Professor Brendan Stone is certainly extraordinary. Now in his fifties, Brendan is a Senior Academic Fellow at The University of Sheffield. This is quite a turnaround for a man who at 14 became extremely mentally ill, at 19 was in a mental hospital, at 20 became a suicide survivor and at 23 became homeless. For two decades Brendan lived what he describes as a hard life. Country Squire Magazine’s Dominic Wightman interviews Brendan about his life, his work, homelessness and mental illness.
Q: What is Storying Sheffield?
Brendan: Storying Sheffield encompasses various activities but these are united by various themes. A rather abstract description is that it’s a project which explores and highlights the narratives which define us as individuals and communities, and offers possibilities for understanding and perhaps changing them. More concretely, the project often works with people who for various reasons experience acute difficulties, with a particular emphasis on working with people who live with serious mental health problems. We do this for various reasons – to learn from people’s experience and knowledge and to use this to attempt to change things for the better; to build groups and communities who can support each other; to open up University spaces and resources to local citizens.
The project began as a University course for second-year undergraduates studying English which was also open to Sheffield citizens who live with mental health problems (of course the two categories are not discrete). The subject of the course was philosophical, psychological and cultural understandings of the connections between narrative and ‘real life’. So the weekly themes ranged from architecture through to linguistics, film-making, poetry, mapping, psychology and medicine. Everyone studied and worked together, and towards the end of the course collaborated in constructing new narratives which expressed some of the learning and represented aspects of the lives of the participants. Narratives are showcased in public exhibitions, events, film screenings, online, and in many other public fora.
Over the five years or so the project has been in existence, it’s broadened out a lot to include all sorts of work but has kept its original focus. We now also run courses for medical students thinking of going into psychiatry (See http://www.storyingsheffield.com/stories/in-my-own-words-narrative-masterclass/), and colleagues run courses in NHS settings too.
Q: You believe that “ordinary” people are under-mined assets. That’s just the nature of human capital, no? Also, isn’t calling anyone ordinary falling into the trap that condescending politicians fall into?
Brendan: I guess I think that we’re all ordinary – or most of us anyway! The point for me is that so-called ‘ordinary’ human lives are actually extraordinary in their complexity and in the richness of knowledge and experience that they embody. This is perhaps particularly the case when people have to negotiate not only the universal pressures and challenges of living, but also the difficulties inherent in surviving with psychiatric disabilities. In addition, I’d add that the study and understanding of ‘ordinary’ people not only tells us something of the texture, history and psychology of individual lives, but also uncovers truths about broader society and culture.
Q: You propose “porous” universities. Surely universities, like businesses, are becoming more porous as social networking and web expansion increases?
Brendan: I suppose they are. It’s also true that funding for a lot of research these days often comes with a requirement to specify its broader societal ‘impact’ so that means that engagement with citizens and society has become a focus of interest in higher education. I have a rather old-fashioned (and probably unfashionable) view that universities should be engines of societal change, and be unashamed to advance a vision that their mission is ultimately to bring ‘relief to man’s estate’ (to reference Francis Bacon). Such a view is in the Enlightenment tradition which has been somewhat out of vogue of late. But I’d also say that porosity is important to deepen our understanding and knowledge of subjects such as mental illness. Not all knowledge is housed within libraries and text books: citizens are often experts in the experience of living with illness – and this expertise can help us understand what might help. It’s also the case that, relatively speaking, many universities are affluent and recruit from better-off sections of society. We need to understand and learn from the insights of our fellow citizens who’ve not had the advantages we’ve had. On a somewhat related matter, the Brexit vote revealed gaps between ‘university people’ and the rest of the country. I met several people at work who knew no-one who’d voted to leave the EU and were utterly baffled by the result. Some stats suggest that up to 90% of academics voted remain. We need, surely, to find ways to bridge this kind of gap so that we can listen to people who don’t share our views. Ultimately, I suppose this is about the basis of a healthy democracy.
Q: You are very open about saying you still struggle from mental illness. Half the people on your course you describe as suffering from psychiatric disabilities. You’re now a published, salaried university professor. What turned you around and what can turn around these students? Are there already positive outcomes?
Brendan: Part of the reason I set up the project is because education was a very important part of my own ‘recovery’. (I don’t like that word, by the way, as it implies that everything is ‘better’, whereas for me and many others it’s more that we’ve found better ways of managing our health.) I’m a Professor with no A-levels – I left school at 16, partly because I was becoming unwell. I then spent nearly 20 years often very unwell and unable to work, or working in unrewarding and very low paid jobs. At times I was homeless, and early very troubling experiences at the hands of staff in mental hospitals meant that I tried to avoid contact with healthcare of any kind. However, at the age of 35 my life was materially stable enough for me to try out education again and I took an access course. It was this experience which helped me discover and strengthen my capabilities, and just as important to make meaningful links with other people. The course taught me primarily that I had something to offer, despite my psychological difficulties, and that I could get on and work with other people.
We have had lots of positive outcomes on the projects I run, but they are not primarily intended to be therapeutic. If people enjoy the course and can get something from it, then I’m happy. Nevertheless it’s very heartening when people are able to make positive changes in their life as a result of working with us, and this has often happened. One thing I’d emphasise, however, is that if you have insecure or very poor housing and not enough money to pay your bills, then it’s extremely hard to address your mental health. A basic level of material security helps a lot.
Q: Country Squire Magazine has been running a campaign on Farmer Depression Awareness. We also run a campaign covering rural homelessness. What has struck me talking to people affected by these issues is the isolation. What sufferers need is collaboration, no? Human contact? They are the forgotten people.
Brendan: I’m far from an expert in homelessness. But I have been homeless, and I have worked with people who have been or are homeless. I’m hoping to develop more work in this area soon. In my own experience isolation is truly awful and debilitating. I can’t begin to describe the effects that utter aloneness had on me. I became homeless primarily because I was ill, was badly assaulted by staff in a mental hospital, and didn’t get any worthwhile treatment. I then found myself with no money, and unable to work much of the time because I was so unwell.
However, I’d want to say that homelessness is not a singular thing and that people become homeless for a variety of reasons. Thus, there is not one answer to the issue of homelessness.
Q: If you had Theresa May in an elevator for a few minutes, what would be your solution to UK Homelessness?
Brendan: I would encourage her to think holistically, and draw on the specialist knowledge of a range of experts including, most importantly, people who have been or are homeless. Homelessness occurs within contexts, and these need to be understood in a sophisticated and critical way. The contexts are multiple as I’ve said. Poverty, abuse, benefits sanctions, the state of the private rental market, inadequate or misaligned support for people experiencing mental health issues – all of these need to be looked at. I’d particularly recommend she talks with Prof Tim Kendall, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Mental Health, who still works with homeless people and has a lot of knowledge plus contacts.
Q: I’m very interested by your recognition in your academic work of common ground, especially between people who come from such different backgrounds and social status. How can there be common ground with absolutists? Also, tribal politics – say between conservatives and progressives, or globalists and nationalists – seems more divided than ever?
Brendan: Politics today is both intriguing and rather depressing. The tribal nature of politics seems to have grown, and the gap between people with different views widened. I believe in the value of dialogue, and of having our views challenged – of listening to people who we don’t agree with, and trying to understand their arguments. Unfortunately in some areas of public discourse this doesn’t appear to happen a lot. I have identified myself with broadly centre-left politics but I despair at the state of the left in Britain at the moment. I don’t believe that all conservatives are ‘evil’; I’m sure there are people on both left and right who are not motivated by a desire for a better world, but on the whole I think people from different sides of politics have more in common than we sometimes think.
Q: What are your plans for the future? Any great works in the pipeline?
Brendan: I’m a Trustee of Sheffield Flourish (formerly Recovery Enterprises), a mental health charity which works closely with the University and the NHS. Sheffield Flourish is attempting to help build a more inclusive and ‘mental health friendly’ city by supporting the creation of peer support networks, facilitating diverse activities and groups, and trying to harness the expertise of people with experience of mental ill-health to influence and lead policy and practice. We have lots of plans and are currently working on an educational project – watch this space!
Brendan, thank you very much indeed for your time and the very best of luck with your endeavours.