‘The Forgiveness Project’ book – 12 years in the making.

Author Marina Cantacuzino explains how a journalistic idea evolved into the charity  The Forgiveness Project; dedicated to building understanding, encouraging reflection and enabling people to reconcile with pain and move forward from trauma in their own lives. Eventually, her work with the charity led to the publication of The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age – Marina explains how it came about and why she wanted to create a book from the stories she’d heard and the messages she’d learned. 
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How CBT and attribution retraining can improve self-belief – including a free extract

Alicia Chodkiewicz, Child Development psychologist with over ten years’ experience supporting students both inside and outside of the classroom, and co-author of Believing You Can is the First Step to Achieving, shares her insight into some of the issues and solutions surrounding self-belief in students. You can also try out some free sessions from the book by downloading the extract at the end of this post.
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Author Joan Drescher, A Journey in the Moon Balloon: When Images Speak Louder than Words, shares highlights from her home in Hingham, Massachussets after a wonderful trip to the 2015 International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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The Making of ‘Dad’s Not All There Any More – A comic about dementia’.

Alex Demetris is an illustrator, cartoonist and maker of comics. He completed an MA in Illustration in 2012, which resulted in a comic based on his family’s experience of coping with his father’s dementia: Dad’s Not All There Any More – A comic about dementia. Here he shares a little about the process of creating the comic and some of his pre-publication sketches (click to enlarge the images).
Alex also co-authored Grandma’s Box of Memories: Helping Grandma to Remember.

The idea for Dad’s Not All There Any More came to me whilst I was studying for an MA in illustration at Camberwell College of Art.  I had been making comics and drawing cartoons as a hobby for a number of years, and decided to enrol on the MA to see how good I could get by focusing on my hobby full time. Continue reading

Fight, flight or freeze; your body’s alarm system – author interview

K. L. Aspden has worked as a therapist with both children and adults since 1998. She has particular interest in the areas of trauma and anxiety, and she has experience working in both mainstream and special schools. She currently works in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulty, and is the author of Help! I’ve Got an Alarm Bell Going Off in My Head!: How Panic, Anxiety and Stress Affect Your Body.

1) What inspired you to write this book?
I work with some amazing children and teenagers, many of whom are frequently triggered into the fight/flight/freeze response. This can result in upsetting behaviours such as shouting, crying, hitting etc. They have no idea what is happening in their bodies and often feel too ashamed to talk about it, even when they are calmer. This is very sad. Having seen and heard what they go through, I wanted to write something to assure them that it is not their fault. I wanted to teach them about the physiology behind their feelings and show that there are things we can do to help ourselves.Aspden_Help-Ive-Got-an_978-1-84905-704-2_colourjpg-print
Above all I wanted to normalise this experience. Whilst we may not all react with the same intensity, everyone has an in-built ‘alarm bell’ (known as the amygdala) which can trigger powerful responses. An understanding of this can help anyone when they are going through periods of stress or anxiety.

2) Why did you decide to use the metaphor of an alarm bell?
I heard the panic response described as a ‘false alarm’ and decided to develop the idea. Alarms are so intrusive and distressing when they go off too frequently and at the wrong times – just like the overpowering feelings that can take over our bodies, minds and emotions when we are stressed. I wanted to communicate something of the jarring and disruptive effect of this through the alarm bell metaphor. I also thought it would be a non- threatening way to approach this tricky subject with my young clients.

3) You have worked as a therapist and at schools with children who have emotional and behavioural difficulties. What insight has that given you into how different people’s alarm bells work?
I think the alarm bell works in the same way for all of us, though it may affect us in different ways – could be trembling, feeling sick, withdrawing, tears, swearing…
For some people the alarm bell is set off more frequently because there are more triggers; this is especially true when trauma has occurred early in life or someone has high anxiety (for example, in autism). Children who have emotional/behavioural issues often live in a state of hyper-arousal – the alarm system is on red alert. In addition to this, they may lack the maturity or capacity to process their emotions which makes life even harder.
Those who have a stable background and an ability to reflect, often find it easier to learn to manage their responses. However, even the most vulnerable can benefit from being understood and supported by people who have an appreciation of the alarm system .

4) What triggers your alarm bell, and how do you take control back when you are feeling anxious or stressed?
Aspden - help i've got an alarm bell - pg 23 -imageOver the years I have carefully considered my own triggers and where they come from.
When I was a teenager life was much harder than it is now. Like many young people I wanted to be liked and didn’t understand that sometimes others can put you down to make themselves feel better. I was often bullied. This affected my confidence and I became reluctant to speak in groups, preferring not to be noticed. When put on the spot in a group setting, my internal alarm bell would ring loudly and I would experience a sense of wanting to disappear; lots of thoughts would rush round my head about how bad the situation was, and of course, this made me feel worse. There are occasions even now when I can revisit those feelings, but I am much more equipped to deal with them.
The thing that most often sets my alarm ringing these days is ‘technology’ – when my laptop goes wrong or I don’t know how to do something because everything changes so fast and it’s hard to keep up.
If this happens, I remind myself that I am having a ‘false alarm’. It is not a real emergency.
I also use two suggestions from the book that work quickly in any situation:

  • breathing more slowly
  •  doing a simple exercise like counting things to turn the thinking part of my brain back on.

In addition, I use Mindfulness in my everyday life (a discipline which helps to bring us back to the present moment), as well as a variety of creative activities. I find these tools are very soothing for the nervous system especially in times of stress or busyness.

5) Finally, what is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from your book?
I hope that an understanding of ‘the alarm system’ will help readers to feel more in control and more able to ask for help if they need it, without feeling embarrassed. I think a lot of people struggle because they don’’t know their difficulties are physiological.
Perhaps some readers will go further and become motivated to learn more about themselves. I would be especially pleased if they were to find the benefits of creativity in calming the nervous system, but that may be a subject for a whole new book.

You can find out more about the book, read reviews or order your copy here.

Personality disorder: What about recovery?

Exploring the process of recovery from personality disorder, and how this can be achieved, Heather Castillo, author of The Reality of Recovery in Personality Disorder, provides some insight about the concept of recovery in relation to personality disorder.

Castillo-Realityof Recovery-C2W
Twenty years ago, personality disorder was defined as enduring and inflexible and was usually considered untreatable.   If I had moments of doubt, regarding embarking on a study of this human puzzle, they weren’t many.  The adversity experienced by those who had attracted the diagnosis was too compelling.  The assumption that professionals know best how conditions should be defined, and how services should be configured, was a similarly popular perception at that time.

My subsequent twenty-year journey concerned research with people diagnosed with personality disorder.  Driven by the ideas and needs of service users, our ensuing service developments aimed to build a new model of understanding and progress, one which could even make the old ways obsolete.  The early 2000s proved to be a fertile time for innovation when the Department of Health invested in pilot services which allowed a kind of exploratory latitude that I have not experienced before or since.  This gave us heaven-sent liberty to create a new and very different kind of service and a golden opportunity to extend our research studies.  At this time there was no agreed rationale of recovery for those diagnosed with personality disorder and few researchers had sought the views of service users regarding this.  We wished to continue to explore research methods that incorporated subjective accounts of recovery because we believed that professionals would find little guidance about what might help recovery from a medically-oriented randomized controlled trial.

The concept of recovery essentially arose in the service user movement, however, it was an idea which was soon hijacked by mainstream services becoming a clinical concept concerned with cure.  This was experienced as an unrealistic expectation and a burden to get well.  The word recovery has different meanings suggesting that conceptual clarity is necessary.  First is the traditional concept of recovery as cure which is located within an illness framework.  Second is the personal definition of recovery which has emerged from service user narratives.  These accounts emphasize the understanding of recovery as a process that can still take place in the presence of symptoms and disability.  Recovery is about finding abilities, possibilities, interests and dreams.  This was a crucial concern for our research group members and they set out to define recovery in their own terms.  They believed that the term recovery implied returning to a previous state of being, whereas members were seeking to create a new future, the future they wanted.  Standing on the firm foundations of a clearly defined concept of personal recovery, by 2004 we had established our new service.  I have long believed that, as human beings, thriving is our default setting.  Up to now this had not proven to be the case for our service users, however, the homeliness and peacefulness of the new service and the sense of hope that permeated the air had an effect on all of us.

Living too long with untenable emotions and in a state of chronic hyper-arousal, people with a personality disorder diagnosis frequently adopt dysfunctional behaviors to numb unbearable feelings and to swiftly bring their mood down to a manageable level.  Hurting the body can create temporary calm because of endorphin release.  Such behaviors include self-harm and substance misuse.  This is how people have coped and, for many, they become deeply ingrained coping strategies.  The damaging expression of pain needs containing measures, therefore, to create psychological safety at the new service these self-destructive behaviours needed to be actively challenged.  An Acceptable Behaviour Policy was created in collaboration with service users and administered by them.  If someone broke the rules laid out in this policy there were consequences, and that person would be invited to a community discussion with peers.  During the course of our research 51 (85% of participants) discussed the use of negative coping strategies and 46 (over 76% of participants) reported a dramatic reduction in their use, suggesting that the concept of boundaries had become internalized.

Initially we were engaged in developing healthy attachment in terms of safety and trust, feeling cared for, a sense of belonging, and learning acceptable boundaries.  Next we discovered that only when this was sufficiently consolidated did service users begin to learn to contain their past experiences and build necessary skills to progress.  Meaningful therapy cannot take place, no matter how desperately it is needed, if trust does not exist and if behaviour is chaotic, risky and destructive.  Healing is about integrating experience by making sense of what has happened.  Prior to this stage, reality often proved to be unbearable and making sense out of traumatic experiences and child abuse is a difficult thing to do.  This marked the long process of beginning to re-frame traumatic experience.   However, a focus on a deficit in skills, and all that has gone wrong in the past, can create a sense of hopelessness.  Therefore, the fostering of hope and the building of confidence became vitally important in activating the internal resources necessary to conceive of and pursue dreams and goals.

Supporting recovery is about helping people to build self-esteem and identity and to find valued roles in society.  This began to translate into internal changes concerning sense of self and external achievements in the various domains of social inclusion.  However, despite progress, significant fears and barriers to the concept of recovery were also highlighted in relation to risking what progress had been made.  Because the word recovery could potentially become synonymous with the idea of loss of support, it became essential to further define it in a tenable way.  As a result, the concept of Transitional Recovery was born, meaning that progress would be defined as an ongoing journey of small steps, involving the retention of new-found healthy attachment, and new structures were incorporated into the service to help build confidence with outdoor-well-being pursuits and social inclusion initiatives.

Developments which stemmed from the  unique knowledge of service users, about what would best support them and help them to progress, shows that it is possible to work effectively with a relatively large number of people with a personality disorder diagnosis, well in excess of a hundred at one time, at different stages in their journey of recovery, many of whom had not made progress in other service settings, resulting in significant financial savings to the health, social care and the criminal justice system.

Dr Heather Castillo worked for many years in Mind organisations in Essex, developing advocacy for people with mental health problems. She has worked with service users, training and supporting them to become legitimate researchers in the field of mental health. In 2004 she helped to set up, and became the Chief Executive of The Haven Project, which began as a Department of Health National Innovation Site for the support and treatment of personality disorder. In 2011 she completed a doctorate at Anglia Ruskin University, UK, about the process of recovery in personality disorder. She lives in Essex, UK.

Learn more about The Reality of Recovery in Personality Disorder

Young People and Drugs – What can adoptive parents do?

Julian Cohen, author of All About Drugs and Young People, is a writer, educator, counsellor and consultant who has specialised in drug and sex education work with children, young people, parents, carers and professionals for nearly 30 years. In this blog post he covers tips and advice for adoptive parents who may be concerned about their child and drugs, and there is a free extract from the book for you to read at the end of the post. 

National Adoption Week is highlighting the fact that over 4,000 children in England are waiting for adoptive parents. A significant number of these children are older, have had particularly distressing childhood experiences and have additional and complex needs. They need adoptive parents who will help them overcome their troubled backgrounds. This means consistently sticking by them through the good times and the bad, helping them to make sense of who they are and to grow up feeling safe and secure.
These children may use a range of drugs not just to have fun but in an attempt to escape from unpleasant feelings they have about themselves, past experiences and anxieties about their futures.
Adoptive parents need to be drug aware and sensitive and relaxed about how they deal with young people’s involvement with drugs. How can they go about doing this? Here are 10 suggestions to help you be prepared.

1. Be aware that we are all drug users and have a lifetime drug career. If we think of drugs as mood altering substances they include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and medicines, as well as illegal drugs, ‘legal highs’ and other socially taboo substances such as solvents. We all self- medicate throughout our lives. The key is to promote a relatively healthy and safe drug career, rather than a damaging one. Cohen_All-About-Drugs_978-1-84905-427-0_colourjpg-web

2. Be informed – learn about drugs and their use. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge but you do need to know something about various drugs, the different ways they are used, possible effects and dangers. At the same time you need to avoid the many myths that often surround discussion of drugs. Read books, look on the internet and talk to other adults and to young people.

3. Be aware of your own use of drugs, both past and current, and your particular feelings about drug use. What messages is your use giving your child, why do you feel as you do and how do your views compare with and other adults you know and with young people?

4. Be realistic. Be clear about what you can expect of children of a particular age, development and background. Drug use can be dangerous but avoid exaggerating the risks. Going over the top about dangers is a sure way of closing down communication with young people. And don’t think that they always will be deterred by risky behaviours. Risk can be attractive to them. Rather than expecting they will never use drugs adopt a harm reduction approach where you can have an honest dialogue with them about what they are up to and help to ensure their safety.

5. Talk with young people and make drug use a normal topic of conversation. Use opportunities that arise from watching TV and films. Don’t rush in and tell them what to feel, think or do. Take it gently and listen to what they have to say. You may sometimes need to bite your tongue and agree to disagree.

6. Know how to assess the risks involved with young people using drugs. Take into account the particular drug they may be using, how much and how often, how they are feeling in themslef and also who they may be using with, when and where. Don’t assume the worst and be aware that heavy, regular drug use is often motivated by a desire to blank out painful emotions.

7. Negotiate sensible, age appropriate drug rules. Rather than impose rules discuss with young people what they think might be best. Start with alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and medicines. If, what, how much and often, when, where and who with can be discussed. You can consider sanctions for breaking the rules and might also put the spotlight on your own drug use as well as theirs.

8. Educate young people about drugs. Learn together by talking and looking at drug pamphlets, books and the internet. Include learning about basic first aid so they can help other people in any emergency situations. Support their school to deliver relevant drug education.

9. Respond to situations where young people become involved with drugs without panicking, being aggressive or overly draconian. Rather than rushing to act, whenever possible create time to think carefully and find out more before responding.

10. Know where to get help, if needed. The Frank website – www.talktofrank.com – can point you to local drug services that offer information, advice and support for young people and for yourself. They also have a telephone helpline on 0300 123 6600. If you need help or advice also consider talking to your local adoption support groups and workers, other adoptive parents and your family and friends.

Remember, most young people who use drugs, including illegal and other socially taboo substances, do so without getting into serious problems. And many of those who do have problems with drugs will, in time, grow out of it. Supportive parenting can make a huge and positive difference to young people’s drug careers and their lives.

Julian Cohen

Read a free extract from Julian’s book here.

Find out more in Julian’s book All About Drugs & Young People – Essential Information and Advice for Parents and Professionals. Julian can also be contacted via his website www.juliancohen.org.uk

Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.




School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.


Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.


What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.


Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia