Scouting, Suspension and Mental Health
After about 60 years in scouting, I can safely claim that Scouting is hugely advantageous to your physical and mental well being, but must warn that for some it can also be a real danger to your mental health. I am saying that we should all be aware of this and managers be prepared to improve their Duty of Care to adults in the movement.
As someone who is not a 'sporty type' nearly all of my years of hiking, camping and canoeing have been while undertaking activities with young people. Most of my courting comprised of visits to country pubs and creepy village churchyards which would soon figure heavily in a troop night hike or weekends in fields and forests checking-out possible hike routes, canoe journeys and campsites.
Most of my friends and social activities have been linked to my scouting activities, however when I was later officially suspended from scouting I was glad that I had also maintained an involvement with a church, a homeless project and as a school governor. For most of my scouting life I had never known anyone to be suspended by HQ, I hardly knew where Gilwell was or what it did other than make badges and uniforms.
Then on a most beautiful summer morning while walking up onto the South Downs, with God in His heaven and everything right with the world, my phone rang and a cloud drifted across the sun. It was a good friend, a young professional woman, a Queen's Scout, who had moved away to the countryside with her small children and started a village scout group in the parish hall. During a Beaver picnic she had pulled a child to safety from the road, leading to a police interview and immediate scouting suspension. The child's parents quickly withdrew charges for the bruising to their daughter's arm but the scouting process continued for weeks and months. Her local professional practice withered overnight; it was an isolating and stressful time. I had written to Gilwell to support her but in that buttercup meadow my friend told me that Gilwell had advised that I stop supporting her, hinting that it could be bad for me too!
Twenty years later I received that same warning letter in gut-wrenching disbelief. I was physically shaking, like I was standing outside the headmaster's door, with friends passing on their way to lessons and you knowing that you would eventually smell his bad breath and the cane across your palms. I knew I had done wrong, I had not eaten my beetroot and salad cream, I had failed to inform my DC of a concern I was aware of. I could explain but there is no opportunity for 'explanation' just the cane, weeks, months of stressful isolation, humiliation, anger, rage, distress…… feeling dirty and uncared for… and prevented from having anyone to properly support you in a 'professional' manner. As a school Governor we hold a disciplinary panel within days and suspended staff sit alongside a trade union rep. who ensures that we run our process fairly and efficiently, and we do, because we want that skilled person back working with our children asap. In Scouting the reverse is the norm.
As a trained Mental Health Social Worker I soon recognised something similar to the 'Bereavement Process' of Denial, Bargaining, Anger and Depression. The final is Acceptance but two years on I am only just sieving the ashes of incinerated memories and finding genuine flecks of joy in past Scouting friendships and fun.
During my long dark days in what I called 'the coal-hole' my family were my rock. I continually fear for single colleagues for whom scouting is their main social circle - 'their life'. I was later to find that suspension fractures lives, damages relationships and employment. I was experiencing waves of rage and distress - kicking the wall and shouting at Gilwell. I shouted on the bus, in shops, I raged inside, I woke at 3am with my brain in full action. I wanted to sit down quietly with my DC and chat, explain, discuss….. I thought we had been trusted colleagues, we communicated well for years. I believe that when you are suspended, your DC should be standing up for you, arguing toe to toe with Gilwell. Instead they have to 'remain neutral'. Quite frankly suspension is planned and sustained bullying. After sufficient humiliation and you are seen to be totally alone and unable to see the final charge sheet, the verbal beating coming from all sides until, it suddenly stops.
I am aware of fresh guidance and some changes as to how suspension is used in some circumstances. There has also been an acknowledgement of the need to be mindful of the effect suspension may have on people's mental health. You may yourself know of suspended leaders for whom Scouting has been a major strength and stay; you can play a positive part in their recovery by listening, like the few people who met me in parks at lunchtime, just to sit with me. Scouting should be setting an example of friendship, trust, well-being and honesty.
The purpose of this article is threefold:
To warn you that if you suddenly get 'the suspension letter' be prepared for a dreadful time.
To encourage all leaders to diversify and to do other things with their lives.
For those who run Scouting to start a dialogue with a mental health agency to develop a holistic Duty of Care to all suspended adults.
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