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Introducing Oxfordshire Mind

As part of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion project at OAS, we’ve appointed Oxfordshire Mind as our expert consultants on mental health. Oxfordshire Mind will be helping us to have a truly inclusive mental health culture, and that everyone in the training centre knows how to talk about mental health, how to support their own and others good mental health, and can ultimately bring their whole selves to work every day.

We caught up with Director of Operations, Al Bell, to talk about how Oxfordshire Mind will be supporting the project, how our colleagues and peers are in the best position to gauge our true mental health, and why she thinks they’ll learn just as much from the collaboration as they hope to contribute.

Tell us a bit about Oxfordshire Mind.

At Oxfordshire Mind, we stand up for mental health. We do this through prevention, supporting people with their wellbeing, as well as plugging the gaps around the NHS provision. The NHS typically gives someone a diagnosis and help via a clinical scale. At Oxfordshire Mind we work with people as a whole person, not just a diagnosis, and supporting people wherever they’re at. That might mean helping people with housing, volunteering, or peer support groups that link people in similar situations. We take a very holistic approach in everything that we do.

One in four people are diagnosed with a mental health problem every year, and Oxfordshire Mind is here to make sure anyone in the area with a mental health problem has somewhere to turn for advice and support. We currently support over 30,000 people every year across Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

We’re also committed to promoting the importance of mental health, raising awareness and reducing stigma. The past decade has already brought about a more open, less stigmatising dialogue around mental health and illness, and Oxfordshire Mind are committed to making mental health part of the every day.

Why is this something that’s important to you?

I originally started working with the national Mind charity 13 years ago as a freelancer, helping to set up a Workplace Wellbeing programme supported by NHS England around ‘Time to Change’. Like so many of us, I’ve had struggles with my own mental health, and in 2005 a lot of different things conspired, and my mental health was very poor. I had so much going on in my personal life, including a bereavement and a relationship breakdown, I’d just moved jobs and I wasn’t being a great employee. I really hit rock bottom.

You don’t want other people to go through that if it’s avoidable. Having spaces where you can talk about your mental health makes such a difference, and also makes asking for help much easier. We know that the faster you can ask for help, the faster you’re going to get better.

We all spend so much time in work, so when our mental health or stress levels change our colleagues are probably going to see it much earlier than other people in our lives. It’s much easier to hide how you’re feeling, or present the person you hope to be, when you’re just spending a couple of hours with a friend. In the workplace, you can’t hide, and actually this is a good thing if we treat that opportunity in a positive way. If we really care about each other, and make sure we check in, and say ‘Are you really alright though? What’s going on, and how can I help?’ It’s about being ok with not being ok. We’re human beings, and we need to be able to bring our whole selves to work every day.

What are Oxfordshire Mind doing to help OAS?

We’re helping OAS to create a culture where mental health is valued, discussed and embraced for all its wonderful facets and challenges. We know that young people are really struggling with their mental health and feeling isolated at the moment, particularly because of the pandemic lockdowns. People from marginalised or easy to ignore communities are especially affected because of reduced social capital and support not being in place.

Also, while I’m delighted to see more women and girls in OAS, more generally STEM is still a very male dominated environment, and men typically have less of a dialogue about their mental health, although I’m please to say that that is also changing.

We hope to provide OAS and the young people that learn there with the tools, methods and key building blocks to pre-empt, identify and support mental health challenges. We want to help OAS to create a real culture around mental health, rather than the ‘tick box’ exercise so many policies end up being in the workplace.

We’ll be training OAS colleagues and apprentices in things like Mental Health First Aid and early warning signs, and helping OAS as an organisation to develop their culture and language around mental health. We’re going to hold focus groups and interviews to ensure that the aspirations in the policies are truly reflected in people’s experiences, and we’ll be helping to cascade those policies into people’s everyday lives. We’re also doing some gap analysis and making recommendations on what can be improved – it can even be as simple as longer lunchbreaks to make sure the learners have an opportunity to get outside in the fresh air every day.

Why is this partnership important?

We have to embrace all aspects of an individual – the pandemic has really highlighted that. People aren’t robots, we all have different parts to our lives, and our people can’t perform at their best and fulfil their potential unless we embrace all of those different aspects.

Mental health isn’t just black and white – it all sorts of grey and silver and sparkly bits! It’s such a great thing to be equipping young people with as they go into the workplace – they’re our future workers and leaders, and it shows great foresight for OAS to be thinking about apprenticeships in such a well-rounded way.

It’s been great to see the vision within the OAS project too – the team are really on board, and are very open and eager to seek help to improve. That commitment from the top makes it a really great space to be in. We’re also working in partnership with a number of other consultants and collections of interventions focusing on different aspects of mental and physical well-being, so I’m expecting that we’ll learn a lot from them and from the project too. At Oxfordshire Mind we are on our own Equality, Diversity, Inclusion & Equity journey as well, and I think we’ll absorb from the programme as well as contributing, which is brilliant!

What will it mean for the OAS community, especially prospective and existing learners / employers?

I hope that we’ll be helping to create an environment where people can thrive because they know they can safely bring their whole selves to work. It would be great to see some of the employers getting a taste of the benefits of the project and getting inspired about it as well.