Today is World Mental Health Day 2018.  This year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) have set this theme of 'Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World".

Although often confused, a learning difficulty is different to a mental health problem. The news clip of Teresa May confusing the two during her campaign trail in May 2017 comes to mind.

According to Mencap "Unlike learning disability, mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and may be overcome with treatment. A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life." 

With mental illness affecting around 40% of people with a learning difficulty each year - much higher than the average rate which is 25% of adults experiencing mental illness in the UK each year - we felt it was important to reflect on what we are doing to improve people's mental health if they also have a learning difficulty.  As with much of our work, the improvement not only benefits people with a learning difficulty (and/or autism) but everyone in society.

You might have seen the video footage from Johann Hari about how depression (and anxiety) is a sign or a response to something that is wrong - often something that is wrong with society. Or perhaps you have read his book - Lost Connections.  Hari argues that it is not the person with depression who is sick, it is the sick society that they live in. The depression is giving them a message that something is not right. 

What does that mean for us?

Perhaps someone is constantly in fear of their benefits being reduced. Maybe someone feels they are not achieving enough at work and they fear they will lose their job. Perhaps they are not being given the opportunity to find paid work or explore their true passions and abilities. Maybe they feel powerless and unsupported in that. Or consider that someone is not given the time to communicate what they think and feel - after all, people are busy, must be productive, have their own assumptions, don't have time to listen... They might feel trapped, misunderstood, devalued.  Maybe someone has been bullied or victimised because of the way they look, how they communicate, what they understand. 

These are some of the situations that face many, many people we work alongside in bemix (people with and without a learning difficulty and/or autism). It is thought that these social factors make up the majority of the reasons why such a high rate of people with a learning difficulty/disability experience mental illness. 

We will all have our own ideas about how we can and whether we should change that.  In his book, Johann Hari lists 7 solutions to the causes of depression (and anxiety), including that we need to be and feel more connected to others, to our work and to our environment.  There are fantastic projects and organisations working to achieve this.  Our local Social Prescribing programme run by Red Zebra, for example. Or the Abbey Physic Community Garden to name one of the many wonderful places that offer a space for connection.  But what do we do at bemix to improve mental health?

"Ultimately, without the support that Joe [Life Choices] provides I wouldn't interact with the community at all. A combination of past traumatic experiences result in me not going out alone and an tendency to panic in real world scenarios. I avoid working with others as much as possible. Since working with Joe I have been spurred into acting alone (with him present) and even more recently planning 'dos' and get-togethers that involve more than just my family. This was previously impossible for me to handle." - Philip

Our aim is that people with learning difficulties and/or autism can be seen, be heard and belong. All of our work focuses around supporting people to gain the skills, confidence and experience to speak up and share their thoughts, abilities, talents and creativity.

"We all come together as a strong group. We listen and try to communicate with each other." - Sharni (Risky Business) 


For some people, doing this in a small group might be all they want to do, for others, they want to take what they do out into the local or wider community. People are not segregated and isolated, they are supported to be included fully in the communities they live in. But being seen and being heard is a two way process. Someone needs to be looking. Someone needs to listen. So we support society to do that, too. We provide support and training to employers so that they can provide work opportunities for people who might need additional support. We train student midwives so they can better understand how to advocate for and support parents with learning difficulties. We create beautiful, quality artwork, furniture and wildlife homes for people to buy. We run an affordable, healthy pop up cafe that among others things, provides a space for parents with young children to relax and enjoy a meal. We engage in open, respectful conversations with shops and other service providers about how they might make their service more inclusive. We collaborate, we don't compete.

"bemix has succeeded in allowing the opportunity to interact and discuss hobbies and interests such as record collecting, screenwriting, etc, with employees of certain establishments, many of whom are sympathetic to those with physical and mental disability, ensuring premises are more accessible and navigable for wheelchairs, etc, supplying assistance and equipment at venues such as shops, bowling alleys, cathedrals and restaurants." - Michael

"With help from Joe [Life Choices], I was able to comfortably get involved and meet new people, which otherwise would not have been possible if I had gone to these places on my own.  As a result I have found a real routine that has me active in community places most days.  This gives me balance and variety to my life." - Christian

A result of this work is that people feel that they belong. They belong in bemix - whether they are supported by us, are a student, are a volunteer, member of the workforce or partner organisation. We use our four key values of being equal, people, involved, co-workers to make sure that we create the kind of environment we want to live in.

"I have a pretty big bug-bear when it comes to being treated like my diagnosis and not myself as a person. I have never felt this when interacting with any bemix staff or employee (or even student!)" - Philip

We want that sense of belonging to be recreated across society. But that takes patience. That might mean that we need to put less emphasis on being productive and cramming so much into our busy days. That might mean that we need to put less emphasis on constantly getting more - being more beautiful, having more stuff, doing more things. That might mean we have to re-train ourselves to slow down. To take time to really listen to the people around us. Be less productive even. Maybe then we can make space for people with learning difficulties and/or autism to really feel they belong. By slowing down and supporting people to be involved, by focusing on what we are doing in a more mindful way, perhaps we will feel more connected to others, the world around us and to ourselves.

But those are just my thoughts.......  what do you think?

Written by - Louise Allen, Director of Ethics and Communication