Bettws Early Learning Community has, from its very start, been concerned with helping children living in poverty break the vicious cycle poverty can trap them in and support them to learn, develop and grow to the fullest of their potential. More specifically we want to see improved outcomes in speech and language and in their social and emotional development. We are doing this with an understanding that all the organisations and services that interact with children and families are part of a complex system that isn’t organised in a way that allows it to embrace that complexity. Systems and processes organised in a reductionist and fragmented way won’t be able to fully recognise and address the breadth of needs children and their families have.
We now understand far better the relationship between mental health, adversity, trauma and distress exposing a vicious cycle between mental health and poverty. Chaotic early years can lead to emotional health issues that impact access to education and employment which then increase the chances of young people encountering the criminal justice system, or chronic worklessness and poverty. People who live lives full of trauma and adversity, including poverty, are also disproportionately affected by emotional health issues – including being diagnosed with things like anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning disability, eating disorders, and so on which further reinforce barriers to learning and income generation.
A survey of local parents in late 2020 illustrates the reality of some of these issues – less than half of respondents felt their community’s mental health was good, only a third said they had enough money to live on, and less than a fifth thought their community is a good place to live.
We know we need to focus on the early years because such adverse childhood experiences can have a lasting impact on young lives but if we can reach out to families with tailored support, based on this understanding, we can provide support for a better start in life. Previous research and intervention programmes have tended to focus on parent-child relationships, but new evidence shows that things are more complex. Taking a wider view means that we can work towards creating healthy family and community environments to ensure that children can thrive. In practice, this means we need systems that support relationally informed whole family approaches. Interventions need to focus on the whole family’s needs and understand the impact of transgenerational trauma and distress.
Our innovative project will be to implement this thinking and practice at a hyper-local level with residents and key stakeholders of Bettws by using storytelling (narrative) approaches– that take into account the broader contexts of people’s lives and relationships.
Our stories provide the context for our choices and behaviours (we are actors in our stories). We all have stories about ourselves, and we pay attention to information that supports our ‘preferred stories’. The story we have about ourselves, or our community and heritage, is not the only story available. A narrative approach focuses on asking what’s happened or happening to someone. Rather than asking what’s wrong with them. This subtle difference moves the problem from the person to a broader view about their circumstances. When we understand that our mental health is largely about our circumstances this is a fundamentally necessary shift. It allows us to seek different solutions but focusing on the causes of our problems. It allows us to draw on the many skills, abilities, values, commitments, beliefs and competencies – assets – we each have too. .
Our project will explore ways to provide support and services that are community-led, trauma-informed, culturally sensitive and, ultimately, healing. Facilitated by a new Neighbourhood Psychologist role and our Bettws ELC Project Officer, we will work with local parents to set up peer-led, self-healing support networks.
Stories for Systems Change
Humans have always used stories to make sense out of our chaotic world. We need a comprehensive and meaningful world for good mental health. Today there is growing understanding that to tackle problems like climate change, inequality, and health care we need a whole systems approach. This means zooming out and seeing the system—looking at the elements, interconnections, its wider purpose, and function. Understanding these stories is vital in helping us make sense of them.
Stories have many different qualities that make them important for systems change. Stories help us connect to our emotions and make meaning out of patterns. They can bring communities together and build empathy across difference. They can make things feel possible. Therefore, if we want to change the values, mindsets, rules, and goals of a system, changing the story is foundational.
We will use storytelling for systems change by co-developing a place-based approach to understanding need and improving community wellbeing and resilience in Bettws. This will be in three parts including enhancing community mental health understanding, developing meaning making, storytelling and collective action skills, as well as reflecting, learning, taking action and seeking ways to sustain change.
What we hope to learn
Our current systems of support for children and their families have created some life-transforming programmes and initiatives that have contributed to improvements for hundreds of thousands of children. But as the world has become more complex, and more demanding our current approach cannot keep up. Solving the mental health crisis is not just about more access to one-to-one therapy, counselling, therapy or mental health services. It’s about creating psychosocially healthy communities. It’s time to explore what today’s children and families need and how to redesign our approach and services to better help them.
Legacy and Dissemination
- During the course of this pilot project, there will be two learning events to share the information to the ELC and local stakeholders.
- Resources will be shared on the ELC website and made available to stakeholders
- There will be an evaluation report and collection of learning and stories that will be shared with key stakeholders