain or been of no interest. You’re looking for small indications but they mark big events. The most common comment I have in that group is ‘I didn’t think I’d like this but it’s not bad’. When I hear this I feel a tiny ripple of triumph.”

Hear Megg speak to Lord Howarth firsthand about the experiences of sharing reading in secure environments, and learn more about how shared reading works practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs) at Better with a Book.

Full day delegate places (including VAT, lunch and refreshments) cost £140. Booking is available online via Eventbrite or via cheque or invoice – full information on how to book using these payment methods is available on the Conference page of our website. For queries or more information, please contact Abigail on abigailleader@thereader.org.uk or call 0151 207 7221.

For all the latest news on the Conference, follow the #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter

Making a Social Impact: The Reader Organisation and the Smarta100 Awards

SmartaThe Reader Organisation has been shortlisted as one of the 10 finalists in the Biggest Social Impact category at the upcoming Smarta100 Awards, celebrating the achievements of small businesses across the UK that have the most original ideas and make a true difference to society. Click here to cast your vote for TRO – you could help us to win £1,000 as the category winner and the £10,000 grand prize.

The Smarta100 Awards aim is to find ‘the beacons of enterprising Britain’ – the small firms and organisations that are pushing the recovery forward. Having grown considerably in a short space of time, The Reader Organisation is making a difference to local communities, helping to improve people’s lives through the practice of shared reading and contributing to society’s happiness and wellbeing. The social impact we’re making connecting people through great literature is being felt week on week by our group members, who comes from all walks of life and backgrounds, ranging in age from six months to 103 years old.

VolunteersOur weekly shared reading groups are for everyone, running in settings around the community – so everyone can feel the benefit of sharing a good read in good company. But through this we also regularly reach the people who need it the most, who may not otherwise get regular social contact: people living in or at risk of isolation, people suffering from conditions including depression, anxiety and dementia, prisoners and people in secure forensic psychiatric settings, children in care and excluded from school, residents in care homes and hospitals. Through the sharing of stories and poems, thoughts and experiences emerge as well as personal connections, and a holistic approach to health and wellbeing is observed. The benefits of attending a shared reading group are far-reaching, ranging from gaining the confidence to do everyday things that bit easier to providing a greater sense of belonging, or even in some cases giving a ‘lifeline’.

It’s from our community of readers that the biggest sense of personal and social impact that comes from shared reading can be felt. Here is some of what they say:

“Coming to the group for the first time was not easy but when I did my immediate thought was ‘this is for me’.  I felt a sense of happy relief that I had done it.  The stories affected me emotionally and they gave me pleasure.” – reader in Brompton Library, London

“Since coming to the group I have found that my tastes have expanded and my confidence in reading aloud has changed for the better.” – reader in Wirral

“I […] was blown away with how the group and staff welcomed me like I’d always been there. This group has been a lifeline for me. I escape everyday pressures for a few hours every week and I’d be lost without it.” – reader in Toxteth Library, Liverpool

“I’m really happy to quietly enjoy – you can get involved or you can sit and quietly enjoy yourself […] it’s important, I feel, there’s so much enjoyment there – you learn so much from other people.” – reader in Cornwall

Read more of our Reader Stories on our website to see the many different impacts shared reading is making on individuals and communities: http://www.thereader.org.uk/reader-stories.aspx

The Smarta100 Awards are open to public vote, with the winners of each category and the overall grand prize being announced on 12th November. The Reader Organisation is creeping up the leaderboard but we need your help to stay there. Click here to vote: http://www.smarta.com/smarta100/2013/the-reader-organisation/ – it takes less than a minute! Voting closes on Friday 1st November.