Compassionate Mental Health: Radically connecting minds for mental health

  • Mental illness is one of the biggest challenges of our age, and the health system is struggling to cope with growing demand for services.
  • Compassionate Mental Health is an organisation with a mission to catalyse system reform and be a beacon for those going through tough times.
  • They provide training and networking opportunities around the UK for professionals and people with lived experience.
  • Founder Brigid Bowen discusses stigma, treatment, and the future of mental health.

Brigid Bowen is the founder, organiser and curator of Compassionate Mental Health an organisation that is reimagining mental health services and treatment. Compassionate Mental Health is on a mission to ‘radically change the way we talk about and treat mental illness’. Working closely with the NHS and other organisations to train mental health professionals and deliver support to those with lived experience, Compassionate Mental Health seeks to transform our understanding of mental illness and spark meaningful change in the mental health system. Bowen discusses the movement’s vision to help more people recover from serious mental health illnesses, such as psychosis. Organising ‘Gatherings’ are core to Bowen’s interpersonal and collaborative approach, bringing together world-leading experts and people with lived experience to join together, share knowledge, and heal.

Why did you decide to establish Compassionate Mental Health?

I suppose my journey started when I had my own mental health crisis as an undergraduate almost 30 years ago, when I experienced the best and the very worst of mental health services. I did a bit of stealth reporting on mental health as a journalist in my twenties and thirties – but didn’t actually start working in the mental health field until 2016.

Back then, I was spending a lot of time in the nursing home where my dad was dying with dementia. The mental health awareness and anti-stigma campaign ‘Time to Change’, run by Mind and Rethink, was getting a lot of airtime. There was a constant call for people to be open about their mental health problems, and seek help. I knew that people often faced a long wait for mental health services, or in some cases help was not available. I had time to reflect on my own experiences, and how my recovery had happened outside of mental health services.

Brigid Bowen, Compassionate Mental Health.

I became curious about what I could do to help accelerate improvement in mental health services. Compassionate Mental Health was originally only supposed to be one conference, but it has had its own impetus since then.

What projects are Compassionate Mental Health currently involved with?

Compassionate Mental Health is part of a growing global movement of people and projects who are interested in improving the current approach and catalysing alternatives.

“More people are now talking about trauma, the impact of adverse childhood experiences, and the social determinants of mental health.”

We run a series of experiential learning retreats that we call ‘Gatherings’. They are a cross between conferences and retreats, where we explore a range of compassionate and relational practices. We create an inclusive and welcoming space, and try to model what a safe, supportive environment feels like. Our central thesis is that people can begin to heal themselves and others through the power of community, connection, self care and solidarity.

There is a wellbeing team on hand to help participants process anything difficult that might arise, and activities like trauma sensitive yoga and Qi Gong encourage people to get out in nature and move their bodies. We eat wonderful food, and there are plenty of spaces in the programme for cups of tea and conversation.

Author and musician Darren McGarvey delivering an after dinner talk at Buckland Hall in Brecon.

Working in mental health services can be stressful. We’re often so focused on getting things done. Space to reflect and listen deeply in a genuine encounter is so important. Alongside the Gatherings, we also offer a range of trainings for frontline staff, designed to help teams discuss difficulty, build trust and mutual support. We’re also developing an innovative education programme to support young people to live well after a serious mental health crisis, and develop inner resources so they can fulfil future goals and dreams. It is intended to be a buffer between hospital and home, and to prevent people from dropping out of learning and becoming long-term psychiatric patients. We hope this will be an investment in the wellbeing of sensitive young minds, saving health services money and saving lives. Sign up to our mailing list to keep in touch with our news.

Last November, Compassionate Mental Health ran a three-day gathering called ‘Coming Home to Ourselves’. Could you tell us about this?

Our 10th Compassionate Mental Health Gathering was our first in-person event for three years! And so it was incredible to get off Zoom and reconnect with our community after such a long break. The Gathering took place in Coed Hills in the Vale of Glamorgan, a stunning setting where people have been working with and thinking about low-impact and sustainable approaches for many years. We enjoyed eating and cooking together, sitting around the fire, walking in the woods and looking out to the sea. There was even a wood-fired sauna. Plenty of things to reflect on from inspiring workshops and speakers, new friendships formed, and a definite sense of optimism about the future.

A moment of connection between two pioneering mothers.

We had a great mix of people with personal experience, mental health professionals including psychiatrists, and family supporters. My favourite part was being able to engage with the community at Coed Hills, and organise activities for some of the attendees who had recently been struggling with difficult mind states. So there were drumming lessons with Iolo in his railway carriage drum studio, and bushcraft and archery with ex-paratrooper Barry in the woods.

It was so heartening to see two of our young participations smiling and lit up after their drum sessions. One young girl, who has spent a lot of time under Section in psychiatric services, said she felt free for the first time in ages – and that was wonderful to hear. Another memorable moment was seeing Barry walking back from the woods with a group of men – who all had been having a tough time – happy with their head torches on after a session of archery by starlight.

We loved it so much at Coed Hills, that we are returning for our Spring Gathering. ‘Beginning is Now’ will be happening at Coed Hills from March 20–23. More details here.

What are you most proud of achieving with Compassionate Mental Health?

I am most proud of the community that has been created through the Gatherings. The founding aim was to create experiential learning events that really helped transform understanding and practice in mental health services and to generate a lasting and positive impact in the lives of those living with mental distress and those supporting them – whether healthcare professionals or families, friends and peers. And I think we’ve done just that. We have an incredible international network of facilitators, many of whom have both personal and professional experience. There have been some real shifts in mindsets – organisations have gone on change journeys, and new projects have been formed. People have stayed well and out of hospital, and made personal and professional connections that have persisted.

Activities like trauma sensitive yoga, mindful walking and Qi Gong encourage people to get out in nature, move their bodies and build inner resources.

Mental health professionals on the verge of burnout have told me that attending the Gatherings has given them renewed hope and strength to carry on in challenging jobs. Parents bereaved by suicide have also been able to connect to compassionate communities and safely share their stories, encouraged by co-host Malcolm Stern who is a group psychotherapist and a dad bereaved by suicide. I have no doubt their bravery and generosity will leave a profound legacy and help prevent future deaths.

I’ve also been able to do a lot of healing around my own traumatising experience of being sectioned and receiving forced psychiatric treatment. And I didn’t really expect that. It took me a while to share a little of my own story at one of our last events before lockdown, and a lovely woman who has come to most of our Gatherings and has had her own journey with psychosis said to me: ‘Well done – you have finally given yourself permission to be vulnerable. You’ve created this safe space for everyone else, but this is the first time you’ve entered into it. Now you have to play catch up with the rest of us.’ That was a precious moment!

Since you founded the organisation, how do you think that attitudes, treatment and conversations about mental health have changed in the UK?

The big mental health charities have done a great job of getting mental illness into the headlines and into government policy. Attitudes have definitely shifted, and there’s far less stigma than in the past. More people are now also talking about trauma, the impact of adverse childhood experiences, and the social determinants of mental health. There’s a growing recognition that mental illness isn’t just about the individual, but also about society, our neighbourhoods and families. Poverty, food and energy security, loneliness and isolation all impact our mental health, and many people are increasingly anxious about the state of the world, wars and the climate crisis.

Empathy and non-judgemental listening is core to a compassionate approach.

Recently, the conversation about the safety and quality of inpatient mental health services has importantly come back into the forefront, thanks to debates around the Draft Mental Health Bill, and recent undercover programmes from BBC Panorama and Channel 4 Dispatches that uncovered distressing cultures and practices on some inpatient wards for the most vulnerable patients, with overuse of restraint, seclusion, and forced medication.By no means is this reflective of all mental health services, but there is a growing recognition that coercive services can re-traumatise people and lead to a worsening of their physical and mental health.

“It’s time to stop wasting public money on services that do more harm than good.”

What do you think should be the main priority for the future to improve mental health?

Our goal should be a fairer society for all, with equitable access to the support we need. In the meantime, more community wellbeing initiatives like Bromley-by-Bow Centre in East London, the home of social prescribing, that can help people stay well. There’s still a big gap between the rhetoric and ambition of mental health policy, and the reality for people on the ground. The priority must be closing that gap, so people can access a range of evidence based therapeutic services in the community and residential settings, and no-one is excluded from getting the help that they need.

An equal priority must be to put an end to human rights violations in mental health. I’d encourage everyone to read the important work by The World Health Organization to promote person-centred and rights-based approaches.

My hope for the future is that there will be places of safety in every community that people can easily access when they need refuge and support. Compassionate places where people experiencing distressing states of mind can go to feel safe, validated and deeply listened to. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not about funding more of the same broken services.

It’s time to stop wasting public money on services that do more harm than good, invest in new models of care, strengthened communities, and whole-system approaches so that no-one falls through the gaps, and everyone can flourish and thrive.


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