Sunday, 23 February 2014

Lines of Thought, Video Games and Middle Aged Mens Despair

My favourite line read last week was: ‘becoming a robot astronaut-ballerina is no easy feat. It requires years of study and practice, flexibility creativity and a willingness to become part-machine’. These were the words that opened up an article in the University of Texas online journal – Inquiry. The story was of Kimberely Shashoua, a social work student who has been evaluating the video games Mass Effect to develop what she calls ‘virtual narrative therapy’.

It’s a clever approach. Using video games as therapy isn't new, but using existing and often popular games therapeutically is. In the US, one such game, Mass Effect 3 sold a million copies in the first 24 hours after its release in 2012. In this game, players choose how to respond to one of the characters experiencing a situational and/or emotional conflict. The game player is thrust into the situation which is a different experience to simply watching someone give support. The player can become an active participant in resolving and navigating complicated interpersonal problems, but do so in a safe and emotionally secure way. This is the real future value offered by such video games.

Other stories last week revealed a different view of the power of digital based games. Facebook and Twitter have been asked to introduce warnings about the drinking game neknominate following a number of recent deaths linked to the game. Neknominate involves people, both young people and adults, filming themselves downing copious amounts of alcohol, nominating someone to take up the challenge and posting the video on social media sites.

My 2nd favourite line read last week also involved a story about alcohol. The story was one that reported the supermarket Sainsbury’s who last week introduced labels on their wine bottles detailing the number of calories contained in each bottle. Apparently it’s for our own good. A large glass of wine contains 228 calories, the same as 2 fish fingers (according to my grandson Jacks fish finger packet). So there you are. You are now able to make responsible health choices. The 2nd favourite line: wine tastes delicious, ergo it contains plenty of juicy calories, popping with pleasure on the palate – self-evidently more than a stick of celery coiling tastelessly into strings around your molars’ – I’ll raise a glass to such eloquence.

My least favourite line of last week was the head line in last Thursdays Guardian newspaper. The Guardian chose to report the somewhat disturbing story of the number of children and young people with mental health problems receiving treatment in services designed for adults with the headline ‘Mentally ill children treated on adult wards far from home’. 350 under 18s have been admitted to adult mental health wards in 2013/14 compared to some 242 during the 2 years earlier. Looking after young people with mental health problems is still critically important, even with the news published last week that young men no longer pose the biggest risk of suicide. It is those males born during the 1950s and 1960s who are at greatest risk. Which, according to psychologist Professor Rory O’Connor (one of the UKs leading authorities on suicide), are the same generation who were at the centre of concern about high suicide rates 20 years ago. 

Today, whilst young people are more inclined to play video games than the middle aged, they are also more prepared to be more open about talking about their problems and seeking help than many middle aged men. Fortunately perhaps, as a middle aged man myself, I have always found a glass of a good Shiraz, shared with good friends, helps with good conversations - and I don’t mean about the number of calories per glass either!   

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sugar beet generosity, Farming blues, and a Valentine’s Day glow

The bad weather in the UK continues unabated. Storms have brought chaos and misery to many folk. There is despair and stoicism in equal measure to be heard in the experiences of those living through this unprecedented weather. I listen to the Farming Today programme every morning on my way to work. Last week there were many reports from farmers caught up in the floods and storms. It made for difficult listening at times. Men women and young people who had built up their farms now seeing their land submerged and ruined, animals with nowhere to go and no feed to eat. So it was wonderful to hear on Monday morning the serious and concerned voice of George Munns who upon hearing of the plight of the Somerset Plain farmer decided to donate 85 tonnes of sugar beet as cattle feed.

Within hours of announcing this using social media, hauliers Mick George, Roger Warne (not a known relative) and three other companies agreed to transport the sugar beet from Cambridge to Somerset free of charge. Mr Munns sugar beet was due to be sent for processing into sugar, and as such was worth around £2000. He said simply, that the Somerset farmer’s needs were greater than his.

Sugar beet will forever hold a special place in my memory. When I lived in Wales I had a small holding.  I used to run a small herd of milking goats. In the winter time, when they were all tucked up in a warm barn, they would be given sugar beet to supplement the meadow hay. Both had distinctive sweet smells. It’s a vivid memory made bitter sweet when seeing the plight of the farmers in the South of England.

Farmers as a group have always had a lot to contend with and perhaps it’s not surprising that they are a high risk occupational group for mental health problems. Internationally, the suicide rate for farmers is said to be one third higher than for the non-farming population. Loss is the biggest issue for many farmers, loss of control, animal disease, weather, and loss of crops, loss of the family farm, and loss of income. Geographical remoteness and social isolation add to these problems.

Whilst the problems are long standing and well recognised, mental illness is still a taboo subject amongst many farming communities. So it was good to read last week that the National Federation of Young Farmers launched Rual+, an initiative aimed at raising awareness of the support available for those struggling to deal with their problems. This is an international concern, and as the World Health Organisation note, there is no health without mental health.

Friday was Valentine’s Day. It was also the first showing of the ITV programme Student Nurses: Bedpans and Bandages – featuring students from our School here in Salford.  It was a fanatsic show case for our students and colleagues. The programme was shown on prime time Friday night UK television, in between two episodes of Coronation Street. In some respects it was a shame that the first episode was shown on Valentine’s Day – but in some ways it possibly was quite appropriate. It's what nursing is all about, Friday, Valentine’s Day/Christmas Day, Birthdays, these are all nursing days.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Three Blind Mice, see how they hear the Scales Groan in Milton Keynes

Although it’s not one of my regular reads, I was interested in a paper that appeared in last week’s issue of Neuron. This journal has become one of the most influential publications in the field of neuroscience. The papers reflect research undertaken by multi-disciplinary teams drawn from the biophysical, cellular, developmental psychology and molecular disciplines. Indeed the second most cited article (with its catchy title – A hexanucleotide repeat expansion in C9-RF72 is the cause of chromosome 9p21-linked ALS-FTD) has 76 authors.  

The paper that caught my attention (which only had 7 authors) reported on a study that showed that keeping mice in the dark for a week changed the neural connections in the brain responsible for vision and hearing and enhanced their hearing. Once the mice were returned to the light, the effects lasted for several weeks. Whilst the changes would need to be more permanent before the potential for humans could be realised, there might be positive applications for people who receive cochlear implants as an adult, for people who suffer with tinnitus and the reversal of some of the hearing loss associated with old age.

It appears that even with a degree of hearing loss, it’s possible to hear the scales start to groan in some of England’s fattest towns. Copeland in Cumbria is the fattest town with 75.9% of the residents are overweight or obese. Whilst the fatter areas continue to be largely either post-industrial or post agricultural, the obesity epidemic, like many waistbands, appears to be spreading to new areas. 

Intriguingly, Milton Keynes is now the 8th fattest place in England (72.5% of people overweight or obese). Milton Keynes was planned as a new city back in the late 1960s, and the Milton Keynes of today is neither post-industrial or agricultural. Perhaps a clue to the Milton Keynes fatness is in its conception. The Master Plan for Milton Keynes was drawn up in 1969, when we were in an age that worshipped the car – possibly the biggest waist expander in history.

Indeed it appears that the Master Plan was expressly designed to accommodate cars. A car dependent city is a fat city. Apart from the 11% of the population who claim to have gym and or health club membership, most of us will only take our exercise if it’s part of our everyday routine, walking to work, using stairs instead of lifts and so on. As the interesting C3 Celebrating for Health Report on walking for health notes, urban design has an important role to play in facilitating this natural inclination we all have to health providing exercise such as walking.

Ironically, in 2004 the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott (he was someone who had a great fondness for both cars and eating well) announced his expansion [sic] plans for Milton Keynes. He proposed that the population would double in size over the next 20 years. I am absolutely sure he didn't have expanding waist lines in mind.

Now if you want to save your waist line, then next Friday (Valentine's Day) forgo the romantic meal out, the chocolates and champagne and instead gather some of your 5 a day fruit portions to nibble on, find a comfortable yoga position to be in and watch the new 8 part documentary Student Nurses: bedpans and bandages, (20.00, ITV 1). This is a great little programme that features the experiences of students nurses from our School and those in studying in Birmingham. You won’t need a darkened room to watch it in either. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

No Snow in Glasgow and Feng shui in the Year of the Horse

Last Monday afternoon I travelled up to Glasgow by train. The journey took 3 hours. It might have taken longer had the snow promised on the BBC Weather Report materialised. Glasgow was bustling when I arrived, with big fat rain drops punching me in the face on the walk from the station to the hotel. I was there for a Council of Deans of Health Executive meeting and this years AGM.

The first presentation of the AGM was the inspirational Liz Robb. She is the Chief Executive of the Florence Nightingale Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to keep alive the spirit of Florence Nightingale, who died 104 years ago, by investing in leadership development for nurses and midwives. Their leadership programmes involve impressive partners in the UK and in the US, including Harvard University.

The evening before I had enjoyed dinner with Liz, and also sitting at the table was my old friend Sue Bernhuaser OBE (former Chair of the Council of Deans, and now retired) and the Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, Ros Moore. Her old school motto 'learn to be free' seemed an apt appellation to describe the work she is leading on in developing the future nursing workforce in Scotland. Whilst the meal was a lazy man’s version of vegetarianism, (haggis, neeps and tatties minus the haggis) the conversation was a great fillip. 

Haggis, neeps and tatties, is often the meal choice on Burns Nights parties. Such Burns suppers usually held on or around the 25th January, to celebrate the life of Roberts Burns, author of many Scots poems. Strangely, when the Scots say 'neeps' what they mean is turnip (tur-neep). However what the Scots call a turnip is what the English call a swede.  

And last Friday saw another ‘turn of the year’ celebration. This was the Chinese New Year which marked the start of the Year of the Wood Horse. Feng shui experts have declared that the Year of the Horse could bring startling changes to the world. According to Alion Yeo, feng shui Master, as well as an increase in natural disasters, there will be lots of scandals, conflicts, explosions and arguments over the next 12 months. For some this might be business as usual, but for others this might be a new experience.

Feng shui literately means 'wind – water', and for many people in the UK, the wind and water has this year already resulted in disastrous changes to their everyday lives. Those living on the Somerset Plain are still marooned in their homes and villages by the 'turn of the year' floods. Friday night I drove back up to the House in Scotland to what the BBC Weather Report had advised was going to be a snow clad landscape. There was no snow, but there was plenty of rain.

Yesterday the rain and winds along with the second high tide of the year ensured that the sea once again breached the sea walls, flooding the road and adjacent fields. However this was nothing like the horrendous experience of those down South who are still struggling to deal with the previous floods. Up here it took just a few hours for the water to recede. However, at the end of a busy, busy week, it was lovely for once to have the perfect excuse to do nothing other than light the fire, open a bottle of red wine, turn on the trusty Kindle and watch the world slowly transform.