Supporting Bristol’s asylum seekers and refugees

Today’s guest blog comes from Beth Wilson (Bristol Refugee Rights), Layla Ismail (Refugee Women of Bristol) and Robert von Hawrylak (Borderlands), who discuss the work they have done through the support of the Bristol Impact Fund.

Photo credit: Borderlands

Bristol Asylum Seeker and Refugee Hubs is a collaboration between Bristol Refugee Rights, Refugee Women of Bristol and Borderlands, which has been funded by the Bristol Impact Fund since 2017.  Originally funding was for three drop in centre hubs which together provided 5 days a week of support services for asylum seekers and refugees: a social space, enjoying a delicious cooked meal with friends, free shop, destitution support, English classes, advice and information and much more. 

The Covid-19 pandemic forced all three drop in centres to pause as much face-to-face work had to stop, whilst they re-defined their services.  What quickly emerged was a need for financial assistance as many who had been just about surviving pre-pandemic, no longer could; a need for housing as sofa surfing / sleeping rough ceased to be an option; a need for a smart phone, as the digital divide became a chasm.  A community already suffering with poor mental health risked spiralling into despair and re-traumatisation as panic buying and being forced to stay at home reminded people of what they had fled.  Many whose mental health was just about kept in check by their regular attendance at drop in centres were at risk from deep isolation allowing their demons to creep back in. 

Working together with other refugee voluntary sector organisations in Bristol, the Hubs quickly responded to these new and emerging needs. Using their model of sharing the load of meeting needs, but also being individual organisations putting their own special take on the services they offer, the hubs designed a new model.  Bristol Impact Fund provided the flexibility and trust that these organisations knew what their service users needed thus enabling this quick shift in focus.

Borderlands focused on food, continuing to provide a weekly takeaway meal, a food bag and money to those who are destitute, deliveries to those who could not travel or are self-isolating.  Bristol Refugee Rights focused on advice and digital inclusion, ensuring individuals had help with their financial situation, finding somewhere to stay and understanding what was happening with their asylum claim, providing devices, data and tech support.  Refugee Women of Bristol recruited bilingual member volunteers to mobilise community members to find families in need of support to help them access information, specialist services, identify people at risk and provide basic support at the community level.  All of our organisations reached out by phone to those who we knew were vulnerable to check they were ok and offer them support to meet the basic needs they so desperately needed, as well as someone to talk to.

Whilst for some, remote service delivery has been challenging, for many it has been a lifeline.  The Hubs have supported people who have been in Bristol many years but chose not access face to face services.  The expansion of our services digitally has ensured continuity of reach to the wider communities and supported more individuals and families, keeping them connected with much-needed support services especially for those at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse, hate crime or other safety concerns. For Refugee Women of Bristol it has widened the safe space for women in the community to come together online to share experiences and learning, access key information including where and how to access emergency help if and when needed.

Working in partnership has given additional support to staff and made our staff and organisations more resilient to the crisis. Over the last four years, the Bristol Impact Fund has supported over 70 organisations and community groups in Bristol, aiming to reduce disadvantage and inequality, improve health and wellbeing, and increase resilience in the city. The application window for the second round of Bristol Impact Fund: Growing the Power of Communities launches next week and you can find more information here.

We Work for Everyone

Today’s guest blog is from Councillor Helen Holland, Labour Councillor for Hartcliffe and Withywood and Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care.

I was chatting to a local resident over the weekend who was telling me that his job disappeared at the beginning of the pandemic, but that he is now working as a Blood Delivery Driver. Then on one of my regular walks the other day, I saw an advertising hoarding with the fabulous #changelives campaign from BrunelCare, showing Ellie, one of their new recruits who has gone from Cabin Crew to careworker.

Two things occurred to me, one, that Covid has made everyone see what many of us already knew, that jobs in Health and Social Care are absolutely vital to us all, to our communities and to our economy, and secondly, that changing career, sometimes of necessity, sometimes by choice, really can open your eyes to new possibilities.

Working with our care providers, training organisations like the City of Bristol College, Skills for Care and the trade unions, we are determined to raise the profile of occupations in care, and make sure that we have the best workforce that we can as we move towards the post-Corona Virus world. Through our commissioning framework we are embedding our commitment to better terms and conditions for careworkers, and making sure that employees have access to training.

We also are working to strengthen community organisations who often provide the glue – through local activities, things like walking groups, choirs, knit and natter  groups  – that stick neighbourhoods together, and keep residents from isolation, and able to live in their own homes for longer.

I want to see a pathway too for people who find that they love working with people in those local organisations to open the door to care work, as one thing that is now more obvious to some, is that whatever advances there are in ‘tech enabled care’ we will always need people in these vital services.

It has been so rewarding to see that we have been able to attract more people into home care, and into social work, over the last year, and we want to see that continue.

While I am writing, I also want to mention the “We work for Everyone” project Ways to Work website for which the City Council with the other West of England authorities  have won £2.2m  from European Social Funds, and £1.2m from  WECA to deliver employment and training opportunities for people with learning disabilities and Autism.

Having worked in this field for many years myself, I am absolutely passionate about this project, and the chance for people to fulfil their potential through work. It is shocking that nationally only 5.7% of people with a learning disability are in work and we are going to do all we can to change that. We have some fantastic organisations in the city who already have a great deal of experience of doing this, with some brilliant results. I want to draw that experience into this project, to really make the best of the additional money. With navigators to support the work, we also want to hear from businesses who are keen to give everyone these opportunities, so please get in touch.

Get vaccinated

Today’s guest blog is from Ade Williams, Superintendent Pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy.

On 28th of January, Bedminster Pharmacy started providing COVID vaccinations at the Methodist Church on British Road. Our communities goodwill and generosity carried us through the door,  literally – especially after logistical challenges with our NHS supplies. 

Our team of volunteers, reminders of the great privilege of bringing this project into our special community. The good news is that the national vaccination programme is moving at great pace. People over 65 and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are now being sent invitations to book online using the NHS website or calling 119. 

How quickly does the vaccine work? 

Protection starts 12-14 days after the first dose.  The second dose is crucial to get the best level of protection and longer-lasting protection, so it’s vital to come back for your second dose.

Which vaccine will I get and which is better?

You cannot choose which vaccine to have, so it’s crucial to have the vaccine you are offered. Remember whichever vaccine you are offered, has been shown to be safe and work well at preventing disease from the virus. The researches looking at effectiveness have measured them in different ways, so it isn’t necessarily helpful to compare them like for like. 

Does the vaccine contain animal products?

No. They do not contain any ingredients derived from pigs, cows or other animals.

I’m allergic to penicillin – can I have the coronavirusvaccine?

Yes, all of the available vaccines are safe if you are allergic to penicillin.

I’ve already had Covid-19, do I still need to get vaccinated?

Yes, it’s really important to get the vaccine, even if you’ve already had Covid-19. You may have some level of immunity if you’ve had the disease, but this varies and may not last long. 

Will I be able to pass on the virus to others if I’ve had the vaccine?

We don’t yet know for sure, so even after vaccination, it remains essential to follow guidelines around social distancing, hand washing and other guidance to stop the spread of coronavirus. You will also still need to self-isolate if you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has.

How much does the vaccine cost?

The vaccine is offered free on the NHS. It is not available privately so you can’t pay to get it sooner. Don’t fall for any scams offering it for cash.

With a 10-minute appointment journey including 3 minute contact time, we did not expect to experience such a flood of human experiences: birthday zoom calls, family pictures, tears, hugs and relief. Reminders that for many of the most vulnerable, the jab trip is their first outside for months.

Thanks to the collective effort and sacrifice making this possible. Every completed vaccination helps break down barriers, tackling hesitancy, bringing closer a time to meet with family and friends. The Bedminster Pharmacy’s ambition is to work with others; our GP surgeries and other NHS Clinicians to make it sooner. When your time comes, we will be ready for you too.

Fairtrade Fortnight

Today’s guest blog is from Joe Fortune, General Secretary of the Co-operative Party.

We in the co-operative movement have an amazing story to tell about our adoption and leadership within UK Fairtrade over many decades. Over the years, I have spent time looking back through old copies of Co-operative Party and movement pamphlets and articles, which all lay out in black and white (and it was black and white, no colour printing!) the efforts and commitment of those activists we sit on the shoulders of. However, the Co-operative Party and movement’s commitment to Fairtrade is not, and must never be, something we only look back on. It must be something we live, day in and day out. 

Fairtrade Fortnight is an opportunity to renew that zeal, and to spread the message of hope and optimism which characterises Fairtrade. Fairtrade is our values and principles in practice. Within it lies the essence of our approach to politics and society. I’m proud that the last year has seen the Co-operative Party bring practical campaigning weight to the continued fight for Fairtrade. 

This year, our representatives in Westminster have pushed for Fairtrade to be properly considered through new trade deals. Our Parliamentary Group Chair and Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Preet Gill, has led the charge for proper financial support for this country’s international development efforts, and for a focus to be on co-operative development. Preet also led our efforts to persuade a major chocolate retailer to reverse its decision to walk away from the use of Fairtrade. This effort saw tens of thousands of people join the campaign and re-affirmed, in my mind, our movement’s unwavering support for the efforts of the Fairtrade Foundation.  

We all hold consumer power in the products we choose and support each day. I would encourage everyone to exercise this power to choose those products and lines which hold the Fairtrade mark. Still today, we uphold the historic co-operative movement commitment to Fairtrade. We are proud of the efforts of our retail co-operatives and others who continue to lead the way and champion the proliferation of Fairtrade in this country and around the world. 

Find out more about Fairtrade Fortnight, this year’s focus on climate change, and the work of the Fairtrade Foundation here: Fairtrade Fortnight | Fairtrade Foundation

A culture of inclusion

Today’s guest blog is from Lynn Barlow, co-chair of the One City Culture Board and Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Creative and Cultural Industries Engagement at UWE Bristol.

I love television, I love films, I am in awe of anyone who can stand in front of an audience and sing, dance, act, make me laugh or make me cry.

But I can also honestly say, I have never talked about TV as much in my life – and as a TV producer, I have always spent more than an average amount of my time talking about it… much more.

Now, ‘have you seen’, ‘did you watch’, ‘you have to watch this, it’s great’, seem to be the basis for so many of my lockdown conversations with friends. 

We are all clutching at the few shared experiences of creativity and culture we can still enjoy – like a comfort blanket, they are something to make us feel better and remind us that we need culture, we need creativity – we need entertainment. Its power is incredible.

We’ve seen performances and productions postponed, live and in-person experiences cancelled and museums, theatres, festivals and events all disappear since the spring of 2020. This hasn’t just put a strain on the creative economy in the city – but on the potential to express who we are as a city – our spirit.  

The three national lockdowns have severely limited the re-opening and recovery of the sector – the impact of the pandemic will be felt for several years to come as small and independent businesses look to rebuild. 

Creative industries have the power to drive us out of this extraordinary moment in time. They can and do revitalise our places, ignite economic growth and unlock innovation as well as bringing joy to our communities. 

The Creative Industries sector contributes almost £13 million to the UK economy every hour, or at least it did at the beginning of 2020.

That’s why Bristol’s One City Culture Board has committed to making sure our artists, musicians, producers, writers, directors and performers emerge from the pandemic with a flourishing future. And that the places, the venues, large and small survive and can recover.

But they cannot, nor should not, be looking to rebuild alone. One of the first areas of focus for the One City Culture Board has been contributing to the development of Bristol’s Recovery and Renewal Strategy.

The emphasis on both ‘recovery’ and ‘renewal’ is key. Bristol is rebuilding its cultural sector, but it is also moving to a time of renewal.  

Our collective strength, our collective talents and our collective ambition is needed to help us through this. That is why the Board’s membership strives to reflect the breadth and diversity of the sector it represents. 

Every single one of us has creative potential – no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have, creative people are everywhere – but not everyone has the opportunity to discover it.

Culture and Creativity has never been as important to our personal wellbeing, to the wellbeing of all our communities and the wellbeing of our city.

I admire how organisations have been able to pivot to offer new experiences in a new virtual world and long may that option continue to be available. But I also cannot wait to be able to soak up my cultural experiences, face-to-face or sitting in an audience or walking around a museum, no longer restricted to what I can only see on a small screen.

Heart Unions

Today’s guest blog is from Steve Preddy, Regional Secretary of Unite the Union.

I believe all of us, reflecting on the profound difficulties faced throughout the past year, yearn for the potential of brighter opportunities and renewed hope as 2021 unfolds. The COVID-19 vaccines provides the best reason for genuine hope that there will be a return to a new “normality” perhaps later this year.

Something that both sustains and inspires me during these extraordinary times, is the dedication shown by our amazing team here in Unite South West. Primarily our incredible volunteer army of Lay Representatives both Industrial Work Place and Health & Safety representatives. Every day they make a positive difference to thousands of members in the union.  It is to that unwavering dedication and hard work that makes it so important to celebrate trade unions and our collective achievements during Hearts’ Union Week.

Tackling the worst kind of employer behaviours is at the heart of Unite’s Fighting Back strategy. Fire and Rehire is one example of an abhorrent practice. Unite won in British Airways Cargo handling, we are fighting Go North Buses. Unite undertook the incredible Rolls Royce Barnoldswick campaign to save the site and jobs. Campaigns won by organising in workplaces and their communities.

Unite the Union Representatives, Officers and staff consistently provide every support to our members, with the most comprehensive range of services and support available through the trade union movement. Very importantly this past year, I pay tribute to the work of Health and Safety Reps in making sure employers provide proper PPE for key workers and carry out proper risk assessments in workplaces. Where employers fail in terms of maintaining a safe working environment section 44 of the Employment Rights Act has been deployed. This was used extensively and successfully by Unite on a number of occasions this past year and by our colleagues in the NEU, which in turn brought about a further government U turn on school closures.

I hope all people now realise that key workers, whether caring for our loved ones in the NHS and Care Homes or serving among the masses in shops, or those operating our buses, have been undervalued and underpaid for years.  All these people deserve to be paid a respectful living wage and Unite will not cease campaigning for this, until it happens. In our NHS we support the campaign around a 15%  increase in pay, in part recognition of their sacrifice and because of their ongoing contribution to the health and wellbeing of our entire nation.

Unite the union was instrumental in the negotiations with Ministers that directly led to the introduction of the Job Retention Scheme- a scheme not perfect, but which directly saved so many jobs.  Unite calls on the Government to extend job retention beyond March, including targeted help for particularly vulnerable sectors of the economy like Civil Air Transport, hospitality, manufacturing and many others. They need to make an announcement of intent to do so now.  This will provide reassurance to our members who are currently on furlough, that they will not be facing redundancy in the spring & summer and stop employers shedding thousands of workers’ jobs. 

The battle to save jobs is vital, not just for the viability of the UK economy but for the health and wellbeing of workers and families. We know the cost of unemployment in terms of lost income, worry over bills and expenses, the disruptive damage to family and community cohesion  and the impact that it will have on the social fabric of people’s lives right across the South West region. This will be disproportionately felt by the poor, vulnerable, by women and children and by those in the BAME communities.  

Unite has devised a membership package that will maintain membership in Unite at no cost to the individual. The Union Funded Scheme is already retaining tens of thousands of members in our Unite family, those impacted by loss of employment through the Covid crisis and Brexit double header.

Unite also provides access to support, advice and training for members who have lost their jobs.  Trade unions came into existence to support working class families.  Unite maintains the tradition not to  leave members facing  difficulties alone. Though our Back2Work membership and services support, we help them on the difficult path back into work.

If you want to find out more about the important work of Unite the union go to – www.unitetheunion.org  If you are not already a member of a trade union-  I hope you will join us.

Please Stay Safe.

Beira hit by Cyclone Eloise

Beira, Mozambique’s second city, after being hit by Cyclone Eloise. Photo credit: BBC/EPA.

In today’s blog I want to raise awareness of and ask you to join me in showing solidarity with our Mozambican twin city who are experiencing yet another cyclone likely due to the drastic impact of climate change

It was with a heavy heart that I followed the weather map path of Cyclone Eloise as it made its way to Beira, our Mozambican twin city on the 23rd January. The messages coming through from my friend Mayor Simango spoke of roofs blown off, walls down, windows out, electricity lines down, 100mph winds, 300mm of rainfall in 24 hours, and so it went on. The Mayor’s team and relief agencies moved thousands of Beira residents into stronger buildings such as schools, as the huge purpose-built drainage channels overflowed and the flood basins filled up, no chance of pumping the water out to sea for days due to the storm surges in the tide. Sadly six people lost their lives, mainly due to falling rubble.

As the cyclone and subsequent rainfall moved far inland, a picture emerged of over 7,500 Beira citizens made homeless and moving into temporary refugee camps. Across the whole trajectory of the cyclone, 262,000 people including 130,000 children were affected and needing humanitarian assistance. 16,700 Mozambicans have lost their homes with 74 health centres and 322 classrooms destroyed. UNICEF and the International Red Cross are on the case and the UK Government has pledged £1 million for the temporary camps. Teams were deployed to Beira before Cyclone Eloise hit and are now distributing prepositioned basic household and hygiene items, water purification kits, tarpaulins and medicine for up to 20,000 people in the city and province. The potential outbreak of waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and cholera is a major concern in flooded areas. The British High Commission in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, reported that a UK humanitarian team is on the ground in Beira involving support from the University of Bristol.

“Beira is a cyclone corridor”, said Mayor Simango, “and we are still recovering from Cyclone Idai from March 2019. “Part of our recovery has included the construction of designated flood plains, basins and drainage channels to take excess water out to sea, combined with community education, which reduced the impact of the 100mph winds of Cyclone Eloise, and the lesser Cyclone Chalane last month. “This time we need the International community along with our Dutch and German government partners to step up and support our Beira plan for a flood mitigation infrastructure programme.”

This is another tragic reminder of the devastating effects that the Climate Emergency has on the world’s poorest countries and those least responsible for causing it.

I have also taken up a position representing the UK on the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth local Government Forum and I am aiming to contribute to practical proposals for Ccommonwealth cities (including in Mozambique) to work with national governments to put in place governance and finance to be resilient to shocks and disasters such as these. Bristol continues to work with UK Core Cities and other international networks of cities to ensure that the voices of cities are heard as nation states make decisions on targets and actions to tackle climate change.

If you would like to donate to the Bristol Link with Beira for their COVID and Cyclone support work then please go to  https://www.gofundme.com/f/bristol-beira-covid19-appeal

And if you would like to get involved with their longer term work check out their website https://bristolbeiralink.org/ and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/bristolbeiralink/

Looking Out for Bristol

The Centre for Cities have published their annual Cities Outlook report looking at the challenges and opportunities that cities across the country face. The report identifies Bristol as being among a group of cities with “strong economies who have only been marginally affected by Covid.” Behind that endorsement of our economic strength, however, we are seeing a more complex picture on the ground, and so I wanted to share some of my reflections on the report, its recommendations, and what this means for Bristol’s economic recovery.

Employment and the impact on people’s jobs, earnings and conditions remains a real concern across and within cities. The report highlights that while Bristol has not seen the growth in unemployment that other cities in the UK have, key sectors that support jobs in the city and region have been hit hard. Bristol, for example, has felt the effects of job losses in the aviation industry, which is why we called for action when job losses at Airbus threatened the livelihoods of the 3,000 people employed at Filton. Bristol’s commitment to environmental sustainability can help us recover from these job losses if we get the right support from government. We need the government to front load green infrastructure in their recovery to enable us to line up the local supply chain and reskill workforces to deliver schemes like retrofitting homes, and the decarbonisation of our energy and transport systems.

We know too, that there are parts of our communities which are more vulnerable to job losses as a result of the economic fallout from Covid-19. More than half of under 25s and over 65s have been placed on furlough or have lost their jobs as they are more likely to be in roles where the toughest restrictions have been imposed. Workers from ethnic minorities have been most likely to be exposed to the virus, to die from it, and are most likely to have lost their jobs. Our economic recovery must therefore grapple with this uneven distribution of job losses and unemployment, or else we will only see these inequalities entrenched and exacerbated within our city.

The report makes clear that inequality exists within cities and regions as well as between them. Binaries like “the North South divide” or “urban vs rural” obscure the ways that Covid is having an effect on jobs, livelihoods and health in complex ways across the country and in our city. Covid has exacerbated the clear correlation that already existed between wards with the highest unemployment and the numbers of areas of high deprivation. Our Economic Recovery Strategy therefore identifies specific places which need targeted intervention such as addressing long-term unemployment and income deprivation in South Bristol, and developing an economic strategy for Avonmouth.

Investment in transport infrastructure is key. In the short term, public transport requires support and innovation. Bristol is reflecting national trends in that fewer people are travelling by public transport than they were before lockdown. When restrictions ease, however, we expect more people to commute regularly to workplaces and to visit other parts of the city. The government need to make sure that our bus and rail services are in a financial position to support our vision for more people travelling across the city on public transport, rather than in private cars. Longer-term, if we want to unlock Bristol’s economic potential of our city and reduce congestion and car-dependency we need a mass transit system that will both create jobs in Bristol, and connect people to jobs and opportunities within the wider region. Government needs to back us on that ambition

The report argues that the success of cities like Bristol is crucial, both in the short-term response to covid, and on delivering on the government’s levelling up agenda. I welcome the call for the government to press ahead with devolution and reap the benefits from the knowledge and successful delivery that local leaders have shown throughout the crisis. As Andy Burnham shared at the report launch, if the government’s ambitions for “levelling up” are to mean anything, people across cities must experience the benefits in their day-to-day lives: in their finances, in their health, and in their environment. To make that a reality, we need a long-term, bankable partnership with government, where we have the powers, the funding and the sovereignty we need to shape our response and drive forward our ambitions for Bristol.

You’re never too cool for school

Today is the UN’s International Day of Education, celebrating and highlighting the importance of education for peace and development.

I’d begin this blog by thanking each and every person involved in the education sector for their unfaltering dedication and commitment to Bristol’s students during a truly difficult time. From teachers to tutors, caretakers to cleaners – thank you for all that you’ve done and continue to do. Bristol will be forever grateful.

This year has been a uniquely challenging time for educators and students the world over. School closures, isolation periods and social distancing have meant that the majority of learning in the past year has relied on the ingenuity and adaptability of our parents and educators, who more often than not have had to contend with a new teaching environment of online and distance learning.

Whilst schools, colleges and universities have been put under a microscope during the pandemic, it is important that we don’t overlook those adults in our community who are either already enrolled in courses or looking to return to education. For many adults the pandemic has impacted jobs and career progression. So far an estimated 8,000 jobs have sadly been lost to the pandemic in Bristol. We continue to work hard to protect jobs and create new ones, but know that this rise in unemployment represents a monumental changes  for people’s lives and support is available from the Council for anyone who is struggling.

Since the pandemic hit, some Bristolians have been searching for the opportunity to re-train as teachers or nurses, for example, so it is clear that this time is also offering the opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation.. Education is a lifelong journey and it is never too late to return to the classroom and change the course of your life. If you are interested, a range of educational institutes and businesses offer the option for adult learning courses such as Bristol City Council and City of Bristol College. There is also often financial support available for those who need it, though more investment and support is doubtless needed.

Of course, adult education isn’t always about changing career course. It is also important for career progression and contributes to improving businesses’ bottom line. The Union Learning Fund (ULF) supports working people to access skills and training at work, through their unions. Last year more than 200,000 learners acquired new skills through union learning including thousands who received their first ever qualification. Every £1 spent on union learning returns £12.30 to the economy due to increased productivity and higher wages.  Unfortunately, the government has decided to end the ULF from March 2021. Considering the economic implications of the pandemic, this is not the time to cut funding for skills, training and adult learning. I would urge a rethink on this decision and reversal of these damaging cuts. 

Investing in education leads to gains in opportunity, equality and pride. It is never too late to invest in yourself and in your development. And whilst the past year has been anything but easy, education can be the key that unlocks the door to a much more hopeful and optimistic future.

Mental health in a pandemic – and why we should take Blue Monday with a pinch of salt

Today’s guest blog is written by Liam McKinnon, Director of Engagement at Off The Record.

It’s “Blue Monday” and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.

For many of us, life doesn’t feel much fun right now.

It’s fair to say that COVID-19 is impacting us all, presenting increasingly complex and emotionally difficult circumstances across many age groups and demographics. As a mental health social movement by and for young people, OTR (Off the Record Bristol) is an organisation and service that places a real emphasis on early intervention and health promotion. We know that it is vitally important to support young people to be resilient and feel empowered – and right now, conditions are tougher than anything this generation has faced before.

The very things we discuss about ‘staying well’ at OTR are the very things that have been stripped away from us all in the last few months: Connection, relationships, social experiences, learning, being outdoors. 

This hits young people hard. In the last few months, young people have been asked to leave school, stay at home and away from their friends; they’ve had their exams results thrown into turmoil; they’ve seen their networks of friends, peers, teachers, lecturers gradually disappear from their daily social contact. Young people have basically been asked to put their lives on hold and wait this whole thing out.

OTR reaches over 13,000 young people a year, facilitating conversations about mental health and wellbeing via one-to-one support, group work, and outreach into schools and universities. As part of this work, OTR challenges the inequalities in the societal frameworks young people exist within, as we know this is a huge determinant of poor mental health. It is evident from the thousands of conversations we’re having with young people that this pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities many young people face. To see the disgraceful food packs, entirely unfit for purpose, sent to some of the young people and their families most hard-hit by the pandemic, it has once again become very clear that certain populations in society are being disproportionately affected by Covid. It has highlighted the serious lack of power young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, have in society – and the carelessness and dismissive nature in which they are treated. That has a huge impact on wellbeing.

In the face of such adversity, we’re so inspired by the young people we’re talking to. At OTR we operate with a strengths-based approach and we’ve been speaking to young people across the city that, throughout the lockdowns and in spite of everything, have demonstrated amazing energy, creativity and leadership. That is why it was so heartening last week to read Rife’s ‘30 under 30’ piece, showcasing amazing young people across our city who are creating positive change. Many of these young people are familiar to OTR in one way or another – and at a time where the response to the pandemic is led by adults (and let’s face it, mostly white, male adults) – it is a very welcome celebration of diverse, youthful voices.

We feel proud at OTR to see such a socially-conscious, articulate generation emerging. 2020 certainly put Bristol firmly on the map for empowered, youth-led activism.

In the midst of this pandemic and with such inequality evident across our city alongside many others in the UK, it feels uncomfortable to again be hearing about Blue Monday – a day claimed to be ‘the most depressing of the year’. The harsh, unfair reality is that many young people continue to grow up in such bleak circumstances that render the very idea of ‘Blue Monday’ frankly insulting. Through Covid, this has been exacerbated further. The pandemic is not the ‘great leveller’ as was suggested by some last year – it is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities. We are seeing this first-hand at OTR.

We’d like to encourage more critical thinking around a day like this. As is the case every year, we see high-profile campaigners and politicians wheeled out to discuss and analyse Blue Monday in the media, as if to lend it more weight and credence. (Blue Monday was in fact coined by a travel company who opportunistically used supposed low mood as a marketing ploy to sell holidays – you can read more on that here). Alongside “the most depressing day of the year”, another popular mental health narrative and an oft-quoted soundbite is that “1 in 4” of us will “suffer a mental health problem in our lifetimes”. But how helpful actually are these theories? Not only are they scientifically baseless, but by its nature the 1 in 4 stat others and problematises that ‘one’ in four of us. When exactly does our mental health become a problem? Such discourse around Blue Monday and 1 in 4 puts the onus – the blame – for poor wellbeing on us as individuals. It fails to recognise the context; the difficult situations that life throws up – not least what we’re collectively experiencing right now.

OTR’s message is that mental health exists on a scale, and the last few months have surely demonstrated that our wellbeing is shaped by life experiences, by society, by systems. Let’s not medicalise and individualise what is very often a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances and unjust systems. If we do that to young people, we normalise medicalising rational human response. We set them up to consider themselves to be the problem.

Mental health is social and political. The way we feel and the opportunities we have in life to help ourselves and our communities be ‘well’, unfortunately, are often dictated by the systems we exist in. Young people don’t often have much of a voice in this picture, but we’re seeing a really positive shift in Bristol and beyond, even throughout this pandemic. OTR is here for young people, not only to support them in the more difficult times, but to help mobilise them to change and shape our future for the better. It’s their future, after all.

OTR Bristol (Off the Record) is a mental health social movement by and for young people in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. You can find out more about OTR at www.otrbristol.org.uk or by following @otrbristol on social media. You can make a donation here.