Many people have battled with mental health issues during the pandemic, particularly finding it difficult to get out and about post lockdowns. Mollie Swadkins can understand how they feel.
She began suffering panic attacks when she started secondary school, aged 11, It got so bad that she spent a whole year unable to leave her home. Mollie was eventually referred to Callum Moore, a psychological therapist and Registered Mental Health Nurse from Forward Thinking Birmingham (FTB), by her GP.
And together they came up with a novel solution called Paws for Change – a six-week animal welfare course run by the RSPCA. It’s been so successful that it is now helping lots of young people.
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“I was really struggling with my mental health at school,” said Mollie, now 19 and from Frankley. “At school, I lost a lot of confidence as I felt I was being knocked down by being told I was not going to pass my GCSEs and that I was going to end up working in a rubbish job.
“If I tried to go out I’d have panic attacks and anxiety. I spent a whole year at home, I got really far behind in my school work. And I hated being on my own. “
“My mum was working and I was feeling down and did not have anyone there. Mum tried really hard to encourage me, she’d ring me every morning and try to get me up and ready for school. She’s been so supportive, I could not have done it without her.
“I did not have any friends I could talk to. Mum always said you’re made the way you are, embrace life the way you are. My dad and brother have been supportive too. It got to the point where I did not see the point of getting up in the morning, I did not see the point in doing anything.
“I think there’s been more people feeling like this since the lockdowns. It makes you feel isolated and alone with no-one to talk to, just the thoughts in your head.
“Callum asked me what would get me out of my home and I said maybe something to do with animals so I tried the RSPCA Paws for Change program.”
Mollie enrolled on the program in 2019 and has never looked back. Despite her nerves, she bravely got into the transport provided and made her way to the center – then something remarkably happened.
“I love animals, I find they have a really calming effect on me and my anxiety just goes,” she said. “I know I have to be calm for the animal and so I am.
I started meeting people who were supportive and it did not matter what I was going through, it did not matter if I was having a bad day. They’d say come in anyway, even if you’re having a bad day. They offered constant support and said it was OK to be having a bad day, just come in and have it with us, you’re not alone. ”
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After Mollie started on the RSPCA program, her panic attacks stopped. She has not had one since 2019. She left school without passing any GCSEs but has now enrolled on a trainee course in animal care, which will enable her to retake her GCSEs in maths, English and science.
“All my anxiety and panic attacks and depression lifted from the support I had from the RSPCA, I’d lost all hope in my education but I have that back again now,” she explained. “It’s amazing. Now I want to go to university and train to become a vet.
“It’s really turned my life around and it’s also given me a career to work towards too, something I can look forward to. Before I had no idea what I wanted to do, to be honest, I just could not see myself getting past 18. “
The bespoke animal welfare course, co-designed by young people at FTB, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust’s 0-25s mental health service, is playing a key role in making things better for those taking part by promoting kindness and compassion to animals.
“The idea that put the project into motion was born out of a nurse session with one of our young people who had not left the house in over a year,” said Callum.
“They were asked what they thought would help them start engaging with education and the world again, and they told us something to do with animals. Immediately, we contacted the RSPCA Birmingham Education Center to see what was possible.
“Seeing the impact of Paws for Change made us passionate about seeing if there was scope to do more. We shared our thoughts with the RSPCA, which offered a bespoke individual program for this young person. It was a catalyst that provided the framework for the six-week course, in which we now run two groups on a rolling basis together throughout the year. ”
The program has helped the group understand animal sentience and behavior, the concepts of feeling safe for both humans and animals, as well as practical activities and other learning.
Seventeen-year-old Harry Goodall, from Birmingham, took part in the program. He said: “This course was such an enjoyable experience and gave me something positive to do when I was in a low place.
“It helped increase my confidence in talking to new people and gave me a chance to have my voice heard.”
Mollie continues to volunteer with the RSPCA and said: “I can not recommend this course enough. If you are a person that struggles, it could help and benefit you so much.”
Callum and Pete were awarded the Research and Innovation prize at the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust’s annual award ceremony, the BWC Spirit Awards, for their dedication in bringing this project to life.
“I was shocked, over the moon and lost for words that we had won the award,” said Callum. “I immediately told Pete and our colleagues at the RSPCA center, who were all equally excited.
“The young people on the program have also congratulated us on the program’s success at the awards and they hope it will help increase the future scope of the program.”
Robert Moffat, RSPCA youth engagement manager who oversees the project, has highlighted the success of the course after seeing the impact it has had on the young people taking part and how it has helped improve their mental wellbeing.
“It’s brilliant to see how the young people have developed and grown during this project. They have made friends, learned new skills and massively grown in confidence, some having even gone on to start their own businesses. ”
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