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.

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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.

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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? 


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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.

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A Teepee in a 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.


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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.