Walking in the shoes of young people

It was six weeks until he spent any of his money. He said he wanted to keep hold of it as where he comes from money doesn’t come easy. He wanted more to time to think about his idea. It was a serious thing. In those six weeks, I was asked at least that many times what I would do if a young person spent their fund on trainers. I think they probably wanted to ask me about drugs too.

There are so many responses I have to this question. A simple enquiry on the surface maybe, but experience and research tells us it’s loaded and complex. I’m a clinical and community psychologist, co-developing a new trust-based funding model that gives young people £100 on debit cards, to spend on tackling issues such as youth violence and mental health. Small amounts, instantly, direct to the citizen not an organisation.

My first response. I wouldn’t be doing anything about it if it happened, because it’s not my decision. I’m not the guardian of the money, young people are. The first youth bank has a board of five young people on. They are accountable for who gets the money and verifying the spending. If I was making these judgement calls, we wouldn’t be truly sharing power or doing anything new.

My second response is to think to myself — is this what it’s like to be a young man in London? Does anyone listen long enough to hear his ideas? Does anyone ever trust him enough to actually find out? It’s easy to buy into the story that young people are not able to think about anything beyond their footwear. Stories that they are untrustworthy, dangerous and hopeless. These are stories that I’ve known to shatter dreams, ambitions and self-worth. But what if we all leaned in, you’d hear stories of young entrepreneurs who want to change society, despite how it has treated them, despite people not trusting them.

Thirdly, I might tell the story about how our first youth bank is way tougher than we are. One young man told us we were Utopian and we should get real. They are the arbiters of what’s ethical and they have a clear set of guidelines, one of which is “check up but don’t judge”. They will tell you whether buying a pair of trainers is right or wrong. In fact, they told me it’s neither, it’s much more complex that that. A pair of trainers could be a matter of whether you’re safe on the roads or not.

If they were still interested I’d share the hard data. No one has yet bought trainers, high heels, or hoodies. There has been a lot spent on food though, from Iceland and Tesco. This interests me much more, because if we truly entrust money to young people to spend it on what matters to them, we might learn a whole lot about what they need. What would you spend it on?

This is a blog from a series by Dr. Nina Browne about @street2scale

Join the conversation, it’s for everyone

What’s the catch?

It’s not often we stop to think about what we would do…. if we could do what we really wanted to do. If it was possible to turn the ideas and thoughts that run through our minds before we sleep, or while staring out the window of our office, about a more loving and fair utopian reality ….into something real the next day. Life has told us that ideas are to be kept to ourselves… because in many ways they are the invisible hopes that keep us alive, so to have them threatened is putting ourselves at risk of existential terror, leaving us naked and unarmed by them being dissolved by people’s indifference to them. We keep them safe by only placing them in the safe spaces between us and our friends or the kind and uncritical pages of a notebook. Hopes for what a different world would look like. Hopes of how we might be able to play a part in it’s creation. We laugh as we say our ideas, because it seems bizarre to us that anybody would care… really care.

It’s shocking enough to be asked what your ideas for a better world might look like. But to be asked for help and trust in creating it and given money to do it yourself. That’s really shocking. So shocking the first response is often to question the messenger, interrogate them as a fraudster who must be a salesman in hiding or some imposter trying to scam us…. take us for a fool. Or it’s so shocking that people don’t actually hear what you are saying when you tell them what the idea of street to scale is. It’s too far out of our concept of this society. Too exciting to take seriously. ‘ Too good to be true’.

If nobody’s told you that your ideas can make a difference to the world, it’s hard to trust yourself that they really can. Ironic, as they are the only things that ever have.

Bea Herbert

Jazz has no script, it's a conversation.

by Dr. Nina Browne

“No it’s not therapy” I said. ”I try and work with the external world rather than the internal world. I still use the same skills but not within the same boundaries. She paused, “Oh I get it, so it’s like you’re classically trained but actually you’re making jazz?”

This is a common example of me trying to explain my role. I try and find different ways to explain it and ultimately people have to find their own frame of reference. The work moves faster than my ability to explain it. This particular academic’s interpretation got me thinking.

Social policy change requires everyone to have highly fluid roles, a departure from the music sheet. Jazz musician Don Cherry said “When people believe in boundaries, they become part of the problem” and it’s as if Miles Davis is describing our test and learn approach “when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next that makes it good or bad”.

I’m a clinical psychologist by training. It’s ‘classical’ in that you’re taught a traditional method of playing based on some core theories and ideas. But in order to change policy, you have to improvise with the knowledge base. It’s for a different audience, it uses the notes in new ways and makes space for others to start improvising with you. Growing up in a household of jazz, and named after Nina Simone, it’s not new to me. But I’d complain to my dad that I couldn’t hear the rhythm. “It’s there” he would say “just listen harder”.

There are pros and cons to working outside of a public system. Or making a departure from how you’re trained. The freedom to innovate; the people you get to meet and collaborate with; the ability to respond rapidly and change what you do. But that comes with a feeling of isolation and nervousness and the concern that I’m not doing what I was trained to do. There’s a lot of getting it wrong and trying again. The impact of what I do feels harder to measure.

Maybe the idea of a “role” is even outdated. We’ve been carved up into job descriptions, professions and organisations. Roles can put armour around us, but they can hinder us too. The ability to make a difference in the world is in no way linked to a title. Yet we’ve created a system that means you’re more likely to be heard if you have one.

Regardless, it definitely takes up too much time and we need to find more that brings us together than divides us right now. If you were to let go of your script, what might you do differently?

Thank you to Dawn Langdon from Royal Holloway University for the inspiration.

This a new blog series called #practice2policy. It’s about how we apply community psychological thinking to change policy. It’s a conversation, I hope you’ll join in.


Problem Solving From Streets to Sofas

By Dr Nina Browne

We were all piled on to sofas in the lounge. The housing commissioner was sitting in the 'helped' seat. A young woman, whose home we were in, was sitting in the ‘helper’ seat. The commissioner said "Young people have tell me these places do not feel like home, I’ve tried so many things over the years. Can you help me?". The young woman didn’t hesitate. The answer was simple. “We didn’t choose to be here. Let us choose the colour of the paint”

They were in a ‘Problem Solving Booth’ (PSB), in the Camden Young People’s Pathway. This was a new idea. Young people were helping staff. They had taken the concept from street corners into their homes.  

Like the commissioner, my professional role means I’m normally doing the helping. I expect people to come to me. I'm a clinical psychologist. These were different types of conversations. They turn help seeking on it’s head. The professional gives up their usual position; they ask for help. The young person feels heard and valued in a new way; they do the helping. 

“We all need love, care and attention sometimes and at the end of the day we didn’t choose this . We’ve been forced to grow up very quickly, thrown in the deep end and left. We need to be supported, but staff need to be supported too. We need to support each other, it needs to come from both parties”.

One of the challenges when working with young people and particularly those facing complex challenges, is how best to talk to each other. Often, we think we delivering a particular message but it might be heard differently by the young person, or vice versa. This can be hard for staff and young people and challenges can often get “acted out”. Sometimes staff might even become fearful of young people, or young people might feel abandoned or uncared for.

These challenges are known to exist in housing pathways nationally, not just in Camden. The bigger challenge is how to get young people and staff to work on these challenges TOGETHER?

PSBs were a useful tool in helping change the power dynamic between staff and young people. They put big questions to be put on the table and got discussed in new ways. New ways of understanding problems were reached, even when solutions weren’t found.

“Everyone now has an understanding of a young person’s point of view and we also now understand a professional’s point of view, like, your job is quite tight so you lot have to work around other people’s positions…we get that now”

PSBs started in November 2016 and have really taken off. We are looking for new partners in young people’s accommodation to help us to develop them further. What could it look like if young people led this work? Perhaps we could train them up in running PSBs and they could train their staff teams? That’s just one idea. We know you’ll have others. Get in touch!


Thanks to all of the organisations that enabled this project to happen: Including Camden CouncilCatch22, St Christophers, SHP and One Housing


Full report also available on request. 

Doing it for themselves

By Dr. Nina Browne

At the end of the corridor stands a chalk board. It reads “want it back? Tell us what you’re gonna do about it”.

The corridor was in an FE College in Sheffield. The chalk board stood where the living room had been. I have been going on about these spaces set up by the social movement the Association of Camerados in this series of blogs. It is an attempt to create a context where people will talk to and sometimes help each other.

But of course great ideas don’t always run true. Creating a space for lots of young people to congregate can create opportunities and it can, to use modern understatement, create challenges.

Some of the young people didn’t take care of the living room. Some people were not behaving like ‘Camerados’ to each other. So the students decided it was time for a change. And they closed it.

They didn’t ask anyone. They knew what they needed to do. They had been handed control of the space by the College and by the Association of Camerados. So they took responsibility.

My first reaction was disappointment. It had been going so well. All too predictably I wanted to put it right. Maybe the students needed more support? How could we fix it?  

I’m trained like most clinical psychologists in a way that unintentionally rob people of power. We have a habit of stealing away agency from people. We get anxious when they make their own decisions.

So was closing the living room a failure? The Association of Camerados don’t think so. And nor does Sheffield College. They, like me, are learning that sometimes we need to be brave enough to step out of the away and let people sort stuff out for themselves.

‘What you gonna do about it?’. It turns out this wasn’t a question for me. It was the students asking each other.

Join the movement www.camerados.org

Who am I? Getting lost in the media

By Harriet Mills

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I spoke to a journalist for 20 minutes. I picked up a copy of the article the next day. The headline referred to me as an “agony aunt”. They hadn’t got the point at all! I went to call the editor. Then I paused. Does it matter?

I’d had some quick coaching from a supervisor about talking to Journalists just before the call. I did my best to explain how Problem Solving Booths help communities come together. They’re a tool that gives people permission to talk and help each other. I’m there to create the space. Not to give any advice.

I’m training to be a clinical psychologist. Not an agony aunt. Not a psychiatrist. I’m on placement at Owls learning how to influence policy. We can’t do that without being willing to speak to Journalists. Yet we don’t have lectures on that!

I wondered if my first experience of getting lost in the media was symbolic of how lost psychology is in the eyes of the general public. As a profession we lack presence, and are often misportrayed.

My interview about Problem Solving Booths probably reached more people who are stressed out than I’ll see in my training. I’ve been left with the question of whether it mattered that that they got my name and profession wrong.  Is it our responsibility to be clearer about what psychologists can offer? Or is raising the profile of talking to each other more enough?

I stopped worrying about correcting that article. I decided to write this instead!

A Trainee Owl: When I get in the booth who am I?

By Harriet Mills

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A woman told me she can’t get to sleep. She’d tried everything. Did I have any tips for her? I got stuck in a dilemma - can I only help as a psychologist, or can I also help as a human being?
I was in my first Problem Solving Booth - a concept that brings together complete strangers, breaking down barriers to talking and sharing everyday problems. I’m training to be a clinical psychologist and I’m on placement at Owls trying to influence policy. We don’t have lectures on that!
I wasn’t here to learn brief therapy. I was here to learn about giving psychology away to communities. But what does my role look like? How would I talk to a stranger. What would I say to my friend?
It shook me straight into a different position. One where we’re all human and we all have problems we could do with getting some help with. I wasn’t just a trainee psychologist. I had something to offer as another person.
It was uncomfortable at first, but I told her about the white noise I used to try and switch off. Although my partner in the “helped” seat had tried some of my suggestions before, she hadn’t tried all of them. Would it have mattered? Was it enough simply to share? Was it more about human contact? About having permission to talk?
In training there is more focus on using evidence rather than experience. Had this unintendedly meant I’d lost touch with the everyday helping around me? Have psychologists over-professionalised help? 

I'm at Owls to find out!

The answer to our problems is each other

By Dr.Nina Browne

She was really stressed. She hadn’t felt that way before. It came out of the blue. She was worried she might fail her exams. She had a row with her boyfriend too.  It was stopping her doing the things she wanted to. Her friend wanted to help. But what should she do?

She could send her to me. I am trained to help with exactly this kind of problem. But it feels like overkill doesn’t it? Anxiety that stops us doing what we want to do deserves the right kind of help, but the label ‘mental health’ is going to put a lot of people off. So what are the other options?

The answer in this case was her friend. I encouraged her to get into a conversation. And to listen. And to resist trying to fix the problem. Just listen.

Lots of conversations like this happen around the world every day. On sofas. In living rooms. I suspect it is one of the most common and possible effective responses to stress.

That is why spaces called living rooms set up by the Association of Camerados are so important. I was in the one they set up in Sheffield College the other day. It is a space where students get connected. Since most of those who come don’t know each other, at least at first, their conversations involve a lot of listening. And since it is a college, a lot of the talk is about stress; about class, about exams.

Camerados has created a space that encourages a natural remedy to worries; conversation.

If mental health depends on referral to a psychologist, progress is going to be slow. As long professionals are the primary dispensers of help only few will benefit.

Many of the students I met sitting on sofas in living rooms may have been really stressed out. But that doesn’t mean they needed to talk to a psychologist. What they needed was someone to talk to, someone to listen, someone to cover their back. 

In my world the answer to problems might come in the form of a an intervention. In a living room the answer to problems is each other.

join the movement at www.camerados.org

A Living Room for the Public

By Dr Nina Browne

It was seven weeks before she came in. She walked past, twice a day, taking her son to nursery. Then she thought, ‘why not?’. A sign on the wall said ‘put a pinny on’. She thought it was a joke. But she thought again. The nerves went when someone passed it to her. 

It looks like a Café. It has food and drink, sofas. It’s a Public Living Room, set up by Camerados a social movement to end isolation. It is across the road from a busy shopping centre in the suburb of Cowley, Oxford. There are a lot of places to get a cup of tea in Cowley. But here, as well as a cup of tea, the customer tell me it's something different. Something that keeps them coming back. 

In a clinic, people walk past every day, people who want to see me, people who feel I can help them. Why? I’m a clinical psychologist. I speak to a lot of people who come in, not many who don't. Maybe I should?

Camerados are helping me to figure out where I am going wrong. They have created a space in Oxford that attracts everyone. Whoever they are, however they feel they seem to be walking in. Whatever they are doing, I need to learn from it.

We professionals are notoriously slow to respond. The Living Room changes daily. With us it is a take it or leave it service. With Camerados it is a take something but give something experience. In the clinic there is an evaluation form. In a Living Room there are conversations with the people that use it, daily conversations about how to make the place better.

What makes a stressed out Mum, lonely and isolated in a new city, seek help?

Why don't we ask her? 


To join the movement go to www.camerados.org.uk

Live in Oxford? pop in or contact izzy@camerados.org

Buses as a Route to Connection

By Dr Nina Browne

There is a guy I met in Blackpool. He says the only people he has contact with all week are the bus and tram drivers. They changed his bus route last year. He lost contact with everyone. The number 16 and 2 are well known. They take the longer routes. 

I’m a clinical psychologist. I don’t spend much time on Blackpool buses. Maybe I should.

We say that some of our clients are hard to reach. But maybe it’s psychologists and other helpers that are difficult to find. Especially when we spend so much time in meetings, asking each other why our clients don’t show up to appointments.

I was in Blackpool to spend time with Camerados, a social movement tackling social isolation. They create spaces for people to meet, to be with each other. They call them Public Living Rooms. The Blackpool one is in a library near to the sea front. Near to where people facing big challenges in their lives hang out. In the living room they can have a cup of tea, meet and talk with one another. It is a jumping off point for those on the number 16 bus route. 

It’s a scary place to be for a psychologist. People are not coming to me. I am going to them. Can I be of any use to them? They seem to be sorting a lot out for themselves. Maybe Camerados is making me redundant?

Or maybe there is a space for community psychology, the sort where we professionals go out into the community and see what we can add to the routine helping that goes on in day to day life. I've learnt more about loneliness from Blackpool buses than I've read in any book. What if we gave psychologists free bus passes rather than their clients?

I am on my own journey to find out. Let’s see where it takes me next.

Join the movement www.camerados.org

A Teepee in a hospital...now we're talking

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By Dr Nina Browne

I am in a Teepee. It is placed in the entrance to Blackpool hospital. I am sat next to a breast-cancer surgeon. She is on her lunch break. She just finished a conversation with a young mother whose baby’s heartbeat was lost, and then found. The mother was washed out. After the mother left, the surgeon turned to me. She said “that is a game-changer for me. This news we tell our patients. How you do that is so important. I’m going to talk differently now”.

A 30 minute break had changed her practice. Maybe. During her long career at the hospital this surgeon felt connected to her patients. But now she realised, maybe it wasn’t enough.

The Teepee is the brainchild of Camerados, a movement to end social isolation. They create spaces for people to meet, to be with each other. They call them Public Living Rooms. The Teepee like their other living rooms break down the barriers and divisions that divide us up. The medical profession exudes power. Patients feel vulnerable. Some of them are fighting for their lives. The Teepee allows doctors, nurses, patients and visitors to be people, each as worthy as the other.

I have worked in the NHS, I am a clinical psychologist. I’ve also been a patient. Now I have experienced a space where no-one knows if I am one or the other. A space where it doesn’t matter. As a psychologist though these things matter. My training restricts how much I can disclose about myself, what I can share, when, and how. It is important to maintain boundaries. That professional armour has made me feel safe.

Along the way we lose connection. And maybe we lose much else that is needed to help people help themselves. I left the Teepee that day with a huge question. How can a space lead a doctor to significantly shift her mind set? On her lunch break!

This isn’t day to day psychology. It is community psychology. It is psychology out of the clinic and in the community where people work together to resolve each others difficulties. It is a psychology rooted in real human experiences, like a mother traumatised by her baby’s illness. It is a psychology where the mother has the power, and where the professional is challenged to think again, to think differently.


Join the movement www.camerados.org

Just do it.

By Dr Nina Browne

Melinda Rees, Managing Director at Beacon UK, said to me “There’s that saying, if you are offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t refuse it…so I took a risk”

I think about Melinda’s words a lot. I had no idea at the time she would also be describing what has been my first year post-qualification. My research, ‘From Practice to Policy’, put me in the privileged position of hearing about her journey. I also spoke to 37 other psychologists. They had all used their training to influence policy; they all had very similar advice.

Influencing policy wasn’t about developing new skills. It was about developing confidence in our existing skills. Use them differently. See opportunities. Take risks. Just do it. 

Therefore, when I was offered an opportunity to board a rocket ship, joining Dr Charlie Howard in setting up Owls, I said yes. 

Full version published in the UCL DClinPsy Newsletter. Autumn 2017.