Monday, October 1, 2012

A 15 year old girl in a relationship with a 30 year old man – “ok or not ok?”

The story of 15-year old Megan Stammers going missing with her 30-year old Maths teacher has been widely covered in the news media over the past week or so, and reinforces for us at The Star Project just how important our work is with young people.  Star Project is the education and outreach initiative from Southampton Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Counselling Service. We work with approximately 7,000 of the city’s young people, delivering ‘healthy relationships’ workshops as well as raising awareness of issues of rape , sexual abuse and sources of support.

Out of all of the activities that we use in our interactive workshops, “The OK/ Not OK Game” is by far the most effective in opening up discussion.  One of the scenarios we ask young people about is whether it is ok or not for a young person to have a relationship with a professional (such as teacher, youth worker etc). Whilst some young people realise the inappropriateness of such relationships straight away - “He’s in a position of trust – it’s just wrong!” for some young people, their responses highlight vulnerabilities and confusion about dealing with attention from sources which are a cause for concern.

 As with all such scenarios, when we introduce them to young people, the discussions generated are powerfully thought-provoking, helping the groups to explore the issue in great detail and addressing the assumptions we may hold about these situations. We would also use the activity to clarify the legal perspective on such a relationship - for those who may not see a 15-year old and a 30-year old in a relationship as ‘not ok’.

We can only hope that Megan is afforded time and space to adjust to what has happened and helped to cope with her feelings around it.  For the rest of us it seems a good opportunity to examine how this happened, what the issues are for young people and how we can support them to look at relationships and their emotional responses to perceived attachments.  This is the work that The Star Project does week in-week out in Southampton, and clearly may have been of benefit elsewhere in the UK.    The Star Project Team

Friday, May 25, 2012

SRC Mental Health Week Campaign - Sarah's Story

As part of the week long national mental health campaign, SRC is keen to highlight the serious mental health difficulties faced by young people, women and men who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted. From 21-26 May, SRC will be running a series of media campaigns and take part in various local events in Southampton and Winchester to help raise awareness and break the stigma around mental health.

Studies have shown that mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance/alcohol misuse are experienced at more severe levels in rape/abuse victims than in non-victims. Women who have been raped are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to have attempted suicide, and they are 26 times more likely to have significant substance misuse problems. The figures are equally alarming for men. Males who have been sexually assaulted, for example, are three times more likely to see a psychiatrist and 4-5 times more likely to harm themselves.

Sarah received counselling from SRC years after experiencing sexual abuse. As a child she grew up in a home with an emotionally absent mother and a highly abusive father. Her father was emotionally and physically abusive towards her resulting in her suffering rape as a teenager.
“Self-hatred was my own worst enemy.”  The psychological pain from this level of abuse led Sarah to experience bulimia, anorexia, depression and self-harm.

Our experience has shown that counselling is an effective way to help mitigate the mental health difficulties experienced by our clients. Last year, 64% of our clients were diagnosed with mental health and received regular contact with their GP. Following face to face counselling, 76% of them were able to stop or reduce contact, 60% showed an improvement in levels of depression, and 53% reduced or discontinued prescribed medication.

After attending a few counselling sessions Sarah was able to start looking forward to her future and not backwards at her abuse. By the time she had completed her counselling Sarah was bulimia and anorexia free for the first time in 20 years. She has returned to her job, moved to her own flat and is now able to live out of fear independently. “There are many contributing factors that have helped me and I don’t doubt the progress I have made, I am in a much better place than I would’ve been if this service didn’t exist.”

During Mental Health Week SRC promoted a strong media campaign supported by stall events at Solent University, Southampton University and Winchester University in collaboration with Heads-Up creator Abby Crowe from Solent Mind. SRC will also be taking part in the Community Event Day hosted by Hampshire Police to attract multi-cultural communities to learn more about the services available to them in the City. We are very excited and keen to raise awareness about our work amongst diverse communities. The Community Event Day will be particularly poignant with SRC volunteers providing information and advice about SRC and mental health in English, Polish and Urdu.  

Katie loates
Business development co-ordinator

Meet SRC at the Community Event Day at Guildhall Square on the 26th May

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I'll Never Stop Fighting to Lead a Normal Life

As part of our mental Health Week Campaign Abby Crowe from Solent mind shares her mental health experience.

For as long as I can remember I have been a hyperactive person. In some respects I’m a dream employee, full of drive and I can keep going for hours without needing a break. So why is it I am now unable to work and rely on a cocktail of medication to get me through the day? Like one in four people in the UK I suffer from a mental illness. I have bipolar 1. Mention the condition and celebrities such as TV presenter Gail Porter and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones spring to mind. Both high-profile figures have fought against this illness, which is characterised by extreme mood swings.

My own battle began when I was 12. I was an energetic child and my mother Mary and my teachers assumed I was simply hyperactive. When I was 12 my dad Barrie died quite suddenly aged 55 of blood poisoning. Looking back I’m sure the loss of my father, coupled with being diagnosed as dyslexic when I was 17, served to mask my bipolar disorder. As my behaviour grew more erratic I think many close to me assumed I was grieving or going through puberty. By the time I went to university in Winchester I was already very ill. University was a bewildering and lonely time. My loud behaviour set me apart as different so I was a natural target for bullies. The girls in my year would talk about me behind my back and I was often left out when people made plans.

I started to spend money erratically. I would decide I didn’t like what I was wearing and go out and buy a whole new outfit, only to wear it once before stuffing it in my wardrobe. In three years I blew £6,000 on impulse buys. Deep down I was desperately unhappy yet I couldn’t stop. I started a punishing work regime, doing two jobs on top of my degree. I worked in a bar four nights a week until 3am. Then I’d drive home, sleep for a couple of hours and go to my day job in a children’s centre. Ironically, because of my energy and work ethic, my bosses were always impressed and kept promoting me.
When I wasn’t working I’d go out and get drunk. Alcohol, however, made me aggressive. I would try to drink under the table whoever I was with and often wouldn’t stop until I was unable to stand. By the time I left university I was heading for a breakdown.

Like most bipolar sufferers I have an inability to stick at one thing so over the next few years I moved from job to job. I worked as an air hostess, in a holiday park as a rep and for a bank. After I left university my weight crept up until I was a size 16 and miserable. I went to my GP and told him I thought I had depression. “You just need to do some exercise,” he said. This was the worst thing he could have told me. From that moment exercise became my new compulsion. Every morning I visited the gym for three hours and then again after work. When I wasn’t pumping iron I was counting calories and walking everywhere. By the time I was 25 I weighed 8st 7lb, too little for my height of 5ft 7in. Living away from my family I’d managed to keep my weight loss a secret but when I went home to Somerset for Christmas in 2009 my mother and brother were horrified. Mum told me I had a problem but I refused to admit it.
By January I couldn’t sleep, eat or collect my thoughts for a moment. I rang mum in a state, telling her I was thinking about killing myself. She insisted I visit my GP, who diagnosed depression and put me on antidepressants. They didn’t work and one month later I had a nervous breakdown. I can pinpoint the moment exactly. It was February 11, 2010, at 8.15am. I was sitting at my desk and I tried to log into my computer but I couldn’t remember the password. Suddenly everything went into slow motion, the screen went blurry and my face felt numb. My voice felt as if it belonged to someone else. I remember whimpering and my manager ushered me outside. Work signed me off straightaway. The next three months are still a blur. I rang my mum who paid for me to see a cognitive behavioural therapist twice a week. It was at these sessions that the therapist suggested I might be bipolar. After that things moved rapidly. I was admitted to an NHS mental health unit in Southampton where I was seen by a psychiatrist.

Top of FormBottom of FormThe treatment I received there saved my life. Within two weeks I was diagnosed with bipolar 1, the most severe form of the illness. The psychiatrist thought I’d probably had it since the age of 12. In some ways I was relieved I finally knew what was wrong but another part of me was furious I’d suffered needlessly for years. Sufferers with type 1 swing between distinct episodes of mania and depression. “During manic episodes you can survive on little sleep, have racing thoughts, experience paranoia, act impulsively and overspend,” the psychiatrist explained. Mum was keen for me to move back in with her but I wanted to retain my independence so I stayed in Southampton and visited the unit every day. Over the next 16 months doctors tried four different types of medication before they got it right. Each time it would take the drug a month to get into my system. I suffered side effects ranging from weight gain to voices in my head. Finally I started taking lithium carbonate. I have been on it for nine months and it works by stabilising my mood. Medication alone is not the answer. Every day I have to work hard to keep calm and there are many coping mechanisms I use to get by, such as salsa dancing and walking. I find sensible exercise helps me to feel normal.

My mother and brother have been there for me throughout. I have lost some friends but the ones who have stayed could not have been more supportive. It’s been hard to come to terms with having a mental illness. If I had broken my leg people would feel more comfortable but there is such a stigma associated with mental illness. That’s why I’m delighted when I hear celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Catherine Zeta-Jones talk frankly about their own struggle.

In May I got involved with Solent Mind, a local free service for people with mental health problems. They have helped to rebuild my confidence and now I go into colleges, groups and workshops and give talks about mental health on their behalf. On the face of it I look like a young presentable woman with everything going for her. I hope to hear someone like me say I have a problem will remove the stigma and preconceptions associated with mental health. Although things are still a struggle I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. I’m not ashamed of having a mental illness and nor should anyone else be. I have been to hell and back but I will never stop fighting for a normal life.

Originally featured in the Daily Express Thursday August 18 2011
By Kate Thompson

For more information visit
Visit Abby's Heads-Up twitter page @HeadsUp_Abby  
Southampton Rape Crisis helpline: 023 8063 6313, website:
Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline: 0808 802 9999, website:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Addressing the issue of cyber-bullying the Star Project Way!

The Star Project is the education and outreach initiative of SRC, and works with young people on a wide variety of issues that impact on their relationships.  Over the past few years we have been asked to deliver workshops that look at not only the risk of exploitation through the internet, but also the damage caused by cyberbullying.  Recent figures obtained from NSPCC website (Nov 2011) show that bullying affects nearly half (46%) of young people and 38% of young people have been affected by cyberbullying, with girls being twice as likely to experience persistent cyberbullying as boys. 

We have developed a session which we have used in schools and with other youth organisations and have found the results to be pretty powerful.  Often we would start by inviting the young people in groups to write down as many methods they could think of to get in touch with friends.  We encourage them to be as creative as possible so the examples range from texting or knocking on their door to yoghurt pots and string or smoke signals.  We then ask them how it would feel if they were to wake the next morning and all these communication means had vanished and weren’t available to them.  Having identified emotions such as frustration, anger, fear, isolation etc. we then point out that this is how it feels to be cyberbullied.  The ways we normally communicate with each other are denied to us:  we dare not use the phone in case there’s a threatening text on there; we cannot go online in case we get harassed; we can’t even go out in case whoever is doing this finds us. 

This exercise leads neatly into the film which we show- “Let’s Fight It Together”  This film was created by and follows the experience of a boy called Joe at a secondary school who gets cyberbullied by people within his own friendship group, and illustrates a lot of the themes brought up from the initial activity.  We then follow up the film by discussing the main points in the film (e.g. what stops someone from asking for help, is it a good idea to delete texts or email messages etc).  We end the session by handing everyone a free key-pen which has our contact details on (who doesn’t like a freebie!), and a form with a computer screen on it, where we ask each person to write an imaginary email to Joe.  The responses we get from this are overwhelmingly positive and range from what they would do in his shoes, offers of friendship and hope or how they themselves have gotten through similar situations.  This session helps to reframe the issue of cyberbullying from something bad that other people might do or a less harmful form of bullying, to a more pernicious, destructive attack that can have devastating consequences to those caught up in it.

To get a flavour of these sessions please take time to view the film by clicking "Let's Fight It Together", and afterwards read through some of the responses we have received from the young people who have taken part.   

Sample Feedback:

“It's ok, it doesn't matter what people think because they will just be jealous of you when you get a good job and live a better life”  (f 11)

“Dear Joe, I know what it feels like to be bullied and it's not great, once I thought about committing suicide but I didn't because I talked to someone. You should do the same”  (f 11)

“It's ok to tell people or teachers, you might think people will pick on you more but it will make things better. Just remember you're not alone”  (f 12)

“Joe don't be scared to tell people because if you don't it may get worse. People can help”  (f 11)

“Joe, ignore bullies and tell teacher. I'm 12 years old and I want to be your mate. I hope we can”  (m 12)

“How ever hard life is carry on and talk to someone”  (m 12)

“Hope you get well soon Joe. Contact me if you need help 'cause I'm nice like that :)”  (f 12)

“Well done for being brave and getting through your troubles”  (m 12)

“To Joe, you are probably wondering why I am writing to you, I'm only going to give you advice. Even though it is really bad, don't give up on hope just because they're bullying you, tell somebody”  (f 12)

“Joe, I know you have been having some problems including cyberbullying, now cyberbullying doesn't seem it but it is very serious. Anyway you can always get help from parents, school teachers and police- remember that”  (f 12)

“Dear Joe, I know what you're going through. Just talk to someone and just ignore the email and text messages and just try to forget about it, they're just jealous of you”  (m 11)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Southampton’s Independent Sexual Violence Advisory Service is More Relevant Than Ever

WHEN someone has gone through the massive trauma of sexual assault, telling the police about it and going to court can be the last thing that they want to do. It is hard to know exactly how many rapes and other serious sexual assaults go unreported, but we estimate the figure at 85%.

SRC’s Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) Ann says that there are a number of barriers to someone choosing to report sexual assault. “Fears of courtrooms, fears of cross-examination and fears of having to tell people are all barriers to reporting,” she says. “Something could have happened 40 years ago and they might never have told a soul. Fear of not being believed is another big reason and fear of not getting a conviction.”

Tracey, who was involved in setting up the ISVA service in Southampton, adds: “Victims often don’t verbalise what has happened to them. They might not tell anyone, and part of going to the police is that they would have to do that, so the police could gather evidence.”

The ISVA Service was set up by the Home Office five years ago and was one of a number of schemes established across the country to tackle sexual violence. The service is part of Southampton Rape Crisis (SRC) and is completely independent of the police and legal system.

The ISVA Service provides our clients with the information and support they need to make an informed choice about whether to report an attack and to support them if they decide to do so. “We don’t have an agenda,” says Tracey, who explains that she and Anne do not encourage or discourage victims to contact the police. The decision is entirely with the client. “We’re here purely for their wellbeing.”

If people do decide to report, the aim of the service is to support them through the process.
That ranges from contacting the police for them if they wish to and arranging for a specially trained police officer to come to SRC to take a statement to – if the case makes it to court – arranging for the client to see the courtroom, making sure they understand the court process and managing their expectations of the outcome.

Around 10% of the ISVA’s clients are men and the service is for anyone form the age of 12+ that lives in Southampton, were assaulted in the city or whose assault is being dealt with by Southampton police. There are other ISVA services elsewhere, including Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. “The main thing we believe is that nothing justifies rape,” says Tracey. “It’s very human to beat yourself up but there is just no justification.”

The ISVA’s have built up a good relationship with the police over the last five years. “The police work incredibly hard in Southampton,” she says.  “They do everything in their power to bring a case to justice. They always take sexual assault seriously, no matter how much time has passed since the attack took place. Cases that are 50 years old have reached the courts.”

When the service was first established in Southampton it only had six month’s funding. Since then it has expanded to two members of staff and other ISVA’s have sprung up across the country. And Tracey and Anne want to make more people aware of the free service and let people know that it is there for them, if they need it. “Lots of people feel very alone in their experience and don’t know where to go or what to do,” says Anne. “Do they phone the police? We can be the bridge to that. People wonder if it’s OK for them to use the service. We would always encourage people to contact us. We’re here for them.”

Around 21% of girls and 11% of boys experience some form of child sexual abuse.
23% of women and 3% of men experience sexual assault as an adult.
5% of women and 0.4% of men experience rape.
40% of adults who are raped tell no one about it.
31% of children who are abused reach adulthood without having disclosed their abuse.
(Source: Cross Government Action Plan on Sexual Violence and Abuse)

Sally Churchward, Southern Daily Echo, first published on 17 March 2012.