Radical Visions Podcast: Episode 2

Frances's Story - Out Now!

Welcome to the blog to accompany episode 2 of the Radical Visions for Social Care Podcast.  In today's episode, Frances (Director of Radical Visions) tells the story of her early life, education and career.

Listen on Spotify: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/qt49D8pemIb

Watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/80Q_uKUwdvw

I was born in the Gorbals in the East End of Glasgow. My mum was English and my dad was Scottish. I've got two sisters and quite a normal working class upbring. My mum and dad had their ups and downs in their relationship, but they had really good values. We weren't particularly religious. My dad's side of the family were Catholic and my mum’s side Church of England. They’d throw us out to Chapel on a Sunday in our best gear, but they never went themselves. So I went to Catholic school but religion and me didn't really get on. On the other hand, being a good, decent human being was the kind of thing that I aspired to.
My mum and dad really were very good at talking to us about values. When we were young they would make us sit down with them and watch documentaries on the TV about the history of slavery and the Holocaust, and other really significant things like that. And we would have conversations about what had happened in the world, what was right, and what was wrong. They were always keen to say these thinks must never be allowed to happen again and I thank them for that, because I definitely think these discussions had a big impact on me, in terms of my values.

Up to this point we’d been living in a tenement in Glasgow and I now love telling my grandchildren about how I had an outside toilet when I was wee, and how I shared a bed with my two sisters. We moved out to Rutherglen when I was 4 or 5, and then when I was 7 we moved out to Cumbernauld as part of the “Glasgow overspill”. There were too many people living in Glasgow so a whole series of “New Towns” had been built to house the excess population. My dad (who was a semi-skilled electrician) got a job, which came with a new council house automatically. I was told that I was going to live in the countryside and although, if you know Cumbernauld you’ll know it’s not a typical country space, our house did back on to fields, and we had a lot of freedom in a really nice three-bedroomed house. And we had an inside toilet and bath! So I grew up in Cumbernauld and then never travelled terribly far from home, really. My mum and dad didn’t have really high expectations for me academically. They very much expected that I would go out and get a job to bring some money into the house. So I left school at 16 with 5 o grades and worked in a factory, making bits of Olivetti typewriters and feeding the assembly line. My colleagues were all women in their 40s, and I was a wee 16 year-old but they looked after me and were my pals. After about a year of doing that job I was looking around at all these lovely women and I just thought, ”I'm going to be that woman sitting here doing this job forever and I can't do that!” So I went back to college at that point and did another O-Level and Secretarial Studies: short hand, typing and accounting. I finished up there but was rubbish at it. I was so bad at the typing and couldn’t (still can’t!) spell for toffee! No one who knows me will be surprised at this. I actually think I’ve got very mild form of dyslexia; I repeat the same mistakes over and over again in spelling and grammar. I can’t seem to learn those things, so I’ve kind of given up, but it did make me think for a long time that I wasn’t that bright, especially compared to friends and colleagues who had been off to university. Everyone who’s worked closely with me over the course of my career has been my editor at some point or another!

After college I ended up selling and renting out televisions for a while. I was a receptionist, working the engineers’ schedules and doing everything front of house. I was quite good at selling so I got away with being unable to spell for a while! Then they made me redundant because they were shutting the branch down. I really wanted to do something more with my life but, to be honest, I just wasn’t sure what that was. However, I’d had a friend who had gone into nursing and I really liked the idea of it. I decided to go into psychiatry because, I was quite squeamish and thought: “I'll avoid all the blood if I go to psychiatry!” Word to the wise, when you’re training to be a nurse you have to be able to do everything, so I just had to overcome all my phobias, anyway. Another interesting thing was that, at the time, you required Highers to get into General Nursing, but not for Psychiatric Nursing. So that helped me come to my decision!

My first institutional experience: I went for a job in Woodilee Hospital and was successful. Woodilee was built in the late 1800s. It was an old-fashioned building with a big tower and great big corridors and large wards. Like other hospitals in Scotland there’d been bits added on, extending into the grounds to accommodate more wards. There were admission wards (male and female) where people would still be coming in and out and getting some treatment. There were “the locked wards” (again male and female), where people with the most extreme issues or behaviours/conditions would be sent. Then there were long-term wards where people were just living their lives. They might go out to a job within the hospital during the day but then they’d come back at night. And then you had psychogeriatric wards for the over 65s, mostly for people who were starting to show signs of dementia or other conditions to do with age and mental health, but also for elderly people with other conditions like manic depression or schizophrenia. Many of these people were living 30 people in a ward, to be cared for until they died and needed a considerable amount of care.

Over many years people came into psychiatric hospitals because they had an acute psychiatric condition, but many never left and just became stuck there. It was almost like once they came in and had been treated for any length of time they became so institutionalised by the institution itself. A lot of people would have been in and out of other institutions and would also have been subjected to treatments like ECT and other invasive procedures like lobotomies before the use of tranquilisers became widespread. The big issue with tranquilisers is that their side effects can be really debilitating, so you would see people who had been really disabled physically by the drugs that they were taking to help them manage their mental health a chemical straight jacket with many side effects. You’d see people standing, rocking back and forth in the corridors, rolling their fingers. In amongst all of those situations many people have been taken away from their lives, families, routines, love and any kind of normal thing that makes life good and that gives us hope as humans. They’d been put into these institutions and getting back out of that was really difficult for people, partly because the medication had dampened them down to such an extent that even having the determination to make something else happen in their lives or to ask for something became really difficult.

I was going to be training in Woodilee for my Registered Mental Nurse qualification and the agreement was that if you wanted to do your training with them you’d to come in and work as an auxiliary nurse first; they were basically testing out whether or not you could stick it working in the institutions or asylums before they trained you up. So I was shown a video of how to restrain people. There was a guy on the video who was upset because he wasn't getting his medication which would allow him to go home for the weekend. Nurses were coming from everywhere, lying on his limbs to restrain him. And then this nursing officer, a really nice guy, walked us around the different wards before we started on the Monday. He took us to the locked wards, too. I'm less than 5 foot and at that time I was a size 12, so I was really quite a slight woman. He just looked me up and down and he said, “if you end up working in here, you’ll probably just have to work out how to talk to people.” I thought “funnily enough, that's a great tip!” I have used it ever since and never been trained in any way in restraint techniques in my whole 40 year career.

I was sent to work in the geriatric wards and that was just horrendous. I'll never forget the noises and the smells which would greet you as you walked down the corridor. I was already slight but I lost 10 pounds in 10 days on the Woodilee diet. I couldn't eat because of what I’d seen and smelled. It was like a form of hell: the kind of thing that my mum and dad used to sit me down and make me watch. I just couldn’t believe that people were living like this. Even in those first couple of weeks my brain was constantly trying to work out what I was going to do. Do I just run and don't come back (which I think a lot of people do) or do I stay and try and work out what do I do about this? Right from that moment I knew it wasn’t right and that we needed to do something about it but I was just a 20-year-old nursing assistant at this point, so I wasn’t very clear about the answer. In the end I decided I needed to stick with it and I did.

I think it can be easy for staff, especially those who are starting out in their careers, to normalise what’s happening around them by dulling their senses to it, but I never really saw that as an option. I knew what was happening, and, while I didn’t see real physical abuse in Woodilee, I knew when something was right and when something wasn’t and I intervened when I needed to. I also did what I could to make things better, even in small ways. I could talk to the people I was supporting, I could do their hair, I could get nice music on for them and be kind and caring. 

Things moved to a different level when, quite early in my training, I was sent over to Lennox Castle, in order to get experience working with people with learning disabilities as part of my nurse training. I was sent to a ward where there was physical abuse happening: people being restrained and hit. When I’d arrived at Woodilee, I’d felt like I was in a different world; now I felt like I was on a completely different planet. And that’s when I became a whistleblower. I had some support from people in my class, but it was amazing how people distanced themselves from me. The police were involved; the woman was a Ward Sister and she was suspended. It was a big deal in Lennox Castle that some wee student had actually come in and said these things. In the end nobody else supported anything that I’d said. I’d complained about three separate incidents and I had reported which other staff would have witnessed the incidents, but nobody backed me up so the person just went back to her job. The guy who was in charge of the nursing side of the hospital called me up to his office and said “I’d just like to let you know that nobody has backed your story and Sister “so-and-so” is back at her job.” My response was something along the lines of: “Well I hope you can sleep at night! I've done everything I can, are you doing all that you can do?!” I was ranting at this guy and he sat and took it and then said: “all I can say, Frances, is that your complaints were far too detailed to be lies”.

When I went back to Woodilee I was “The Whistleblower” and everyone knew me by reputation. Some of the staff there did awful things to me and put me at risk after that, thinking they would get a reaction out of me, but I just made out it never happened. I had a reputation and I just thought, “I'm might as well embrace this” and that's what I did. I became that person the whole of my career in nursing. I was a person who would go into a ward and say “no, we’re not doing this.” Even as a student I’d use whatever power I had, and would complain where I needed to. When I qualified I went to Stobhill Hospital and worked in the psychiatric units there. I ended up being the person to whistle blow on the staff who were while at work drinking. People were getting sacked I was always dealing with my reputation and the consequences of the decisions I made.

All of this was really difficult and stressful, but I ended up getting promoted really quickly. There were people in management who realised that I was somebody who would get things done, so I ended up being sent to places and situations were there were lots of issues needing addressed. I became a mum to Dave in 1986 and was promoted a year later to Ward Sister grade. I then went on to do my General Training, and was paid as a Ward Sister, which was unheard of. I think I actually got a lot out of the system; within the system there were lots of people who were sympathetic to the changes that I was bringing in. I worked as Ward Manager in Acute Psychiatry, and then got kind of head hunted to go and do a rather unusual European-funded job in Vocational Training and Rehabilitation, based at the resource centre at Woodilee, and with a £150,000 budget. This was a big step outside of my comfort zone. Until this point, I’d been able to set standards within the wards I’d been managing; But this was a different challenge entirely. I had vocational trainers from SAMH; we employed gardeners and carpenters I had some nursing colleagues that came to work with us as well. We worked with the colleges and tutors and had some sites out in Possilpark (in the centre of the community) where we did arts and crafts and similar activities. We had computer training and a big Garden Centre and greenhouses in the grounds. I was working with a whole different group of people that were outside my profession and I had to negotiate all of that, all while managing a budget.

My job at this time was really to try and help shut the hospital and to work with the people who had been stuck in these wards for years. We did some really ordinary stuff about learning life skills and we helped people in the wards get people ready to leave. We also worked with a lot of people that had more acute mental health issues in the north of Glasgow. People were learning and getting out and doing something different; they were occupied. The community was coming in, we were going out to the community.

We were awarded a Scottish NHS Awards for Innovation, and the work was really different for its time, but there was a lot of sabotage and I was really targeted in the hospital. We would have all these different things set up and nobody would turn up, so we’d have to go around the wards ourselves and collect the people who were supposed to be with us. People were very threatened and very worried about their jobs. There was a lot of negativity. I’d go out and my tires would be flat, or alarms would be set off at the Resource Centre in the middle of the night. But there were also obviously a lot of people supporting the change, otherwise I don’t think I could have continued within the system for as long as I did.

I later got a job as Clinical Nurse Specialist for Rehabilitation, working with voluntary organisations to help people leave the hospitals, and there was a lot of negativity and sabotage from others while I was in this role, too. There was a financial deadline due to changes to the Board and Lodgings Regulations. The hospitals wanted to get as many people out as quickly as possible as the Council and the Health Service were on the verge of losing money. It didn't bother me why we were being asked to get people out, as long as that’s what we were doing. I was also funded to take up a Masters in Community Care at Glasgow University.

There were a lot of hoops to jump through but we did all sorts of things like moving people from hospital wards to houses within the hospital grounds, as a first step. There was also a rule that people had to go through the rehab ward, which only had 15 beds, before they could move out. This was absolute nonsense; you just need to have the right support and help and you can learn skills anywhere. I was working with organisations like The Richmond Fellowship to get people the right support, when they basically head-hunted me to go and work with them. Obviously the hospital was closing and so my job would eventually be ending, so I decided to go where people were going: the voluntary sector and joined the Richmond Fellowship.

I worked there for 3 years as an Area Manager. Initially the organisation was tiny: just the Director, myself and 1 other Area Manager, and then Doreen Kelly joined. The team was small and the amount of services we had was also small but it grew so quickly around me that I ended up being demoted without doing a thing!

The Richmond Fellowship did a lot of really positive things for me professionally. I went on PASS which was completely mind-blowing. I completed my Master’s in Community Care which, at least, made me feel I wasn't quite as stupid as I did when I left school at 16. Even though I still couldn’t spell, I thought “well, at least I’ve got a Master's degree; I’m just as good as anyone else!” I also met Gina Hagan (who was working with John D at the time) doing the same course. Doreen and I were also selected to go and be part of an alliance of people through the European Social Fund and we became part of developing a Person Centred Planning Consortium facilitated by SHS. This was bringing planning to Scotland at the time learning the tools and skills together over a number of years. Through this I met Simon [Duffy] and had one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life; learning how valuable planning tools can be, but also how they can (and should) be totally reimagined according to the needs of the people with whom you’re working.

I was involved in setting up and developing services, and helping people get out of the institutions. But all of my learning was helping me to realise that in many cases people were still moving from larger into smaller institutions (or group homes) a lot of the time and I was already hearing people saying to me “well, I don't really want to live here, I'd like my own place”.

Both PASS and the Person-Centred Planning Consortium helped me to keep thinking about, “how do we do it differently?”, and helped clarify the notion that we should just be thinking about be one person at a time. Around that time through my role with the Richmond Fellowship we were the first organisation to support somebody to move out of Lennox Castle, directly into their own home. The woman involved had an individualized support package, her own team supporting her and was involved in all of the interviewing.

One day I was working at a recruitment fair, representing the Richmond Fellowship and Simon was there, talking about Inclusion Glasgow. We had a wee spot each where staff from Lennox Castle could come and find out about our organisations and talk to us about job opportunities. I kept visiting Simon’s stall and saying “so, tell me about your jobs!”. I ended up applying and secured the role of Deputy Director, becoming Executive Director in 1999…