Storying Sheffield

Educating society out of loneliness

This article is cross-posted from The University of Sheffield. 

Modern society is becoming more technologically advanced and moving faster than ever. But for many people, it’s also becoming more isolating. For those with mental health problems in particular, loneliness is becoming an all too common reality. Unconventional education might provide one answer to this problem.

Loneliness itself isn’t a mental health problem, but the two are connected in a seemingly unbreakable loop. Loneliness can be the driving force behind mental health problems but mental health problems can also become the drivers of isolation. Depression, anxiety and addiction are just some of the mental health problems that thrive on and drive solitude.

My route back to a fuller, more participatory life was through education, I wouldn’t have the life I have now without it,” says Brendan Stone, a professor at the University of Sheffield. Brendan was diagnosed with mental health problems at the age of 14 which disrupted his education and much of the next 25 years of his life. As is the case for many experiencing mental health conditions, feelings of loneliness were a given throughout this period of his life. But in his mid-thirties, education gave him a new sense of fulfillment. An access course at the University of Sheffield’s Department for Lifelong Learning led him to a degree and then a PhD. But perhaps somewhat surprisingly for an academic, Brendan highlights the connections and friendships education allowed him to develop.

When talking about education in this context Brendan explains he means education in its broadest context. It’s not all about traditional subjects.  “Education is about finding new ways to think about the world and to problem solve, to synthesise information and come up with ideas and critiques,” says Brendan. “These same skills can be applied to one’s personal life and experience, and also to the ways in which the world and society impacts upon us. In this context education can involve a diverse range of activities: anything from football to politics to creative writing. Educational opportunities – if delivered well – can support people in building a life which is more aligned with their own aspirations and talents.”

But it’s as much about social interactions as it is about developing skills. The mission of Brendan’s work surrounds social inclusion, and the advantages presented by education are an avenue for this.

One of the benefits of education that we don’t talk about as much as we should, is the interaction with other people.

Brendan Stone

“I’ve run lots of educational projects where people have come together and learnt together. That solidarity and camaraderie has been very important to people,” explains Brendan.

As the director of the mental health charity, Sheffield Flourish, and a non-executive director of the Sheffield NHS Mental Health Trust, it’s safe to say Brendan has a lot of expertise in supporting those with mental health problems. Now he’s applying his knowledge and experience to a new initiative, the Education Exchange. Working with colleagues from Sheffield Flourish, the NHS, and SUN:RISE (Sheffield’s Service-User Network) Brendan is bringing together a large number of organisations across Sheffield who all work on improving educational opportunities for people living with mental health problems.

There are many courses and workshops across Sheffield run by organisations and people who are experienced in working with people living with mental health problems. But they can be difficult to access. There’s no central point of information, no recognition of community-based approaches and no pathways between health services and communities. The Education Exchange will aim to fill these gaps and make access easier. “We want to join up what exists and then seek gaps and fill them with courses we know people want and create a central point for this information,” says Brendan. The educational opportunities themselves are pivotal to the initiative. They have to both provide value and knowledge, whilst at the same time gaining interest from those requiring them.

Being in the dark about what activities and resources are out there can lead to isolation. By connecting the city’s resources, the Education Exchange will connect Sheffield’s mental health community. It will seek to help people out of isolation by offering a diverse range of interesting opportunities for learning and connection.