Watch the video of Ben Eaton’s talk at TEDxExeter 2014.
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Live blogs about M
The focus in the third session is switching back again to the UK. First up is Dick Moore, a passionate advocate for mental health in children and teens.
“How are you?” he asks. Statistically, 26% of us will be suffering from a cold, 46% from an injury, and about 70 of 460 in the theatre from some emotional or mental health issue.
He is showing a photo of his family: Dick, his wife, and their four boys. Life was kind, with decent schools and university opportunities. Three of the four coped well with life’s ups and downs. The fourth, Barney, lacked confidence to be in a group of people. He had a serious relationship, which sadly ended. He tried to win her back, and became obsessive, to the point of saying life was not worth living without her. He was eventually sectioned, but he argued his way out. Dick gave him a letter saying that he was loved, but Barney didn’t read it. Later he took his own life.
Dick and the rest of the family were heart-broken. Eventually the storms gave way to some surprisingly silver linings. The relationship end wasn’t the underlying cause of Barney’s action. Just as diabetes is a physical condition, so depression is a mental condition that can’t just be ‘got over’. Barney killed himself because he wasn’t equipped to deal with the storms of life.
Dick doesn’t blame anyone in particular. But in the world we’ve become obsessed with hard evidence and measurements – perform better, look better, and be better. Young people are under more pressure than ever, and the outcome is occasionally emotional turmoil. The World Health Organization estimates a 300% increase in self-harm in the UK in the last 10 years.
If you were to work out in the gym for an hour, the release of endorphins makes you feel good. Self-harm leads to an immediate release of endorphins. Why haven’t we explained to young people how they can cope with pain without resorting to physical harm? Suicide among young men accounts for more deaths than AIDs, violent crime and road traffic accidents added together.
Worry, anxiety and stress are part of life. At what point do they become problems? Life is in three parts: sometimes fun, sometimes normal, and sometimes stormy. If we are lucky, the storms are short-lived squalls. Others experience longer-lived storms or even hurricanes.
How are we teaching children resilience? The New Economics Foundation suggests we can help young people be more connected through noticing the world around them, being physically active, engaging with new ideas, doing random acts of kindness. Dick argues we need more – a fundamental change in attitude, led by schools and universities.
We need to explore what and how we are teaching and assessing at every level. Prioritising mental health will have a direct and positive impact on academic performance. We need to embed social learning in all academic institutions, in every lesson, not as an appendage. Edutopia is working on this in the US.
Dick encourages anyone with influence to encourage this change, so that young people in the future can dance, rather than drown, in the rain.
Fuelled by tea and a cookie, it’s now time for the second session – Global Connections – and Clive Stafford Smith.
He begins with a tribute to his aunt who died recently. She was born at the wrong time, when opportunities were not available to women. His dad had bi-polar disorder, which has led to some interesting stories! Many of his actions were not the action of a rational mind. His aunt couldn’t accept that her brother was mentally ill, so didn’t accept that this drove his actions and were not necessarily bad in intention.
… Which leads to a story about Ricky, a convicted child molester and murderer. His mother was severely injured in a car accident, and while she was pregnant continued to be given all sorts of drugs, one of which has been linked to paedophilia. Ricky developed psychosis from an early age, and started molesting other children even though he had no idea what he was doing. At some point he had a counselling session, which told him he had a mental disorder and shouldn’t be released or he would reoffend. He was bright, so himself wrote to the state board saying he shouldn’t be released but kept in a mental hospital… but bureaucracy intervened… and then he killed a child.
The DA tried to seek the death penalty. Eventually there were conversations between Ricky and the mother of the boy he killed, who heard his story and said she’d fight for him. But the DA continued to seek the death penalty, and the mother was now considered to be unfit to parent her other children.
Ricky himself wanted to be a case study, to improve understanding of his condition. At the trial, the mother wanted to testify that Ricky was mentally ill and should be kept in a mental hospital and never released. Her testimony supporting him was very moving, and Ricky was spared the death penalty.
Clive concludes with two points. First, the mother was a victim, and the government tried to teach her to hate, but she tried to understand. Second, a person with mental health issues needs to be understood and not hated, which might get us to a place where we can prevent harm.
From individual well-being to collective well-being, and the Bring the Happy project. Ben is an artist and interaction designer.
He asks us to take a moment to think about a happy moment: what is was, where it happened, and how happy you were on a scale of 1-10. For several weeks, Bring the Happy ran a pop-up shop in Exeter. People came in with their own moments of happiness, which were plotted on big maps using perspex rods of varying height.
There’s a bit of a lie emerging from the project: that happiness is more complicated that it seems. It’s a hook for conversations about the place where people live, which unpeel layers of meaning. The project started four years ago, when the recession was dragging town centres down and Britain was broken. Bring the Happy wanted to turn the vacant shops into community spaces. The stories all told us something unique about the way that we live.
There are a lot of TED talks about happiness. Ben’s thinks that these try to tie people down into a model of happiness, which will lead society to be more productive and richer, and hence more happiness. To him, that sells happiness short.
The Bring the Happy project started in Leeds. As in many cities, slums were cleared in the 1930s and people moved into new flats or vertical villages, which became slums themselves, were destroyed, and communities were blasted across the city. But many of the happy memories were centred on those flats. So today, where are we building a space for emotion and memory in the towns and buildings we build? How do we accommodate and celebrate those? Too seldom do we have the freedom to graffiti our stories on our cities. They are our streets.
So take your happy memory and share it with the person next to you (after Ben has gone off stage!). And take that memory and use it as a lens for living your life in your place.
Now we move from physical health to mental health. Fin focuses on the earliest connection we make: with our parents.
40% of us live stories that become prophecies and influence how we see the world. This is a problem, because they also influence the stories we tell our children. Hospitalisation for self-harm increased 68% in the last decade. Children have low well-being in the UK compared to other wealthy countries. We have become obsessed with progress, but has technology caused a loss of connection? If we are losing connection with our parents, then also losing connections with others.
We rely on what we receive. It’s hard to hear others if we haven’t been heard. We lose trust, and hence our curiosity and toleration for uncertainty. If we have limited ways of experiencing the world, we have limited ways to empathise.
Telling stories, or storying our lives, enables us to reflect and create new connections in our brains. A better understanding of our own experiences gives us empathy and compassion, and we can start to build communities.
Fin’s own story was negative up to aged 18, very rebellious and often grounded in her room. Her father worked long hours and was never seen; her mother ran the house and was disengaged. They coped by having strict control over their lives, and over their children’s. She suffered with anorexia and depression during her A’Levels. She went to university but became pregnant very early.
But she decided not to give up on her baby or her studies. Rebellion became determination and teamwork with her son. Her story changed. She started to remember good things about her childhood: her father building things, holidays and the fun fair. Her now-retired parents became supportive rocks in caring for her son. Rewriting the story changed challenge-in-opportunity into opportunity-in-challenge.
So write your own story. Look at the chapters, and what you learnt from them. Recognise the strength you’ve developed to survive. Ask where your funfair was. Tell someone your story, a friend who will listen without judging. A good story will help you become more resilient and trusting that that friend will be there for you.
Fin’s own story has just taken her out of the NHS, with the dream of turning her years of research into a new initiative to change children’s futures.