Fighting loneliness and building confidence

Matthew was 30 years old when he was diagnosed with Schizoid Affective Disorder. The diagnosis arrived at a moment of accelerating crisis within his life — increasing isolation, frequent breakdowns, anxiety and self-harm.

Now 58 and looking back on this period he recognises the complexity and the loneliness of the condition and his life at that point “[I] really struggled to make any sort of life that felt good or positive or satisfying. I developed an act that pushed people away from me, becoming loud, brash, insensitive and seemingly confident. But it was a layer and underneath I was cripplingly unconfident [sic] with an utter lack of self-worth and negative self-image.”

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Matthew is not alone in his experience of isolation; Britain is suffering a crisis of loneliness. In 2014 the Office for National Statistics found Britain to be the ‘loneliness capital’ of Europe. This absence of social cohesion is emerging as a public health concern as it relates directly to mental health issues. This month The Times reported that the NHS spends £5.5 million on anti-depressant medications every week, the costs of the mental health crisis are increasing rapidly in both human and financial terms.

In his journey towards recovering his confidence and reconnecting with people, Matthew found an unlikely bridge: a Shared Reading group. Through a referral Matthew found new social connections and a new confidence in himself and his abilities. He sought to “reinvent” himself through the group and moving away from being defined by being a “mental health service user”, he cites the importance of the relationships forged within the group in developing his own identity.

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This group was delivered by ‘The Reader’, an organisation founded by Ashoka Fellow Jane Davis. Across the country ‘The Reader’ supports similar Shared Reading groups with some of the most vulnerable communities in the UK — they have trained over 5,000 to deliver the model and on average they read with 2,000 people a week. The communities that form these groups range from dementia patients, to school children, to people in the prison system.

The principle behind the movement is simple: connecting people with good literature. Small groups are run with a trained Reader Leader, normally once per week, lasting one to two hours. Shared Reading groups are a safe, non-judgemental space and are open to all, irrespective of age, education or ability. A story or poem is read aloud, members participate how they wish: be it sharing their thoughts, reading aloud or simply listening. For Matthew this environment helped him recognise the value of his thoughts and his own intelligence.

The impact has been impressive and facilitators of the sessions have observed dementia patients, who struggle with speech, clearly engaging with the rhythm of the sessions. In Matthew’s case, he credits the experience with helping him to draw the courage up to read a eulogy in front of an audience at the funeral of a friend.

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Image from The Reader

The anecdotal evidence of success is underpinned by statistical evidence with 83 per cent of participants reporting an improved mood and 76 per cent feeling more positive about life. The impact is further replicated in a criminal justice setting, where 89 per cent of participants claimed that the Shared Reading group gave them an opportunity to express themselves with confidence in a group. A further 69 per cent felt more positive about settling back into their communities.

Perhaps the success of Shared Reading as a practice is that it empowers people by equipping them with an emotional language. Drawing on words, thoughts and feelings from the banks of literature, Shared Reading puts the group in conversation with one another but also with the thousands of people who’ve lived, thought, felt and written before them.

-By Meera Patel, Communications Manager, Ashoka UK. This article is part of a series celebrating 10 years of Ashoka’s work in the UK. This series will culminate in a 2 day Changemaker Summit, held in London. The 10 year celebrations are kindly supported by Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

This article first appeared on Virgin on August 22, 2016.

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