As I write this blog post, Susan and I have just completed three weeks of Self Isolation because of the dangers of COVID 19. It’s a strange time for us both, being in the house for most of the day and not being able to see family and friends the way we’ve been used to. As difficult and frustrating as it is for us, we are constantly reminded of how severe the situation is for many who are fighting for their lives and for those who have lost loved ones. And then there are those who have their own private battles with mental health issues. The lockdown has forced many into complete isolation which can often compound their struggles.
Through my part time work as a Job Coach for the charity Junction 42 which works in prisons and with ex-offenders, I have first hand experience on how difficult it can be for those who are socially isolated. Many of my Junction 42 clients have major mental health issues.
On a personal level, I had a short but testing experience of enforced Self Isolation for eleven days back in February 2018. Some of you will remember the severe weather we had at the time which was named “the beast from the east“. I remember it more than most. The day before it hit the UK, our central heating packed in. It remained off for eleven days as the engineers were unable to obtain the parts for our boiler because of the weather. The temperature inside our house dropped to a chilling 3.5 degrees! Susan had to move out to stay with her sister. I tried to keep the house from freezing with a couple of electric heaters.
Saddler Street, Durham
Despite the cold, I continued to paint, wearing lots of layers, and tried to keep my sprits up. One of the paintings I did during this period was Saddler Street, Durham on a winter’s day. You could say it was inspired by the cold, both outside and inside! However, there’s something about being alone and cold that really begins to rob you of your joy. Understandably, because of the weather, there were no visitors to my gallery. There were no orders, telephone enquiries, painting commissions or sales.
2017 had been my best year during the recession. However, I was starting to feel very discouraged, even though I knew that this was only a temporary blip in my 34 years of being in business. Finally, eleven days later, the boiler was fixed and the “beast from the east” left. Susan returned to a home that was now warm. After a short de-brief on what had been happening whilst she had been away, she told me that I needed to get out and find a job. I rang Joanne O’Connor, the founder and director of the charity Junction 42 and a personal friend.
Susan and I had both done some voluntary work for the charity in 2016 and 2017 when we went in to HMP Low Newton. I had been teaching portraiture to the women there with Susan supporting them. I told Joanne what I’d been through and that I could do with some part time work. She offered me three days a week working as a Job Coach.
How to Draw a Portrait
I started in March 2018 doing 1-2-1 mentoring for ex-offenders who are currently unemployed. Junction 42 have a contract with the Department of Work and Pensions. The DWP refer men and women who are struggling to find employment because of their convictions. We take them through an agreed action plan to help them in their job search. This includes CV writing, disclosure letters, mock interviews, voluntary work and community activities to break social isolation. Dealing with mental health is a big part of what we do helping our clients navigate life. I’m part of an amazing team who support and encourage each other in our work. We have a remarkably high success rate in helping them find employment, training programmes and discovering purpose for their lives.
I’ve still had the opportunity to teach art in the prisons. This video on “How to Draw a Portrait” is the kind of exercise I get the prisoners to do who have signed up for one of the Junction 42 lessons.
My short lived experience of being on my own during the “beast from the east” helps me to relate to those ex-offenders who are marginalised by society and socially isolated, often with mental health issues.
Like many folk today, I’m having to work from home because of COVID 19. Part of my role for Junction 42 is contacting the folk on my caseload to make sure they are all well and coping with Self Isolation. I know that they appreciate my telephone calls, text messages and emails. We’re all looking forward to a return to face to face meetings, whenever that may be.