Supporting Recovery – Peer to Peer Support for Mental Illness

Increasingly, there is recognition that peer to peer support for people experiencing mental health issues is an important catalyst for recovery.  The support can be provided as a stand-alone service or as an adjunct to traditional mental health support services provided by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Fundamentally, the approach involves people with lived experience of recovery from mental ill-health (or as a carer of someone in recovery) providing structured, support services for others who are experiencing varying levels of mental illness.

Professor Phyllis Solomon suggests that the dynamics underpinning the effectiveness of peer to peer support for mental health include the perceived value of experiential learning of the peer worker, the recognition by the program participant that they have something in common with the peer worker, inspiration and hope afforded by the recovery status of the peer worker, and the sense of mutual sharing and accrued benefits. 

Phyllis cautions, however, that there are several key factors that are critical to the success of a peer to peer support system for mental health.  These encompass ensuring inclusiveness, accessibility, and cultural representativeness; embedding an experiential learning approach; highlighting mutuality (benefit for both participant and peer worker); maintaining the voluntary nature of the service while enabling control by participants who are experiencing mental health disorders; and focusing on social support while providing professional support for the peer worker to ensure their stability and ongoing recovery.

The Queensland Department of Health in discussing their Mental Health Framework and attendant mechanisms for supporting peer workers, propose a set of underpinning values that align with Phyllis’ research and writing.  These include mutuality and personal responsibility, valuing the expertise of lived experience, facilitating self-determination and connection, and behaving authentically and transparently. 

The Framework highlights the support mechanisms required to ensure that peers workers can operate effectively and in a way that does not damage their own mental health.  These support mechanism for peer workers include quality supervision (incorporating professional supervision), education and training in core competencies and “navigating boundaries”, role clarity and clear reporting arrangements, and a career structure conducive to continued growth and personal advancement.

The GROW organisation

The GROW organisation is community-based and offers peer to peer support to enable participants (Growers) to overcome mental ill-health and achieve personal development.  GROW was started in Sydney, Australia, in 1957 by Con Keogh who drew on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) approach and program to develop the core 12-step Grow Program. 

The Grow journey is illustrated diagrammatically by Grow Ireland along with video interviews with people in recovery who each talk passionately and appreciatively about the relevance of one of the 12 steps to their personal recovery.   

The core Program provides the structure and method for Grow Group meetings which are at the heart of the Program.  GROW itself is non-denominational and inclusive and embeds the values for peer workers discussed above (Queensland Health Framework).  The organisation has provided peer support for people with mental health issues for more than 60 years – sustainability that can be attributed to the focus on recovery and pursuit of the key success factors identified by Professor Solomon and, in particular, emphasis on volunteering for the group leadership roles of Organiser and Recorder which place control in the hands of the Growers.  GROW has a track record of personal recovery by thousands of people who have participated in the Grow Program locally and  internationally.

A key catalyst for the Program’s sustainability is the testimonies of recovery of participants, including the podcast interview with Dave McLoughlin who, at the time of the interview, was a Senior Manager in GROW Australia.  Dave stated in the interview that when he was ill he identified with the shared testimonials and was encouraged to join a Grow group early on in his illness because he thought that the Grow community “understood where I’d been and what I needed to do to get well”.  His story is inspiring others, just as he was inspired by the recovery story of people who participated in the Grow Program before him.

GROW offers a range of programs in addition to the core one, including the free Growing Resilience online program and Get Growing for school-aged participants.  Grow also provides online groups for the core Program, known as eGrow, for people who cannot attend the normal face-to-face meetings.

The emphasis on people with lived experience of mental ill-health sharing their experience and their steps to recovery is epitomised by Con Keogh, co-founder of GROW,  when he talked humorously and insightfully about his experience with mental ill-health and the institutionalised medical response he experienced in the 1950’s (which included electric shock treatment that blocked memory and learning).  He decided to attend an AA meeting through the encouragement of a friend and found that the people attending the meeting were incredibly helpful, frank, humble and able to achieve recovery despite their “messed-up lives”.  He discovered that the AA process was incredibly powerful for helping him move towards recovery from his mental illness, even though he was not an alcoholic.

Con’s experience with AA inspired him to form a specialised group meeting along similar lines but devoted to recovery for people who were experiencing mental ill-health in all its complexity and variability – he actually initially called them Recovery Meetings to keep the focus on what they were about.  He also introduced a system of reflection and recording on a monthly basis to capture the learning from the group meetings.  Con’s contribution to GROW which itself grew to 800 groups in 5 countries by 2005 was acknowledged in 2004 through the award of the Medal of the Order of Australia for his community contribution

Reflection

We are all growers in terms of our journey to wellness – seeking to overcome the mental stress of the pandemic, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, divorce, grief, work loss and disappointment, family conflict, abuse and bullying, loneliness, aging, physical ill-health, drug and alcohol addiction, isolation, financial difficulties or homelessness .  Our individual journeys with their distinctive combination of challenges are unique and this uniqueness is captured by Evonne Madden who shares the grief journey and recovery of more than 60 people in her book, Life After.

Con’s experience and that of thousands of Growers working through the Grow Program, confirms the recovery effectiveness of “mutual help for the mentally ill”.  The recorded testimonials reinforce the view that mutual help and reflection is one pathway for people suffering ill-health to grow in mindfulness through increased self-awareness and insight, enhanced consciousness of the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others, creative strategies to overcome negative thoughts, and increased capacity for self-regulation.  Grow groups, or their equivalent, can act as a mirror to stimulate awareness, cultivate hope and transform self-image.

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Image by Lars_Nissen from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

The Courage of Simone Biles

Simone Biles, considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, had a rocky road at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (23 July to 8 August 2021) that had been delayed because of the pandemic.  Simone, who has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, experienced mental health issues at the Olympics and opted to withdraw from the US team event after completing only one of the four components in the artistic gymnastics competition.  She also withdrew from individual events including the all-round gymnastic competition. 

However, Simone returned for one event, the balanced beam, to win a bronze medal in a tight finish.  Her courage and resilience in the face of her mental health issues is a source of inspiration for many others, including elite athletes who suffer from the burden of expectations.  Her courage is immortalised in the Binge© movie about her life – the 2018 movie, The Simone Biles Story – Courage to Soar, which among other things depicts her adverse childhood experiences which included foster care.

Mental health issue – the Twisties

During the final of her first event, the vault, as part of the US Gymnastic team, Simone experienced the “twisties” which can be very dangerous because it involves disorientation through loss of spatial awareness while twisting and turning in the air and attempting to land.  It can cause serious injury such as that experienced by British gymnast, Claudia Fragapane, during the 2016 Olympics.  Claudia explained that Simone would have experienced the “twisties” as a mental block resulting from too much pressure – unrealistic expectations that fail to acknowledge that world-class gymnasts, while being able to perform “superhuman” feats, are in fact human and vulnerable. 

As Simone herself commented, “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re human” and gymnasts not only have to manage the intricacies and demands of the sport but also “things behind the scenes”. In her case, one of the sad and disturbing things that happened during the Olympics was the unexpected death of her aunt, which occurred two days before her return to compete on the balance beam.

The courage to return

Simone returned to the Olympic competition to compete in the individual balance beam final where she won a bronze medal.  She displayed incredible courage to return and risk injury but had clearly developed a balanced perspective through her mental health crisis.  She said of her Olympic Bronze Medal, that it “means more than all the golds” because of the courage and resilience she had to draw on over the previous five years and the week of the Olympics. She also indicated that she valued her “physical and mental health” above all the medals.

During her break from the pressure of the 2020 Olympic competition, Simone spent time utilising the training facilities of Juntendo University which is located just outside Tokyo.  There she was able to regain her balance and confidence to enable her to return for the individual balanced beam event. She publicly expressed her deep gratitude for their support and technical assistance.  To acknowledge their support publicly when she herself was in the limelight demonstrated her humility, appreciation and healthy confidence.   

Simone is globally acknowledged for achieving “gravity-defying” feats that no one else has been able to achieve.  After this Olympics, her personal achievement in dealing with her mental health issue will rank up there with her physical achievements and inspire many others to seek help and grow through their challenges.

Reflection

When we are confronted with unrealistic expectations we can become both disturbed and distracted and lose perspective.  Sometimes, it requires “time out” (as in basketball and beach volleyball) to assess what is going on and to regain our perspective.  Simone showed us that she had the courage to declare her difficult mental state and to take time out to find her balance (physically and emotionally) and restore her perspective.

It took even more courage to return to the Olympic competition despite the sometimes vitriolic media commentary that saw her as “deserting her teammates”.  She had to face not only her inner demons but also the external, unthinking critics who lacked understanding and compassion.  Simone also demonstrated courage in bringing “the topic of conversation on mental health to light” which she stated “meant the world” to her.

Simone was willing to disclose what action she had taken to be able to return to the competition and she did so to express her gratitude to people who helped her in the intervening period.  As I discussed previously, gratitude is one thing that Naomi Osaka uses to help her become grounded in challenging situations.  Ash Barty, too, has gratitude as a foundational value.

We can develop our own resilience and courage by using meditation, reflection and other practices to grow in mindfulness.  This will help us to explore our inner landscape and our habituated responses and enable us to develop healthy confidence and a balanced perspective.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Mental Health and the Burden of Expectations for Elite Athletes

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics brought the issue of the mental health of elite athletes into the spotlight with the open admission of mental health issues by Naomi Osaka (World No.2 tennis player) and Simone Biles (American gymnast considered one of the greatest gymnast ever).  Both elite athletes acknowledge that their performance and capacity to participate to the best of their ability was impacted by mental health issues.  One of the key stressors for both these athletes was the burden of expectations, their own and that of other people, including the press and social media.

Naomi Osaka and mental health

In winning the 2019 Australian Open singles title, Naomi Osaka was the epitome of mindfulness in action – displaying resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments, overcoming negative thoughts and drawing on gratitude as a means to stay grounded in the present moment.  Yet by the middle of 2021, Naomi was experiencing severe mental health issues that led her to withdraw from the French Open after winning her first round match.

Naomi explained that she had experienced “long bouts of depression” since her win over Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018.  She found giving post-match interviews particularly difficult because she is an introvert and inherently shy and has trouble dealing with the public scrutiny and criticism of the way she plays a match.  Because of these difficulties, she publicly stated that she would not give post-match interviews during the 2021 French Open.  This attracted a vehement response from an unforgiving press and social media that had created her social persona and related performance expectations.  Added to the stress of the moment was a fine of $15,000 for refusing to be interviewed after her first round win, along with the threat of expulsion from the French Open (along with other Grand Slam events).

Some people rallied around Naomi and praised her for her willingness to publicly acknowledge her mental health issues, her judgment in taking a “mental health break” to concentrate on “self-care”, and her desire to avoid being a “distraction” from the main event.  Some ruthlessly and with no compassion judged her as weak and suggested she toughen up.  So the very criticism she had wanted to avoid was heaped on her after her decision to withdraw for mental health reasons. 

It is understandable then that Naomi (with the memory of the trauma of the French Open still raw and real), should play a “loose game” when losing her Olympic third round match to world No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova.  Naomi admitted that she found the pressure of expectation too difficult to handle.  She had been made the “face of the Olympics”, had her first round match delayed so that she could light the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony and carried with her the hope of her entire country, Japan (the host of the Olympics).

Barney Ronay wrote a scathing piece during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics about the role of media in Big Sport creating a “24-hour rolling hell” amid what he described as an “endlessly hostile kind of unregulated social experiment”.  He points out that the athletes carry the weight of unrealistic expectations to be brilliant all the time, to assuage the sadness and despair of individual nations with rays of hope and achievement and fulfill political desires and sponsor demands.  He argues that the world has become “a place of unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation” where athletes who have had a disrupted preparation in the face of pandemic uncertainty are subjected to the amplification of their mistakes and the associated “unkind words” voiced by caustic observers. 

Naomi, in an insightful essay in Time Magazine after her French Open withdrawal, expressed her disappointment and regret that she was subjected to detailed, public scrutiny of her mental health condition by the press and French Open organisers.  She explained that this invasion of privacy aggravated her mental illness at the time (and subsequently, through the memory of these painful events).  She asked for “empathy” and “privacy” from the press.

There is now a special three-part Netflix documentary on Naomi Osaka which will help people to understand the influences in her life, the pressures she is under and the ways she seeks to manage overwhelming expectations.

Reflection

Privately, we each carry expectations of elite athletes and at times express criticism of their performance without knowing what is happening in their lives at a point in time or understanding the pressures they are under. It might be more helpful, caring and compassionate to refrain from our criticisms and focus on what the athlete has had to go through to achieve an elite performance level.

I have just finished reading Tania Chandler’s novel, All That I Remember About Dean Cole, which tracks the journey of a young woman from trauma to triumph.  This penetrating and “compelling portrait” of mental illness is insightful and engaging.  In an interview about her book, Tania explained that the book is “about memory, time, mental illness, perception, and perspective”.  She stated that she drew on her lived experience of mental illness in her book as well as thorough research into areas such as trauma, mental health, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, caring for people with mental illness, burns care, terror attacks and synaesthesia

Tania’s book can help us become more aware that people we interact with daily are all subject to the influence of past events whether they experienced psychological control in a relationship, sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, social conditioning, parental neglect, an alcoholic parent, parental divorce or any of the multitude forms of adverse childhood experiences.  This should encourage us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards others. 

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can enhance our sensitivity and compassion, develop insight into mental illness and its behavioural manifestations and learn ways to develop self-care, gratitude and compassionate thoughts and action.  In the process, we can develop our resilience in dealing with challenging times, ill-health, disappointments and setbacks.  We can grow in awareness of the impact of our words and actions and learn to overcome habituated responses such as criticism.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield (Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island)

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Gaining Support in Difficult Times through Mindfulness

Allyson Pimentel offers a meditation podcast on the topic of “Mindfulness as Support”.  In the guided meditation, presented as a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Allyson reminds us of the power of mindfulness to provide a refuge in challenging times, whether the source of difficulty is at home or at work.  She suggests that mindfulness, being in the present moment and accepting what is, enables us to navigate troubled waters by helping us to access our inner peace and equanimity and providing the opportunity to experience a wider perspective than a total focus on the present troubles or pain.

Mindfulness as nourishment for carers

Carers have a particularly challenging time as they not only have to deal with their own difficulties but also the suffering and difficulties of others such as Alzheimer’s Disease experienced by a loved on.  There is not only the challenge of seeing someone else suffer but also the need to manage the emotional contamination of another’s pain and personal distress.

Allyson reminds us that mindfulness enables us to broaden our perspective beyond the immediate, perceived suffering to other things that are good in our lives and that of others.  We can pay attention to the broader environment of sounds and laughter, open our minds to all that we have received in life  and that another person has received.  This “wider aperture” brings with it appreciation that beyond immediate difficulties and suffering is relief.  Allyson likens it to going from the centre of a dark wood to coming to the edge where light streams in and lush green plains open before us. 

Extending beyond ourselves

In the guided meditation, Allyson encourages us to think about others beyond our immediate sphere who might be experiencing suffering and personal difficulties, whether that involves pandemic-induced illness, addiction, loss of job or home, disconnection from family and friends, mental illness, or financial difficulties.  She suggests that we try to encompass others by focusing on them and their needs and wishing them peace, tranquility, and ease.  We can also envisage them offering us empathetic support in return.

Mindfulness as support for business owners

The Smiling Mind organisation reminds us that small business owners can gain support from mindfulness particularly in these difficult times of the pandemic and associated economic difficulties.   Small business owners have to deal with the daily challenges of managing their cash flow, engaging and retaining staff, dealing with business uncertainties and political changes,  managing multiple demands on their time and skills and establishing a work-life balance.  On top of this is the ever-present challenge of maintaining quality relationships at home with partners and children while their minds are full of business-related information and endless to-do lists.

Mindfulness enables small business owners to manage stress more effectively, achieve increased self-awareness and awareness of others, build their powers of concentration and cultivate their creativity.  It provides a refuge from daily turbulent waves and a place to recuperate and restore perspective.  Mindfulness also helps small business owners to develop resilience, to improve their deep listening skills and their relationships, and to realise much-needed, regenerative sleep.

Smiling Mind, in association with MYOB, offers a free mindfulness app with a special Small Business Program within the “At Work” section of the app.  They also have specific blog posts dedicated to how mindfulness can support business owners manage their day-to-day challenges.

Mindfulness as support for people with addictions

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness through growing self-awareness can break down the “trigger-reward” cycle involved in addiction.  I also discussed the barriers to undertake and sustain mindfulness practice to overcome addiction and offered a four-step mindfulness practice to overcome these barriers.  In cases of serious addiction, mindfulness can support and reinforce therapies offered by professionals such as psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and psychologists.  Just as with trauma healing, people with addictions may need the support of professionals to overcome self-destructive behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic while providing some people with relief from time and work pressures and the unsustainable pace of life, has also led to increased alcohol and drug addiction, especially amongst older people such as “Baby-Boomers”.  In an interview podcast, Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discussed the adverse impact of the pandemic on mental health as well as increased levels of addiction.  She explained that pandemic-related isolation is compounding difficulties for people with mental health issues and addiction and this is in addition to other new life stressors generated by the pandemic, e.g., uncertainties concerning employment and personal health, fear of infection of themselves and loved ones, financial difficulties, the breaking down of established life patterns and thwarting of future plans.

In recognition of the pandemic-induced growth in addiction of all forms, organisations such as ARK Behavioral Health provide a range of services as well as Covid-19 Mental Health and Addiction Resources.  Their insight into the adverse impact of alcohol abuse on immunity and vulnerability to COVID-19 infection is illuminating.  The pandemic resources provided are comprehensive as are the levels of care that ARK Behavioral Health professionals provide.

Reflection

Destructive emotions such as anger and resentment and related behaviours such as addiction can be injurious to the mental health and happiness of anyone as well as to that of their partners and children.  As people grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, they can experience support to address destructive emotions and addictive behaviours. Mindfulness develops self-awareness and emotion regulation and cultivates conscious choice and wise action.  Mindfulness can also provide support and reinforcement for situations where professional help is required to overcome addiction or heal from trauma.

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Image by Rebecca Tregear from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Essence of Happiness and How to Be Happy

In a culminating dialogue during the Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit, the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman focused on the nature of happiness and how to be happy in our day to day lives despite the turbulent waves that we may encounter.  The Dalai Lama maintained that genuine happiness is closely linked to our mental state.  Outside events such as the pandemic, employment situation and political upheaval can affect us but not to the same degree as our minds.  We have the capacity to train our minds so that we reduce “destructive emotions” and cultivate constructive/positive emotions.

The impact of destructive emotions

The Dalai Lama spoke of destructive emotions as emotions that harm others or ourselves. They distort our perception of reality and of other people, leading to fractured relationships and unhappiness.  The most destructive emotions are those of anger and hatred.  Anger, according to the Dalai Lama “robs us of discernment” – because of our distorted perception and emotional inflammation, we are unable to initiate an appropriate response or undertake “wise action

Destructive emotions unsettle our peace of mind and destroy our equilibrium and sense of ease and tranquility.  It destabilises us so that we are unable to think clearly or act skilfully.  Resentment, for example, that feeds anger can have its foundation in misperception – not understanding what is happening for the other person or what they intended by their words and/or actions.  We can be so preoccupied with our own perceived hurt, that we do not recognise the needs of another.  We can end up with a one-track mind, replaying hurtful incidents and fuelling our anger and unhappiness.

The Dalia Lama explained that we have “Three Doors of Action” – speech, body, and mind.  We interact with others and the world at large through these three doors.  While the mind is preeminent, what we say and how we present ourselves to the world also affect the balance of happiness and unhappiness in our life.  Even if our words do not disclose our anger our non-verbal behaviour – such as abruptness, avoidance, or ignoring someone – can betray how we really feel.

The impact of positive emotions

Positive emotions derive from understanding our connectedness to every living thing, especially to other people wherever they are in the world.   It means seeing the dignity in every person no matter their beliefs or their actions.  The Dalai Lama suggests that when we experience righteous anger over some injustice, acting out that anger through aggression does not respect the inherent goodness and dignity of the other person(s).  It only aggravates the situation and leads to a negative cycle of destructive relationships.

He maintains that it is possible and desirable to approach such unjust situations with curiosity and a desire to understand the perspective of the other person, even when you strongly disagree with them.  Compassion demands that we recognise that the other person may be acting out of ignorance, inherited bias or past hurt. 

Positive emotions lead to harmonious relationships and happiness.  They enable us to exercise “patience and forbearance” and to experience joy in our life. If we are considerate and empathetic, we not only help others we also help ourselves.  Positive emotions are “grounded in reason” and understanding of our connectedness to everyone, which is increasingly the case in the world today.   Destructive emotions, on the other hand, are not grounded in reason and can lead to reactivity and ill-considered responses.

Reflection

We can create or destroy our happiness by our words and actions.  If we operate as if our happiness depends solely on ourselves, what we can acquire and how we can control situations and other people, we will find that unhappiness is a constant state for us.  On the other hand, if we grow in mindfulness through regular mindfulness practices, we can experience “emotional hygiene” and realise genuine happiness.  We can identify when we are emotionally out of balance, have sufficient self-awareness to identify what is happening for us and be in a better position to act skilfully, rather than reactively and injuriously.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Set Boundaries for Mental Health and Freedom

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Terri Cole about the nature of personal boundaries, their importance and how to establish and maintain them.  Terri is the author of the book, Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (finally) Live FreeIn writing the book Terri drew on her own personal experiences, especially as a child, and her work with clients as a psychotherapist.  She found that her own “need to please” created “dysfunctional boundaries” and observed that many of her client’s problems stemmed from the inability to establish “healthy boundaries”.

Our “boundary blueprint”

Terri maintains that we each have a “boundary blueprint”, imprinted by the key influencers in our life, including our parents.  She suggests that over time we model ourselves on the behaviour and responses of our parents and key influencers, so that we can end up with an approach to setting boundaries that is ineffectual and even mentally harmful.  Once we have been able to master the skill of establishing boundaries, we can free ourselves from the hold of habituated responses – which are often designed to avoid conflict, gain approval or maintain the “peace”.  As Terri points out, our habituated responses typically involve not being truthful about our own desires and needs.

Becoming a “boundary boss”

The concept of “boundary boss” is not a harsh or unkind approach as the name might suggest but essentially entails being kind to ourselves and others through telling the truth (while leaving room to negotiate about desires and needs).  Terri maintains that we all have a “boundary bill of rights” but often fail to understand those rights or know how to assert them.  She makes herself incredibly vulnerable by telling stories about her own experience and dysfunctional boundaries, including her failure to assert her wishes with clinicians when  diagnosed with cancer.

Terri maintains that becoming a “boundary boss” rests on five key pillars – (1) self-awareness, (2) self-knowledge, (3) self-acceptance, (4) self-compassion, and (5) self-mastery (incorporating self-love as well as “self-celebration”).  Throughout her book, she offers exercises and powerful reflections to help the reader build these pillars and move progressively towards “speaking their truth”.   Terri cautions, though, that the transformation involves one step at a time, not quantum leaps.   It initially involves a very honest exploration of the boundaries we have in place in our relationships – and an understanding of where are boundaries are “loose or “rigid”.  Her book is very much about self-exploration to determine a better way to respond to our interpersonal challenges.

Speaking truthfully

At the heart of establishing and enforcing boundaries is speaking truthfully from an enlightened self-knowledge.  It means having the courage to present ourselves as we are, not as we think people want us to be.  Terri stresses that it also entails having the courage to acknowledge other people’s rights and their right to decline or say “no”, as well as developing the skill to say “no” ourselves in appropriate circumstances.  She even offers very clear guidelines on how to say “no” and how to modify your response depending on the interpersonal context (e.g., interacting with a stranger versus with an intimate partner).

Terri suggests that many of the occasions where we do not speak our truth result in resentment or anger, e.g., where we feel that some things in our relationship are not equitable, or that we are being taken for granted or where our emotional needs are not being met.  These strong emotions can be indicative of our failure to establish our boundaries.   Terri suggests that if we want to look at improving our relationships, we need first to look at ourselves-in-relationship and how we are presenting ourselves.  As she asserts, “change begins with us’, with understanding our inner landscape and acting on our insights.

Reflection

Terri’s book is penetrating and exposing – it exposes our behaviour patterns and our behaviour drivers.  She does this kindly by first sharing her own transparency and vulnerability.  However, Terri does not leave us exposed but offers ways to develop the skills to understand ourselves and assert our desires and needs in a kind and compassionate way.

She offers practical, conversational starters to help us move beyond our habituated behaviour.  It is difficult to hear her speak or read her book without feeling exposed but, at the same time, feeling highly supported to begin the journey of personal transformation by becoming our own “boundary boss”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, and self-knowledge exercises, we can progressively develop the necessary self-awareness, self-mastery, self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-forgiveness, to establish our boundaries and have the courage to assert them in a mindful and kind way.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Children and Young People Need Compassionate Action in these Difficult Times

According to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission and Kids Helpline, one of the major fallouts from the pandemic is the pervasive negative impacts on children and young people.  Their report makes the point that “the health, social, educational, economic, and recreational impacts” will extend well beyond the pandemic and impact their futures.  Children and youth are themselves the future of their communities so it is incumbent on people in communities to extend compassionate action to this group who are in crisis through a global event over which they have no control.

The co-authored report identifies five key issues raised by children and young people:

  • Deteriorating mental health
  • Isolation from others
  • Disrupted education
  • Family stresses
  • Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

These issues are not discrete and, in fact, are compounding – each individually exacerbating other impacts. 

Deteriorating mental health

A report by Headspace focused on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on young people who accessed their services.   Many young people indicated the negative impacts on their sleep, mood, and overall well-being.  Young people have experienced anxiety over an uncertain future,  contagious stress (from financial and health concerns of others) and disconnection from foundational supports such as family and friends. However, what is encouraging are the activities that young people undertake in terms of self-care, including accessing Headspace and its dedicated resources for youth mental health.  Also, some young people saw the difficult times as a chance to re-calibrate, re-think priorities and focus on what is important in life.  The problem now is that the negative impacts of the pandemic are so pervasive that organisations like Headspace are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for their services.

Isolation from others

Lockdowns and restricted movement, and the alternating on and off directives, have contributed to a sense of social isolation.  Disconnection from others can lead to loneliness and depression and impact young people’s confidence and sense of self-worth.  The more extroverted children and youth can experience long periods of boredom and begin to question their purpose and usefulness.  Connection, on the other hand, engenders mental stimulus, energy, joy, and shared experiences – all conducive to positive mental health.

Disrupted education

With the initial limitations on face-to-face education with schools and university lockdowns, children and young people found that their education was disrupted.  The impacts were experienced as a result of the variable capacity of parents to undertake home-schooling, the lack of preparation and training of teachers for online learning and delivery and the lack of technological and infrastructure support.  The disruption was compounded by the inability of some children and young people to learn adequately in an online environment, influenced, in part, by the inadequacy of home computers and/or space.

Family stresses

In many instances, adults in a family were having difficulty coping with the pandemic for similar reasons to young people – isolation, mental health issues and disrupted activities.  Many were forced to work at home, which suited lots of people but undermined the confidence of others.  Families, too, were in crisis because of job losses, financial difficulties, challenges accessing food and essential services and overall concerns about the health and welfare of family members (including members of the extended family who were isolated locally or overseas).  Adding to these stresses is the impact of grief through the loss of a friend, colleague, or family member.

Unanticipated changes to plans, activities, and recreation

For young people, recreation is an important outlet for their energy, the stresses experienced because of their age and physical development and frustration with life’s challenges (including conflict of values with their parents).  Limitations on recreational activities compounded the stress felt by young people and impacted their relationships with their family.  What is positive, is the number of families who took the opportunity to go for walks or bike rides together in their adjacent area.

Youth homelessness as a consequence of issues experienced by young people

One of the major impacts of the pandemic and associated stressors is the rise in youth homelessness. Mission Australia reported in July 2020 that one in six young people who completed their survey indicated that they had been homeless.  The report highlights the long-term effects of homelessness on young people for whom the experience is “isolating, destabilising and often traumatic”, creating “insurmountable barriers as they move into adult life”.   Homeless youth can experience a pervasive sense of sadness and hopelessness.  Children and young people experience homelessness because of family conflicts, domestic violence and abuse, bullying, household financial crises and lack of affordable housing.  Kids Under Cover (KUC) highlights the main causes of homelessness for children and young people and advances a very strong economic argument for preventing youth homelessness.

Addressing children and youth homelessness

Mission Australia has called on the Federal and State Governments to increase the stock of affordable, social housing as one approach to economic recovery and social accountability and to redress the growing crisis of children and youth homelessness.  The report jointly authored by  Headspace and the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests a range of educational, mental health, economic and informational strategies that Governments can employ to redress the situation.  They particularly encourage Governments to give young people a voice in pandemic recovery planning.  One recommendation  of the report that is particularly critical is “prioritising   services for vulnerable children and young people”.

Organisations already exist to provide the requisite services for young people and families who are struggling.  BABI, for instance, located in Wynnum (Brisbane, Queensland) has provided a comprehensive range of youth and family services since 1983 to residents of the Bayside areas of Brisbane (Wynnum, Manly & Redlands).  This includes supported accommodation for youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, specialised family support for parents who are young or have teenagers, personal development (including tenancy training and Get Set for Work training) and youth connection and engagement through their LINX Youth Space and their Youth Voice Committee (YVC).

Organisation such as BABI, Headspace and KUC are finding that the growing demand for their services are fast outstripping their existing resources.  Those who provide supported accommodation, for example, are working in an environment where so many influences are making it extremely difficult to provide the requisite housing solutions.   The influences that are compounding include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Rising house prices and rentals costs
  • Limited vacancies overall

This accommodation crisis is accompanied by the removal of economic supports instituted during the pandemic such as the Eviction Moratorium, JobKeeper payments and the Coronavirus Supplement.   The removal of the JobKeeper Payment alone is expected to result in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs.

While Governments could show compassion and do many things to address homelessness amongst children and youth, there is an obvious reluctance to address the associated issues.  It is clear that it is time for people in the community to take compassionate action in the form of advocating with Governments and politicians, supporting organisations such as BABI through their businesses and their personal donations and volunteering whatever assistance they can provide to enable these dedicated organisations to meet what is currently an overwhelming demand.

Reflection

Empathy developed through mindfulness can help us to feel for the plight of others, especially those experiencing homelessness.  As we grow in mindfulness through loving kindness meditation, we can gain insight into how we could personally contribute and become motivated to take compassionate action for the homeless children and young people in our community – the young people who are the future of our communities.

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Change Your Perspective and Change Your Life

Foundational to Hugh Van Cuylenburg’ Resilience Project is a change in perspective and in his book on the topic he provides evidence of people who have turned their lives around through a change in their perspective.  He urges us strongly to focus on what we have, not what we lack.  He maintains that this change develops the positive emotions of appreciation and gratitude that replace the negative emotions of envy and resentment.  He points out too that it replaces depression about the past and/or anxiety about the future with the capacity to live the present moment more fully.

Underpinning the gratitude perspective is a change in our point of reference – from comparing ourselves to those who have more, to making the comparison with others who have considerably less.  His story of the Indian boy, Stanzin, highlights the impact of this different way of looking at things.   Stanzin was one of the most destitute children he met in India but the happiest person he had ever met – he appreciated everything in his life (no matter how old, broken, or impoverished). 

Hugh worked with elite sportspeople including NRL and ARL football players.  He mentions that at least five elite athletes changed their lives dramatically by implementing a daily gratitude journal – going from suicidal thoughts to appreciating the richness of their lives.

From loss and failure to learning and understanding

Hugh suggests that loss and failure can be seen in a very different light if we change our perspective.  If we view them as opportunities and lessons to be learned and realise that they are often the result of our own unmet expectations, we can move away from depression and anxiety to understanding and valuing the experience.  In each of life’s experiences, there is something to learn.  If we always experience “success” we can harbour false assumptions about what “made” our success, not realising our underlying deficiencies (often propped up by others).

Associated with this change in perspective is moving from self-absorption and self-congratulation to acknowledging the very rich contribution of the many people who have had a positive influence on our life (including our parents who provided our “gene pool”).  This latter thought came to me this morning when I was making an entry in my gratitude journal.  I was able to write, “I appreciate my genetic legacy from my father – athleticism, resilience and stamina, and from my mother – kindness, compassion, understanding and patience.”

It also means moving away from the perspective of “better than” to realistically appreciating our strengths and limitations – a change in perspective from “superior conceit” to a “healthy confidence”.  This change can result in improved behaviour together with happiness and contentment.

From “clients” to “friends”

Hugh mentions that at some stage in introducing students, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople to his GEM pathway, he started to view them as “friends”, instead of “clients” who paid for his services.  He viewed his role as helping people and building relationships, not engaging in a money-making venture.  This made the experience richer for himself and others he interacted with.  He gained many friends and was better able to help them as a result.  It also meant that sometimes he offered his services for free to people or organisations that had limited resources.

From “outcomes” to “process”

Both Louie Schwartzberg and Lindsey Stirling, award-winning creative producers of film and music, stress the importance of focusing on the process, not the final outcomes.  This involves enjoying the moment and fully experiencing making film or making music or engaging in any other creative endeavour.  In our organisational consulting work, my colleague and I have moved from a focus on outcomes to designing a process that enables people to “have the conversations that they need to have”.  This reduces the stress of process design because there are so many factors that influence the outcomes over which you have no control – what you can control is how well you design the intervention process.  This shift in perspective from outcomes to process provides the freedom to explore innovative and creative ways to work with people, music, or photography.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the perspectives and expectations that create our self-sabotaging behaviours and limit our options.  Changing our perspectives can significantly change our lives for the better, increase our happiness and strengthen our resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. Perspective change can open the way for the exploration of creative options in all our endeavours – family, work, and sport.

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Image by Renan Brun from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Pathway to Resilience and Happiness

Hugh Van Cuylenburg has written a life-changing book which Missy Higgins describes as “hilarious, inspiring and heartbreakingly vulnerable”.   Hugh is a great storyteller and his stories, provided both verbally and in writing, have changed the lives of thousands of people, from school children to elite sportspeople.  His book, The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness, provides a very clear pathway to resilience and happiness.  It is admirably digestible and eminently practical – which partly explains its amazing influence on so many lives.

Hugh summarises his pathway in the mnemonic, GEM, and the three powerful words that these letters represent – Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness.  He developed his approach while in India working as a volunteer teacher in an incredibly poor village – where children often could not go to school, had no shoes, little food and no electricity or sanitation.  He could not work out why the children at the school were so unbelievably happy despite their destitute conditions.  He found the answer by observing the children and their practices closely and discovered that their resilience and happiness had its foundation in gratitude (appreciating what they do have), empathy (showing care and concern for others) and mindfulness (being mindful and developing this through meditation).

His message has been taken up not only by schools throughout Australia but also by elite sporting clubs such as the NRL team, Melbourne Storm and the AFL team, Collingwood.  He tells the story, for example, of a Collingwood player who wrote a three-letter word on his wrist to remind himself during a game of the things that he is grateful for so that he could push aside negative thoughts and anxiety that arise when engaged in a highly competitive match.   

Hugh’s pathway to happiness and resilience applies to each of us in our everyday life.  The three elements of his approach are not new – we have covered many aspects of these in this blog as the result of the work of many other people.  What Hugh presents in simple, digestible language and illustrative stories, is a very clear pathway integrating the three GEM elements that can be practised daily and that are mutually reinforcing – just like exercising, appropriate nutrition and yoga/ Tai Chi are mutually reinforcing, with each of these elements building on, and assisting us to achieve, the others.

The GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

Hugh refined his approach when he completed a Master of Education by focusing all his study and assignments on the mental health and wellness of adolescents.  He was also able to learn about the neuroscience that underpinned his approach (he provides references to the scientific papers in his “Notes” at the end of the book).

What was a catalyst for Hugh’s passionate pursuit of the issue of resilience was his own traumatic experience as a teenager trying to cope with his younger sister’s anorexia nervosa.  At the time, he did not understand what was happening to her and why she behaved the way she did, and did not show empathy for her plight.  He failed to realise that she was mentally ill, not just suffering a physical malady, malnutrition, that could be overcome just by eating more.  He became acutely aware as an adult of the “concentric circles of suffering” (for siblings, parents, friends, and teachers) that mental illness can create.  

I will discuss each of the elements of GEM below:

Gratitude – Hugh suggests that this means appreciating what we have rather than focusing on what we lack.  He tells the story of Stanzin, one of his students in India, who despite his impoverished circumstances was grateful for everything in his life – his gratitude was pervasive and continuous.  Stanzin often pointed out to Hugh things that he was grateful for – his friends, being able to go to school, having shoes to wear and even receiving a plain bowl of rice for lunch. He was incredibly grateful for his rusted, broken-down play equipment (such as a swing) – something that in our Western society would initiate a complaint.  Stanzin focused on what he had, not what he did not possess – avoiding negative emotions of discontent, resentment, or anger, and developing a positive mindset. 

Hugh recommends a daily gratitude journal as a way to build resilience and happiness.  This is a recommendation and practice of many people.  In the previous post, I spoke of the twice-daily practice of gratitude journalling of Lindsey Stirling, the hugely successful songwriter, violinist, and dancer.  Gwen Cherne, the first Commissioner for Veteran Family Advocacy, who agitates for veterans and their families battling mental stress, stated that she writes a gratitude journal every night (her story is featured in the Weekend Australian Magazine, March 6-7, 2021, pp.13-16).   Hugh, Lindsey, and Gwen have each experienced considerable trauma in their lives and each has shown the resilience to be able to “bounce back” and experience happiness in pursuing their life purpose in contributing to the welfare and joy of others.

Empathy – being able to feel for others by consciously thinking about what they might be experiencing intellectually and emotionally.  Hugh points to the neuroscience that reinforces the fact that practising empathy develops kindness and motivates compassionate actionSimon Sinek suggests that in a work situation an empathetic leader is “more concerned about the human being not their output”.  The young boy Stanzin, who made a lasting impression on Hugh, was continuously empathetic – going out of his way to help others in need, e.g., sitting with children who were alone during the lunch hour.  Hugh recalled that in contrast, he himself was not empathetic to his young sister as a teenager and was not able understand her suffering and feel with and for her.  A key component of empathy is deep listening – openness to other’s stories and their perspectives.

Mindfulness – being present in the moment while adopting an open, curious, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude.  Hugh learned through his experience in India that practising mindfulness through meditation was a way of “taking greater control of your mind and, therefore, of your life”.  The children in the village school where he taught began each day with a 30-minute meditation,  At first, he was sceptical about the practice but soon found that he could focus so much more on the present moment, and not become absorbed by anxiety about the future or depression about the past.  He found that Stanzin was a living example of the benefits of mindfulness meditation.  The young boy would be constantly mindful of what where the positive things in his village life.  Mindfulness develops both gratitude and empathy.  

Developing the GEM pathway to happiness and resilience

In his book, The Resilience Project, Hugh provides a section at the back where he offers some exercises that can help us to develop gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness – some of which he has used in schools throughout Australia.  The Coles Group have implemented a range of practices drawn from The Resilience Project. 

Simon Sinek suggests that a simple way to practise empathy in everyday life is to let the person into traffic ahead of you if they are stuck in a side street or are attempting to cut in front of you.  He argues that you never know why they are trying to enter the traffic or are in a hurry to get somewhere.  They could, for example, be dealing with an emergency – a sick parent/child, an accident at home, someone dying in hospital, or anxiety about a child stranded at night at a lonely, dark railway station. 

Reflection

Taken together the elements of the GEM pathway can lead to happiness and resilience.  The stories Hugh tells, and the research he draws on, reinforce the benefits of his approach.  The widespread adoption of the principles of The Resilience Project attests to its effectiveness. 

Hugh also stresses the importance of connection and has exercises that can help us renew our connections given that they have been eroded through social media and the distancing created by the pandemic.  He stresses that practising GEM is even more urgent in these challenging times.  He maintains too that we must go beyond connection itself and take wise and compassionate action to redress the suffering and pain of others, e.g., asking “R U OK?”

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and practising gratitude and empathy, we can develop self-awareness, self-regulation and compassionate action and gain increasing insight into our life purpose. As Hugh observes, every challenge is an opportunity to realise our potential and our capacity to contribute positively to the lives of others.

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Image by billy cedeno from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Self-Care for Mental Health Professionals

In his book, Trauma Informed-Mindfulness With Teens, Sam Himelstein stresses the need for self-care for mental health professionals dealing with traumatised teens.   His final chapter is devoted to self-care and professional practice.  Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, counsellor educator,  also stresses the need for self-care for professionals working with people experiencing traumatic stress.  Her video presentation is available as part of the courses provided by the Mental Health Academy.   Both experts in the area of counselling for trauma highlight the impact of vicarious trauma, especially the risk of mental health professionals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Mindfulness for self-care

Sam himself experienced trauma in his early 20s when he lost his sister through suicide. He makes the point that most health professionals will have experienced trauma of some kind and that this experience leaves them open to triggering their own traumatic response through exposure to the trauma stories of other people.  Cirecie highlights the fact that the trauma stimulus can be exacerbated where the professional has previously experienced combined or cumulative trauma. 

Sam emphasises the role of mindfulness in helping the professional to deal with their own re-traumatisation as a result of interaction with others and their emotionally draining stories.  He stresses the role of a personal mindfulness practice in helping him deal with the trauma of his sister’s suicide.

Sam  suggests that a personal approach to mindfulness as a protective mechanism could involve the following:

  • Silent retreat(s): Sam found these exceedingly helpful because they enable you to fully experience your emotions, gain a deep insight into your inner landscape and develop strategies to maintain or regain your equilibrium.
  • Formal practice: this entails inculcating a regular mindfulness practice (either sitting, standing, or walking) where you engage in some form of formal meditation.  This helps to build your concentration to enable deep listening, empathetic response, and the ability to promote wise action.  It also assists you to deal with your own difficult emotions (such as anger, resentment, or frustration), challenge self-defeating narratives and develop resilience in the face of challenging interactions.
  • Beyond meditation: Sam suggests that bringing mindfulness into your everyday life (in daily activities such as walking, washing clothes, eating, shopping), is effectively “mindfulness-in-action”.  It is particularly relevant to your relationships and interactions with others, especially in times of conflict.  One way to develop the necessary calmness and equanimity in the face of emotional challenges is to practice reflection-on-action to eventually cultivate the capacity to reflect-in-action, in the course of something adverse happening to you (whether that adversity is real or imagined).  Sam stresses the importance of daily mindfulness practices in controlling the “ego” which can get out of hand when  it perceives a threat (physical, emotional, or intellectual).

Professional development

Both Sam and Cirecie stress the importance of professional development to build competence and confidence to enable you to operate effectively within your chosen arena of professional practice.  For Sam this is the arena of traumatised youth, especially those who have been incarcerated.  He offers specialised training for health professionals through his Center for Adolescent Studies.  Cirecie’s professional arena includes trauma stress service delivery and training professionals who provide counselling in different countries following disasters such as earthquakes and pandemics.  She conducts research and training through her Xula Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Cirecie stresses the need to gain control over your workload and, where necessary, seek to negotiate a lighter load (for your psychological welfare and that of your clients).  She maintains that every mental health professional, irrespective of their level of experience and training, has their window of tolerance beyond which they are unable to function effectively.  She gave an example of how a racist client triggered her and how  her experience in working in South Africa with a community where people were consistently dying from AIDS took her outside her window of tolerance and led to a severe illness.  In both cases, she sought professional counselling and recommends this form of professional development for other mental health professionals.

Cirecie highlights the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness as critical factors in professional counselling, particularly understanding your own negative triggers.  She encourages too the development of your own professional support network that you can draw on for knowledge, experience, resources, and emotional support.  

In Cirecie’s view, personal and professional development extends to conscious awareness of the physical and psychological health risks inherent in the role of a mental health professional.  She urges appropriate preparation for the role through education which will provide motivation for health self-care (e.g., exercise, stretching (to release physical tension), diet, and drinking water).

Reflection

There are many reasons why mental health professionals do not undertake adequate self-care.  When working with clients who have suffered trauma or are currently experiencing trauma, it is critical that the health professional takes time for self-care to enable them to function at their best for the sake of their clients, as well as for their own welfare.  Mindfulness practice is recognised as a key component of this necessary self-care.  As mental health professionals grow in mindfulness, they are better able to identify personal triggers, develop resilience for their challenging work and build the capacity to engage in deep listening.  However, mindfulness practice needs to be supported by an appropriate lifestyle. 

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Image by Vanessa Kenah from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.