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Mental Health Mates at Henley Literary Festival, October 2019

This was a space for the panel and the audience to connect to their own mental health experience and connect through a shared but very individual story. The panel was hosted by Bryony Gordon: journalist and author of several books including ‘You Got This’ which came out earlier this year. The other panellists were Melissa Helmsley and Poorna Bell.

Melissa Helmsley, is a chef and author of several books including ‘Eat Happy: 30-minute Feelgood Food’. As a guest on an episode of Bryony’s podcast she began to open up about difficulties in her past which led to them becoming friends and Melissa becoming an ambassador for Mental Health Mates.

Award winning journalist and author Poorna Bell has been an active mental health campaigner, especially after the suicide of her husband. She is the author of two non-fiction books, Chase the Rainbow and in Search of Silence. Having used power lifting to help her through the grief of losing her husband she has founded @seemystrong, a space to encourage others who do not see themselves in traditional fitness images to have a go.

It turns out this talk was in two parts: a panel discussion followed by a walk under the name of Mental Health Mates. The movement, started by Bryony, aims to encourage mental health walking groups across the country. There were representatives from the Reading group and I spontaneously decided to join them on the walk from the Henley Town Hall to the Riverside Museum.

I found the panel very open to sharing their mental health experiences, touching on various aspects of their past and present. This is not easy to do, and I really applaud their willingness to be vulnerable so publicly. Each member of the panel came across as individual and, to coin a modern word, relatable.

Because the panel were so honest it felt like a discussion between friends. I feel privileged to have been in the room and don’t think everything needs to be shared here, outside of that intimate setting.

Melissa was partly brought up on army bases in Germany whilst her mum sought to stay connected to her heritage as a Catholic woman of Filipino ancestry. This meant that she felt there was little space in the home to talk about the death of her father.

Poorna saw her apparently strong mother pushing through challenging situations with ease and thought that was how she should approach life. But this led to bad decisions.

Bryony has struggled with anxiety and obsessive compulsory disorder for many years. Years ago, she did not want to believe that her childhood affected who she became as an adult, but she’s eventually accepted the truth of this. We like to think that we were created the way we are now, but the circumstances and environment of our childhood must play some part in the adults we become.

All three spoke of becoming more self-aware, whether that is through therapy or taking time out to slow down and reflect. In different ways they all experienced families that did not encourage talking about feelings. This means they did not want to accept when they were upset and even more, did not want to upset anyone else by sharing how unhappy they were feeling.

Poorna could testify to how becoming stronger, through power lifting, has helped her to feel better and more capable. She also shared the importance of having someone who would help you stay accountable to looking after your mental health. In her case it is her sister. This person can check in as someone to talk to, but also to ask if you’ve eaten, slept, been outside etc. Other well-known beneficial activities include mindful breathing, meditation, journalling and fresh air.

Melissa shared the nourishing and comforting effect of hearty healthy homemade soups. This is brain food that can affect mood. She also talked of working with the imposter syndrome: when we talk down our achievements and believe we’re not good enough for something, even though objectively we are.

An engaged audience had several questions including parenting a child with OCD, the role of medication and the impact of austerity. The panel handled these well. On parenting the advice was to love without judgement, realise your child does not want to be like this either and try to help them find the right support. On medication the advice was to accept it if you need it and use it respectfully, as intended. Of course, financial struggles and political uncertainty have an effect on our mental health but in the context of human existence Bryony offered – “This too shall pass”.

The subsequent walk to the River and Rowing Museum provided an opportunity for audience members to get to know each other and share life stories. It was a warm and friendly gathering and a nice way to reflect on what was said by the panel with others willing to be real about life’s choices.

Shirley Anstis

Counsellor and writer @shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

As a journalist with an interest in science David had worked for many of the quality broadsheets in the UK and US. He learnt a lot along the way and became curious about clever people who seem to make poor decisions. This led to him researching ‘The Intelligence Trap’ and the book offers his findings and suggestions. It is not just about pointing our finger at others but to recognise when and why we may make poor decisions.

He shared the story of Paul Frampton, Professor of Physics at the University of North Carolina, who fell for a fake glamour model and this led to him being imprisoned for drug smuggling in South America. Then there was Kary Mullins, winner of the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993. Despite his science credentials he went on to deny truths in other fields such as psychology, in medicine around HIV and in environmental science concerning the impact of CFC’s on the ozone layer. He was however passionate about astrology and believed vitamin C could cure everything, including cancer.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is one of the ways we measure intelligence and although it’s flawed it does predict performance in the current education system. (There were comments on emotional intelligence later in the discussion). One of the approaches taken by David is to wonder if having a high IQ could backfire? Does the quicker processing for a clever brain lead it just as quickly to the wrong answer as to the correct one? He gives a good analogy of a car where being fast is only helpful if the terrain, steering and brakes are working well.

David went on to identify three ways in which intelligent people can make less than clever decisions. Firstly, ‘The Cognitive Miser’ who believes he is always right, does not second guess his own opinion and struggles with cognitive biases. Secondly, Motivated Reasoning is the tendency to apply our brain power only when it will suit our pre-existing beliefs (even if they are wrong). He gave a fantastic example here of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believing in fairies whilst not allowing for magic tricks, so much so that he lost his friendship with the illusionist Harry Houdini.

Thirdly, we have ‘The Curse of Expertise’. This is where we overestimate what we remember, feel we know it and become closed minded (earned dogmatism) and through automatic or intuitive reasoning we become entrenched in our views. I found this last point hard to write because although some are critical of experts the point, I think, is not to denigrate them but to encourage each of us to become more self-aware and explore our biases.

He goes on to list the serious consequences for our society if clever, and often powerful, people continue to fall into the intelligence trap. He links some of this to our fear and shame around being wrong. (This aspect reminds me of the work of the hugely popular and wholehearted social scientist researcher Brené Brown). Similarly, our schools and workplaces reward those who respond confidently and quickly – even though they may not be right. 

To avoid falling into the intelligence trap David has several suggestions. These include identifying our own biases, consulting our emotional compass and considering arguing the opposite viewpoint to see how that sits.

One of the things that came out in the question and answer time is that there appears to be a difference between men and women. The result is that mixed teams make fewer mistakes; providing more evidence for equality in the workplace. Some of the poor decisions are made when people are overconfident and believe their own hype. The audience recognised how difficult it would be for the lone dissenting voice in a team. The hope is that more sectors, particularly areas covering health and justice, become aware of how the intelligence trap plays out in their organisations and begin to take steps to mitigate it. Here’s hoping.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

Baroness Doreen Lawrence of Clarendon in conversation with BAFTA award winning director Paul Greengrass at The Henley Literary Festival, October 2014

Baroness Doreen Lawrence is a name known by many due to the tragic experience her family went through twenty-one years ago when her son Stephen Lawrence was murdered. She received her OBE in 2003, had an important symbolic role in the 2012 London Olympic ceremony and became Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon in 2013.

In conversation with Paul Greengrass Baroness Lawrence spoke of her life from a childhood in Jamaica to sitting in the House of Lords. She shared memories of a loving childhood spent with her grandmother in Jamaica. The sudden loss of her grandmother saw the nine-year old Doreen join her siblings in 1960’s England.

The terrible murder of Stephen Lawrence changed her life forever and she has had to struggle to find justice publicly, whilst finding places to grieve privately. She shared how relieved and yet shocked she was that two of the accused were eventually convicted in 2012. She hopes others will eventually be convicted.

For me she embodies gentleness, self-awareness, clarity of thought and a quiet determination to seek justice for herself and others. Together with her legal team she has changed the law on double jeopardy, influenced the way police officers are trained and helped to bring to attention the way many ordinary Black people experience the criminal justice system.

The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust was set up to support Black young people to become architects because Stephen wanted to follow this career path.  Her team are also working with partners to bring more diversity into journalism and law.

Baroness Lawrence’s autobiography is entitled ‘And Still I Rise’ from the Maya Angelou poem. The room stood still when Paul Greengrass invited her to read it.

The attentive audience asked her to share her reflections on racism, gender politics and policing over the period. She gave intelligent and honest answers without setting herself up as the expert on Black young people.

I left feeling moved and inspired.  She believes it is for us to “think about the community we live in, bridge the gap and make a difference”. She did not choose politics but can see its power to make changes for a more just and accountable society.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis