Fiona: I’m half Irish, half English. I was born in Ireland, grew up in England and have been here for nine years.
Andrew: I’m from the UK. I grew up in the Midlands, but spent more of my time in London. I went to university there then moved to Barcelona 15 years ago. I came looking for a big change. Adventure.
Fiona: Me too. I wanted a change of pace, a change of lifestyle. I came wanting to learn another language and live somewhere sunny.
Andrew: Also important, I had done a bit of travelling, but realised it’s not the same as living in a foreign city. When you’re a traveller, you’re always visiting different places, part of the travelling community. You’re never part of there, getting to experience a new place fully. I wanted to be more embedded. By this point, I’ve experienced having a child in Barcelona, getting divorced in Barcelona. I’ve done it all. It’s fantastic.
Andrew: Working with mental health professionals—teaching them English—I had to research related topics, and while I was reading up on mental health, I suddenly thought, ‘Wow, I'm part of the problem’. There are not enough conversations about mental health; it really is the elephant in the room, even though one in four people will be affected by it. I began to see a really big role for further education in creating possibilities for people with mental health problems and aiding in their recovery. So I got in touch with Fiona, saying, ‘Look, we could actually change things in the mental health field’. She replied that not only was she interested in moving forward with the project idea, but also she was an ex-community psychiatric nurse. That’s a valuable skill set for what we’re trying to do here.
Fiona: The first time we met the ideas started to fly. We had to kinda reel ourselves back in. We know we're not going to change the world over night, even though that would be lovely. Since then we've been working on the social inclusion project—that's how we've defined it at the moment. It’s a project for people with mental health problems, introducing them to English classes. We’re also working on a methodology to help teachers and students alike cope with having someone with mental health issues in their classes and to make the experience a positive one for all.
Andrew: What's key for us is that it stretches us as people, as teachers. Before this, I felt super confident in the teaching area. I'm a teacher. I'm a teacher-trainer. I'm TEFL-tastic, as I sometimes call it. But going into a mental health day center, planning specialised lessons for the people there, that was totally new. It wasn't anything new for Fiona, but I'm glad she was there to sort of hold my hand through the process.
Andrew: I like to share this story about when we first started out. After various attempts to find somewhere to host our specialised classes for people who can’t integrate into outside English classes, we found a centre that would support us. One day we were waiting in the reception area, and there was a woman dressed as a fly. And I thought, ‘Aha. This is what a mental health day centre is like’. I said nothing, but she turned around, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘It’s Carnival’. That’s when I realised I had a long way to go to understanding what I was getting involved in.
Andrew: We've been working for a year now at that centre. We feel like part of the community, working closely with the team of psychologists there. It doesn’t feel like just Andrew and Fiona’s project anymore, but Andrew, Fiona, our students and all the people we work with and learn from to develop our methodology for teaching people recovering from mental health problems. Then there’s our collaboration with El Federació Salut Mental Catalunya; we’re actually project managers for them. Their support and advice is key. They have been swimming against the stream, fighting for years to change people’s perception of mental health problems and the solutions. And we feel strongly that the tide is changing all around the world. The subject is getting the attention it deserves, and people are changing their perspectives about mental health. Oxford House and Macmillan Education Publishers are also corporate supporters, which have each donated a prize for the winners of our Mental Health Lesson Plan Competition.
Fiona: The competition is for all English teachers based in Catalunya to design a lesson plan for a mainstream class, 45-minutes long, that talks about the issue of mental health in a way that destigmatizes it, instead of showing people affected as ‘passive recipients to a paternalistic model of care’. The discussion shouldn’t be about ‘poor them; we must help them’, but should treat the subject with respect and humanity. The lesson plan can teach a grammar point or a vocabulary point. And we have three wonderful prizes! The first prize is two nights in a hotel in Sevilla for two people, donated by Hoteles Catalonia; the second is an online teacher development course at Oxford House; and the third is a pack of materials from Macmillan.
Andrew: The idea is that people not only participate and write a lesson plan, but that they start talking. We want discussions to take place about mental health because, as well as negative stigma, silence itself is a stigma.
Fiona: At the moment, mental health is in a book of taboo topics to bring up in the classroom, and it shouldn’t be. It is not a taboo topic. It’s a very normal, realistic topic.
Andrew: Also, our idea of social inclusion does not stop at including people recovering from mental health problems in further education. Social inclusion for us means that no matter how long you’ve been teaching or what school you teach in, you can help promote a new perspective about mental health and recovery. You don’t have to be an expert on the matter to make a contribution. Just start the conversation.
Fiona: Yes. One of the premises of our project is that it is not just the responsibility of the individual. From my experience as a psychiatric nurse, I very much feel that it’s a community responsibility. If someone has a mental health problem, it’s not just his or her problem. That’s one of the reasons we’re involving so many organisations, why we want different people to get involved in the project.
Andrew: It’s amazing how much I’ve been transformed by working with the mental health community. The way I see the world, the way I teach, has totally changed.
Fiona: He flails his arms around a lot less now.
Andrew: And I’m less judgmental. I try to detect problems, then find solutions to the problems. Some students I had previously thought were not capable of learning a language are progressing with me as a teacher because I’ve learned a whole new set of skills and ways to approach the problem. It’s not a simple, one-way process, where we’re making room for them in our classrooms. No. They are gonna transform teaching at the same time.
Fiona: One of the most debilitating things about mental illness is that your cognitive skills decline over time. This can have huge impacts on your day-to-day functioning and quality of life. When learning a language, there are activities that have similarities with the activities people would do in a session of cognitive remediation therapy. But English isn’t illness focused like the CRT sessions. With English there’s a different element of hope. It’s something people are doing for their own betterment that isn’t focused on their disabilities.
Andrew: Exactly. Learning English is enormously therapeutic because it isn’t therapy.