Wellbeing, learning and the links between

26 Apr 2017

Wellbeing, mental health and learning are “bed fellows we can’t separate”, says Professor Amanda Kirby, who has developed a tool to assist the large proportion of prison population who struggle with learning.

Kirby, who is the Chair of Developmental Disorders at the University of South Wales, has spent the last 10 years developing the Do-IT Profiler – a tool to help identify and support people in prison who have a learning difficulty or disability.

One in three prisoners will have a learning challenge of one kind, says Kirby, and 10% of the prison population will have English as a second language. The inability to understand one’s own environment has a corresponding negative effect on mental health, she argues. 

“If we’re going to have wellbeing across the prison system we need to make sure information is communicated in a way that people can understand,” she says. “We need to ensure systems are accessible in the format we deliver them in.”

The tool, which is now used by 17 prisons, captures information about a person’s learning difficulties or disabilities from which it provides practical guidance for the individual and staff. It also collects data that can be used to inform a broader understanding of the needs of the prison population and inform practice on the ground.

There have been a deal number of challenges in developing the Do-IT system, says Kirby, notably in ensuring that the programme itself is understandable. For this reason, the profiler is voiced, includes video, and is translatable.

“Accessibility is about communication,” said Kirby.  “If we are to look at the barriers to education and wellbeing we must take a person-centred approach, and unless we have the right language how are going to do this?”

Ross Little, from De Montfort University, said his experience running Learning Together partnerships have also demonstrated the degree to which the ability to communicate and comprehend is linked with happiness and mental health.

“A space conducive to wellbeing has a lot in common with a space that’s conducive to learning,” said Little. “It’s quite difficult to tease those apart.”

Little said the concept of wellbeing in a prison environment was challenging, when prisons often are specifically designed to be - the “exact opposite”

So how do we know when we’re generating wellbeing? Little said he had seen this being done through his sessions, which offer psychological escape, variety, an alternative way of thinking, and the chance to open up to other perspectives, all of which can produce a sense of wellbeing.

Within this, said Little, it was important that the men engage voluntarily and are being treated as equals, and that their views and opinions are listened to. “Even the realisation: ‘I didn’t know I knew things you didn’t’, generates self-esteem and wellbeing,” said Little.

But Little also said it was important to recognise that while we may consider the prison environment as the antithesis of wellbeing, for some men there was such thing as the “comfort” of prison.

He said: “Counter-intuitively, for some of these men this was the place where they had secure accommodation and were cleaner from drugs than on the outside, meaning there was a degree of comfort, regularly and safety in that prison environment that they weren’t necessarily experiencing outside of prison. Society can be a dangerous place as well as prison.”

Little also pointed out that while we tend to view wellbeing as an “individualistic thing” that we are personally accountable for, people in prison will find it “hard to move on” if people outside the prison estate do not move on with them.

“That’s the responsibility of us all to look at human potential,” he said.

Professor Rosie Meek, at Royal Holloway University, has supported a partnership between her students and Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute, and is in the process of developing a new partnership with Bronzefield. She has also co-authored a paper with PET’s Nina Champion on the role of sports in education and desistance. 

Meek said it was crucial to ensure education was “stimulating, fun and motivating”.

Read the rest of the panels from PET's 2017 Academic Symposium here.