The Indiependent: Home work-outs exposed how toxic the gym can be

Link: https://www.indiependent.co.uk/home-work-outs-expose-how-toxic-the-gym-can-be/

If you asked anyone with a gym membership pre-pandemic how many times they’d been to the gym that week, chances are they’d glance away guiltily. In a society built on capitalism and busy schedules, gym memberships had become more a comforting lie than a means of self-care. For many, the point was not to use them but merely feel you have the option to if you wanted to.

Yet, in the midst of a pandemic, exercising became an integral part of retaining our sanity and HITT work-outs started to pop up in every computer’s Youtube history– the sweaty look now officially more fashionable than the lockdown wine-stained PJs one.

The era of home workouts had arrived.

Don’t get me wrong, home workouts had been around for a while with exercise gurus like Chloe Ting and Pamela Reif earning millions of views with each new video way before lockdown started. But it took a pandemic to uncover how convenient they really are, especially for women.

Up until now, the gym was the go-to space to work on both our body and mind. You feel unhealthy? Try the gym. Your mental health is down? Go to the gym. Yet we forget what a toxic place it can be for women. As someone with a bodybuilder for a father, I practically spent my entire childhood in and out of gyms and as of now have worked out in enough to be able to recite the names of each piece of equipment in one by heart.

Yet, I’ve never felt at home in any of them.

The gym has always resembled more of a man den to me than a mixed space welcoming to all. How can I concentrate on my body when one move that has me bending at a certain angle can read like an invitation for male gazes and lazy smiles to turn my way? On numerous occasions, I had to awkwardly stop midway through an exercise when wandering eyes landed on me uninvited. And I’m not the only woman who feels this way. A recent study by Mindbody found that 57% of women have felt inappropriately looked at in the gym by at least one male member.

It is a reality women endure every day; being cat-called, whistled and inappropriately gazed at while going about our day has always been more of a tragic commodity than an out-of-place occurrence. While exercising is considered a time of self-care, meditation, and even healing, many women are left feeling self-conscious because the atmosphere in various gyms does not differ from the one outside and the message is clear; every woman is still fair game.

Then lockdown was enforced and people had to find something to occupy themselves with to limit the unrelenting mental breakdowns. Suddenly, Chloe Ting’s work out routines started trending and yoga mats were being shipped off by the kilo to the homes of women ready to move their bodies in a different way than walking from their bedroom to the living room couch.

It was then, sprawled onto my yoga mat and thankfully accepting Chloe Ting’s suggestion of a ten-second break, that the revelation came to me. This is so much better than the gym!

For the first time, I was not worried about how masculine my labouring grunts might sound, how I looked flushed and dripping sweat with no make-up on to hide my imperfections and I certainly did not care about clothes. I could wear as tight or loose a work out outfit as I wanted without worrying about what I was putting ‘on display’. It should sound ridiculous. Why should you care what you look like when doing something that gets everyone glistening with sweat? According to a study by Sure Women last year, most women do not share that sentiment. The research showed that 70% of women between the ages of 18-24 felt negatively judged when working out at the gym while 28% admitted to worrying about others finding them unattractive. Despite what all the sports adverts show, exercising was never about looking good while doing it. Yet our society is one that expects women to look ready to walk a runway the minute we step out of our home, no matter the destination.

In the safety of my living room I felt none of that pressure.

Finding a good gym is also a tedious process; you need to check out the space, the classes offered, and the equipment available. Settling on one will inevitably mean your bank account dipping down at least £15 each month not counting the additional cost of any additional classes you may book. While that may not sound a lot to some, Sure Women found that the top reason why women avoid the gym, in addition to it being an intimidating place, was being unable to afford a membership.

On the other hand, home work-outs require only a good yoga mat, a pair of trainers and you’re good to go. They dismiss the notion that you need big machines or a large wallet to do a proper work-out. Plus, motivation to exercise comes easier when you don’t have to spend money and precious time on transportation because that one good gym you have a membership with is on the other side of town. Unlike before, I am now able to squeeze in a 20-minute work-out at any point in my day without feeling guilty for ‘wasting time’.

In the comfort of my living room, my body confidence grew more than it ever had in a gym. Exercising turned from a chore to the highlight of my day; what brought a little dose of happiness during the long, silent days of lock-down. So pick up that mat, get in those fitting leggings you were reluctant to parade in the gym or that large, cosy t-shirt and press play. Let Chloe Ting’s voice carry you through intense work-outs while you grunt and sweat and curse out with no reservations. Make exercising something you enjoy and feel confident doing.

International students set up for failure before they even enter the UK job market

Why Umanga, a student from Qatar, was told she needs to be ‘exceptional’ to get a job… 

Link to publication: http://forgetoday.com/2020/10/09/international-students-are-set-up-for-failure-before-they-even-enter-the-uk-job-market/

When Umanga Perera’s graduation was looming, depressed and terrified of failing to get a job, she applied for a ‘panic-Master’. Brought up in Qatar where local censorship thrives and citizenship is not given easily even to those born there, the 22-year-old journalism student from University of Sheffield, could not see herself getting any job in her home country that would appease her investigative instincts. 

Fast forward a year, now a Masters student in International Public and Political Communications (IPPC), and determined to do everything by the book to secure a job after graduation, she visited the Careers Service desk to get some guidance. Unfortunately, she was not met with any encouraging speeches.

“They said ‘well, we don’t know much about visas but we can tell you it’s really hard for you to get a job and we haven’t heard of anyone from journalism getting employed as an international student’,” said Umanga. “I was bombarded with stats to the point where I just broke down in tears.”

This is a reality for many international students. According to Universities UK International, in 2019 over 73 per cent of graduates coming from overseas countries – namely China, India, Malaysia, and Nigeria – returned back to their home country for work after graduating. This bears the question of whether that was their original plan or if the unfavourable conditions in the UK job market and the lack of support by universities are to blame. Unfortunately, Umanga quickly found out it was more the latter than the former.

England has more opportunities – yet, as Home and EU students explore the country and start testing the waters of the job market, international students struggle to secure work experience, let alone a graduate job.

Following the strikes at the beginning of 2020, the Faculty of Social Sciences agreed to organise weekly career webinars for IPPC and Global Journalism MA students as a way of compensation; a group of people which, according to Umanga, was mostly comprised of international students eagerly awaiting some advice to help them navigate today’s job market. Instead, dreams and plans seemed to crumble in a matter of minutes as they were told they had to be ‘exceptional’ to even set a foot in, as only 2 per cent of last year’s international students had managed to find a job in the UK. 

“They just said you have to be realistic about your prospects and be ‘exceptional’,” she told me. “It was very disheartening. Your audience is 90% international students, how can you do that? How can you just shut a door in their face?”

While this took place in pre-COVID times, nearing the end of university is always a very precarious period where mental health is fragile and existential crises abound. The goal behind that speech could have been motivational as, in journalism, pep talks tend to come in the form of ‘most of you will probably not secure a good job after university’– an introductory speech given to me in a seminar as a first year journalism student – in reality it probably only contributed to many discouraged students and a number of mental breakdowns. 

Yes, our profession is known to demand a good layer of thick skin but career webinars and universities are meant to arm you with the necessities to break into the industry of your choice. ‘Realism’, while a necessary evil, never helped any of the world’s current leading figures, businessmen, innovators and influencers to climb the ladder and secure their place in a world full of people trying to do the same.

Yet being ‘exceptional’ seems to be an unwritten requirement for many international students,as any employer that decides to offer them a position in their company will also have to become a sponsor for their visa – something they are not often happy to do. Unfortunately, this also gets in the way of work experience. In fact, Namitha Shree Ragunath, 21, a third-year journalism student from Malaysia, was turned down by three companies in one week because of her visa.

“Every summer and every spring I sign up for internships and jobs and a very common factor would be that they ask you for your visa,” she tells me. “Companies don’t want to [sponsor a visa] because they want to save cost and obviously it gets in the way of my work because people won’t hire me.”

In another occasion, Namitha had been personally contacted by an employer and had a very successful interview being told she was ‘perfect for the job’ only to ultimately be turned down when mentioning she is an international student. “I realised that the only reason I wasn’t fit [for the job] was because they would rather hire a local student. I’m not saying they’re not qualified but they would rather give it to a less qualified local student than a qualified international student.”

Namitha and Umanga represent the reality of many international students. Many come to England from all corners of the world not only due to the appealing universities but in pursuit of a better life and of opportunities that will help them excel in their field of interest. For some, their families had to save up for years to secure that chance only for their kids to face a system that brings more obstacles than opportunities. 

In 2019, University of Sheffield had over 9000 international students walking its campus, yet Umanga was met with half-hearted shrugs and regretful stares when asking Career Services for information regarding work and visa. 

“They send you to the next person and the next person and I just want there to be training about that. I want them to help us understand the jargon and get employers to host talks and say ‘Okay, as an international student who wants to break into this industry this is how you do it’. 

“What’s the point of having a degree if you have to be Albert Einstein in order to get a job as a journalist.”

Months later, the word ‘exceptional’ still comes out of her lips laced with bitterness. It is an impossible expectation, one that seems tailored to make someone fail before they even begin. Universities are supposed to prepare students for their future careers and, while warnings and a dose of reality are necessary, shouldn’t they come hand to hand with a list of resources and support? Because 2 per cent might be the status quo, but aren’t we trying to change it? 

Shadé Zahrai: Her Journey to success

The women’s empowerment coach-turned-TikToker
is here with advice for students dealing with the stress of
finding ‘success’


During a period that has cultivated only worry and doubt to generations of students entering or leaving university, Shadé Zharai is introducing her almost 250,000 followers on TikTok to a new mind-set around developing their career.
The 31-year-old Australian’s TikTok is brimming with advice on how to battle self-doubt and achieve professional and personal success,as her positive attitude asks viewers to self-evaluate and peak at their strengths instead of embracing the on-trend culture of comparisons and toxicity.
“I just want to help people realise they have more control over their life than they realise, and that starts with their thoughts,” she tells me over the phone. “Because their thoughts are what shapes their beliefs and how they show up.”
Yet control seems more elusive than ever before during a year that shook the world with a pandemic and a global economic crisis. Young adults are now walking down a path saturated with suffocating uncertainty, with no sense of direction and no handy map to consult. For some, it may feel like success is a far-away dream exchanged for survival.
Yet Shadé’s list of accomplishments is long and hers is a success story that took a while to come to fruition; she is Harvard-trained Coach, a women’s career strategist and speaker, a member of Forbes magazine’s esteemed Coaches Council, an author and a businesswoman who consults many companies.
“There’s no way that I could have gone straight out of university and moved into the space I’m in now where I do career coaching and consulting for women,” she says.

“I would say very few people get that dream job straight out of university. It takes time to get the developed skills in order for that dream job to want you so you might need to first work for someone else, change your strategy and be more flexible.
“But that’s not to say you’re not achieving your goals. You’re just taking a slight deviation.”
Yet students are wired to believe that if you work hard enough, get the right grades, that dream job will be at the end of our stint at university. It is what the world has taught us to believe and any other scenario feels like a blatant failure – not to mention a reality where, even after working hard for years, you still need to start again and build your way up.
“It’s very easy to feel scared about the possibility of failing because, at university, if you fail that’s it. We use that experience as our benchmark for what we think the world is going to be like.”

There’s truth in that. Since entering the world of education, our success, worth and skills are measured in grades; failure means re-taking an exam or failing the year altogether and facing the stigma that comes with it.
In reality, Shadé tells me, you could have “someone who doesn’t get particularly good grades in university but thrives in the workplace simply because their learning style is not one that is supported by that educational system”. While university plays a major role in our journey as
individuals, it does not define our career – in fact, a 2018 report by Universities UK showed that one in three UK graduates are ‘mismatched’ to the jobs they find after university because they failed to pinpoint their skills and commercial strengths while in university. Probably because
they were also too busy chasing after grades.
This is where universities’ careers advice centers usually come in handy, but many times it’s also a journey graduates have to take on their own while venturing into the world of work. Shadé was one of these cases. It’s easy to wonder if she feels like she has now reached that success we
all seek coming out of university.
Yet it appears her definition of success is different from the conventional one.
“What I’m always encouraging people to do is make happiness mean success,” she tells me. A very controversial statement in a consumerism-led world where usually it’s the other way around. Still, Shadé seems to live by this statement and is adamant that there is more to success than money and more to happiness than being happy and optimistic. She’s even written a book about it!
“It’s breaking down the understanding that we have in this society around what success means and redefining it for yourself. When happiness is your goal, it changes how you approach your life, your work, your relationships and even the legacy that you want to leave.”
It has been a relatively long journey for Shadé and yet she’s barely started. Like many graduates before her, she found herself in jobs that did not suit her and it was due to blindly following other people’s opinion of what she should do. It is her biggest lesson to date; listen to yourself.

“Every single person will have an opinion about what you should be doing, where you should be with your life, how you should be applying yourself.
“But they’re giving you guidance based on what they would do if they were you in your circumstances. They’re not in your circumstances, only you are you.”
As a soon-to-be graduate afraid of what awaits me at the end of my university career, her story inspires me. Here’s a woman whose journey was not all plain sailing, who is ready to tell us that the road ahead is not easy but it is attainable if only we make the most of each experience and job opportunity, take from it that which will propel us closer to our goal. It might take a while, but we’ll get there.
“My entire journey was full of deviations,” Shadé tells me. “But I learned so much and now I’ve finally reached the point where I can do what I know I was born to do.
“Took me 10 years. That’s okay.”

Published on Forge Press: http://forgetoday.com/2020/09/07/shade-zahrai-her-journey-to-success/

Introducing Before Breakfast: A band without a genre

The duo talks about finding their sound, belonging to a genre, and the meaning behind their newest single ‘Stand’.

With the current lockdown in place my meeting with Before Breakfast begins with blurry screens and muffled voices; not a setting fit to inspire the complex conversations one seeks during interviews. Fortunately, like with their confessional music, in our conversation the girls are unapologetic and animated in their opinions, needing little prompt to delve deep into talks about music, genre, and womanhood.

Gina Walters and Lucy Revis have been band-mates for the past four years but their friendship begun more than a decade ago while studying music at University of Sheffield.  While making music together for Before Breakfast has been a relatively new journey for both of them, their years in the music industry have been many; Gina has played in venues in England, France and even Japan with her previous band, Screaming Maldini, while Lucy is the head of a music school, has been a part of many orchestras with her cello and performed with various UK artists, including British rock band Elbow.

They are the first to say they are good, more as a way to show that it’s okay to think that than as a self-gratifying statement. “I think, as women, we’re not encouraged to do that. To say, you know what? I’m good at this.” says Gina, the lead singer, and songwriter of the duo.

Their music brings the word kaleidoscopic to mind; it conjures up colours blending together in an effortless symphony and has the air of a play with a script that cuts deep. They credit their flair for atmospheric sounds to Bjork and Kate Bush while Gina lists the indie folk band Villagers as her lyrical crush. However, when I point out that none of these artists seems to encapsulate the sound of Before Breakfast Gina seems to agree. A lot of the inspiration behind their music is ‘situational’, she says.

“I like a lot of sad songs and pretty lyrics but I also think you could be inspired by stuff that is absolutely not musical. And then maybe inspiration came from being in bands that weren’t meant for me in the past, from finally writing music that was written for me.”

For Lucy, who contributes the ethereal cello melodies and back-up vocals, the band has been an escape from the overly directed music she produced in the past. “In Before Breakfast it’s okay to make weird noises and make it sound strange,” she says. “No one’s going to go ‘oh you know could you…get rid of that bit?’”

Their love for experimenting with sounds had a radio plugger once admitting ‘we don’t really know what they are’, and I have to agree. Their sound seems to alter slightly with every song they produce. In their EP, Open Ears, Gina’s soulful voice smooths over lyrics bleeding insecurity and anger, while the intertwining melodies carry elements of jazz, pop, and indie folk. The girls are right, no one genre is dominant, but the result is nonetheless a wondrous, theatrical masterpiece to my ears.  

“When you’ve grown up doing music your entire life…it was quite new to me that people were obsessed with genres.” says Gina. “It’s completely alien to me. I don’t really know how it matches up to what we make.”

She considers genre an ‘umbrella’ that leads people to other music, but nonetheless one they could never fit under. Yet, maintaining their creative freedom seems to also have come with some obstacles as a seemingly frustrated Lucy admits it’s tougher to break out to a new audience when you don’t know ‘how to pitch your own song’ (“A part of me thinks life might be just a little easier if we just wrote easier songs to listen to,” she says.).

The girls have done what most artists brave to do in later albums; create music they desire. A couple years back, Ariana Grande admitted in an interview that her third album, Dangerous Woman, was the first one she could include songs that meant something to her. Similarly, Radiohead first established themselves as a solid presence in the rock world before starting to experiment with their sound and coming up with the ground breaking, music industry-altering OK Computer. It is a recipe musicians have followed for decades, but the Before Breakfast duo seems to not be one to stick to the status quo.

They are a female-led band but you won’t find many love songs in their album. Like Pink, Ani Difranco, or more recently Halsey, their songs seek to empower, talk candidly of insecurities and self-acceptance, and are unapologetically female. Their most recent song, ‘Stand’, describes the inner struggle of reaching 30 and not having –or knowing if you want- what society expects you to; a family and a home of your own. The song comes from a place of personal turmoil that many women can connect to and Lucy admits it’s a daily battle to decide whether to be sad or okay about it.

“I don’t have a house but that’s okay because I like where I live.” She says. “If I had a boyfriend who is committed and loving and wanted a child then renting a flat wouldn’t be okay. So which one can I solve to make me feel more like an adult? I have to constantly work to try and validate that I’m single and houseless and childless.”

Gina thinks this can be attributed to being the first generation of women to not prioritise relationships and choosing to have children later. “We haven’t had anyone to look up to that presented that as an option,” she says. “And a valid option, rather than the old maid/ artsy lady that lives in a house with five cats.”

Now, like many other artists, they are secluded in the comfort of their homes, their scheduled tour for April a forgotten dream. Frustration is evident in their faces as they both admit that making music has felt almost impossible when trying to keep their business as music teachers afloat. However, while you won’t be able to attend one of their gigs any time soon, you can catch up with them on social media where they host live performances and online tarot readings (because ‘why not’). One thing is certain, these girls make for an unpredictable force together and the world hasn’t seen the last of them yet.

Find Before Breakfast on their website: https://www.beforebreakfast.co.uk/

Students with Disabilities: Is our university doing enough?

University is considered a rite of passage where both education and self-discovery are offered; existing skills are honed, new ones are discovered, cultures meet and, in many cases, independence grows. Some students view it as a path to economic prosperity or at least a chance to set your feet firmly into the arduous job market, for others it is the natural step after high school. For many young people with disabilities the thought of higher education often brings an overwhelming feeling of fear and reluctance; not because they lack the potential, but because there is an uncertainty on their physical and mental capability to commit to it.

Many disabled people confess to having a hard time completing everyday tasks and having days where they find it impossible to get out of bed. However, education should be something accessible to anyone who seeks it; a disability is no indication of limited capabilities. Just look at the dozens of life-altering inventions, findings, and art brought to us by intellectuals living with a disability; from Stephen Hawking, Jonathan Sebastian Bach, to Van Gogh. The list goes on.  

Another great indication is the statistics published by the Office for Students website, which showed that the percentage of students without a disability who graduate with a first or upper second-class degree is only three percent higher than the one for disabled graduates, which sits at 77 percent. That alone shows that university is possible for everyone, regardless of a student’s struggles or background. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it is an easy process or one without its flaws.

In an interview with Rebecca Wight, co-campaign coordinator for the Disabled and Dyslexic Student Committee at the University of Sheffield and third-year English Literature student, she described a system that is adequate in its existence but still in urgent need of changes.

“Deciding to come to university was a really scary thing for me because it was like, ‘can I do something as simple as go to the shop by myself, or manage to cook a meal every day, as well as, can I actually do the degree?’

“I ended up coming to Sheffield because they do try a lot more than in other places, and I’m very grateful for that, but the support isn’t great.”

A quick visit to the University of Sheffield website indicates a range of support offered for students with disabilities. According to the site, some of the services include mobility training available for blind or partially-sighted people, copies of lecture notes given in advance or in alternative formats, support workers available for assistance during lectures and workshops, and arranging alternative methods of assessments.

The University of Sheffield is also one of the few universities that offer SAMHS (Student Access to Mental Health Support), a counseling service that offers 45-minute appointments with mental health workers. In addition, thanks to the work of the Disabled and Dyslexic Support Service (DDSS) and DSC, around the campus Quiet Rooms have been set up for overwhelmed students to take a few moments to collect themselves or as a place for them to work away from the usual loud buzz surrounding the occupied spaces. However, according to Rebecca, while all of this is pleasing, there are also fundamental flaws that require attention:“It is a constant battle for disabled students to make sure we get the support, awareness, and help that we deserve.”

The process is as follows. upon arrival at the University of Sheffield, disabled students are advised to make an appointment with the Disabled and Dyslexic Support Service, who go on to set up a learning support plan for them. This plan offers benefits such as extra time during exams, rest breaks or automatically authorised absences from seminars. The issue here lies with the fact that, just because the plan is put in place doesn’t mean it will be implemented accordingly.

“They’re trying to improve that system but a lot of different departments don’t take it seriously. Sometimes your support plan doesn’t feed through exactly well.” said Rebecca.

For example, it would be week six and my seminar tutors will have no idea about my situation.”

Some services provided to all students can also be a vital tool for disabled students. So, when they are disregarded by professors it can have a detrimental effect on their progress as students. An obvious example is the Encore Lecture Capture service that enables any lecture to be recorded and uploaded to the University’s website for students to listen back to. Some use it strictly for revising, but others rely on it to catch up when personal issues prevent them from attending their lectures. There are, of course, professors who argue the system allows students to fall into a lazy and irresponsible routine. However, that argument falls flat in the face of inclusivity.

A similar case is the students’ ability to apply for an essay extension. This particular service is offered to all students going through difficulties or unexpected changes. It is also quite controversial as there are times where the applicant will not find out whether their request was accepted until after the deadline has passed. The waiting can bring a lot of stress and anxiety for any student who applies due to serious family issues, and mental health or disability emergencies. This thought alone can prevent many young disabled people from applying for higher education; knowing that their University won’t provide them support but additional stress to their already strenuous situation.

Sama Ansari Pour, a second-year Journalism student with Multiple Hereditary Exostoses, described her experience with the university support system as ‘disgusting’.

 “I was crying and calling my mum and she said call the university and ask for support, so I did,” Sama said.

She had contacted the University trying to set up a care plan as her condition was getting worse, appointments with hospitals kept taking up more and more days while coursework seemed to be piling up.

She added: “They already had evidence of my disability. I tried to go last year, but it was so difficult because I have days where I can’t get out of bed. So I was like I’m a really urgent case, I need help now. And they said, ‘oh we only have one person who works with that I’m afraid.’ Like, aren’t you the Disability Service? Isn’t it your job?

“I ended up with an appointment for a month later. I’ve waited less for my appointments at Northern General.”

When confronted with these claims, the University highlighted that a recent DDSS survey revealed a 90 per cent satisfaction rate with the service, going on to say: “While DDSS is not an emergency service, we encourage students to attend the weekly drop-ins available or contact the reception team if they have any concerns. Feedback from our students is very important in making sure we’re meeting their needs and expectations and will always be welcomed.”

There is also the problem that specific groups of disabled students are not considered as much as others when developing the support system. Recently, the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) published an article which said that deaf children are half as likely to go to a Russell Group university than their hearing schoolmates. This existing lack of services deters children from reaching their full potential as well as securing a future in a world where university degrees are crucial in obtaining even the smallest roles in companies.

Last July, Susan Daniels, Chief executive at NDCS, urged Russell Group universities to “get a grip on this problem”.

In the end, higher education is not an easy experience. There are endless hours of studying involved, families take out loans and students travel hundreds of miles away from home to get to the school that will give them their best chance. When so much is already sacrificed, the system should aim to make it easier for those that have additional struggles to think of. Just as improving the quality of education is preached by many, inclusivity should also be considered a top priority.

In Adam Braun’s words: “we have every resource necessary to provide access to education for every child on the planet; we just need to commit to enabling it.”

Published at Forge Press: http://forgetoday.com/2020/01/10/students-with-disabilities-is-our-university-doing-enough/

Can creativity help us out of a dark place?

Multimedia version: https://uosjournalism.shorthandstories.com/cancreativityhelpusoutofabadplace/index.html

Creative arts have been around for centuries but now organisations are starting to use them as a way to battle mental health disorders and trauma.

Why?

Sheffield Flourish’s building is not immediately noticeable. The sizable brick building is hidden away from the noise of the main street, located in an alleyway with no shops or restaurants to draw people’s attention. The prominent sign decorating the building is not the one you’d expect to find; it is still holding the title of its previous purpose of use: ‘Sadacca: day care centre for the elderly’.  Its current identity is acknowledged only by the inconspicuous poster glued on the door underneath.

It is a testament to the popularity of its purpose; an organization’s building is as distinguishable as its occupier’s reputation and creative arts have yet to be calcified as a popular method of healing. What distinguishes it today though is the lively music pouring from inside.

Entering on a Friday afternoon you will find a group of people very much resembling a band in practise. A mixture of ages and backgrounds, every single person is standing behind an instrument, forming a circle that generates only music and laughter. Watching them go through Rolling on the River as if they have been doing it for years the last thing that would come to mind is that the reason behind the music is mental illness. And yet, it’s true. This is a room of people still battling with their demons and, in a way, music is a big part of why they’re still here.

At the moment, according to World Health Organization, one in four people suffer from a mental disorder. Creative arts, having been widely associated with inner expression, can be a handy tool when trying to coax someone out of a dark and isolated time. The work being done in amateur art workshops has sometimes proven to give better results than a GP appointment; instead of asking the struggling person to confide in an unfamiliar face, they are given a more indirect and creative way to communicate- by, well, creating.

Art psychotherapist Matthew Clark described painting as a way that allows, ‘by means of the tone and medium’, feelings to be captured and scrutinised.

“The effect is” he said, “that the originally chaotic or frightening impression [of the situation] is replaced by a picture which serves as a conduit for the psychological exploration of the experience.”

By materialising their thoughts, the person is able to take a step back and really look at the situation from a different perspective. Similarly, with music they get the chance to step out of the chaos in their mind and focus on something else.

Benu Adam, the manager of the charity Arts, Mental Health and Wellbeing said that in the case of her organization, the focus is at “the process and not the result”.

“We try to bring people together in a creative environment because I do believe creativity gets people out of themselves in a very natural way”

In her workshops, art is used as a medium through which the participants learn how to let go of the idea of control. By doing abstract art or marbling, for example, where control is limited, they effectively learn how to handle not having control over the outcome of a situation- a concept that people with mental health disorders struggle with.

“You’re enjoying the process and, by the end of it, you’ve created this beautiful piece and it’s almost incidental because that’s not the aim.” says Ms Adam, “Doing something without the fear of being judged, without the fear of doing it wrong- we’re finding that’s the key with a lot of learners coming in with low confidence”.

“Creativity gets people out of themselves in a very natural way”

Paul Henderson, a member of the Open Door Music group, suffered a manic episode in his 40s that led to a bipolar disorder diagnosis, a suicide attempt and a three-year stint at Worthwood Hospital.

His tale could easily have ended there, lying in a hospital bed, but music sessions organized at the hospital re-generated his passion for the craft and eventually brought him to Sheffield Flourish. He now credits the organization for bringing him out of isolation and helping him regain his self-confidence.

“It’s funny” he said to me after a jam session of Time of My Life, “because people will turn up here and collaborate in a way that they wouldn’t even ask their neighbour ‘oh can you give me a hand to trim this hedge?’.

The evidence is also ample.

According to a research conducted by the charity Arts and Minds, art on prescription, whether self-prescribed or by a doctor, showed a 37% decrease in GP consultation and a 27% drop in hospital admissions. Similarly, an evaluation of their own art programme found that over 70% of participants reported an increase in well-being and a decrease in depression and anxiety levels by the end of it.

This shows that healing does not always come in the form of pills; something as mundane as picking up a paintbrush or strumming a few notes with others can summon back feelings of happiness and self-confidence.

The organization also uncovered that art, as a recovery method, equated to a saving of £216 per patient. On its own, the number does not amount to much, but during a time where the effects of the NHS crisis are felt across the UK, this number is a sweet melody to some ears.

Ultimately, though, creative arts are linked to one of humanity’s handiest tools; imagination. Armed with this, our ancestors brought us crucial scientific creations, cultural evolution, communication, and, of course, art. Like a muscle, it requires exercise to remain durable, but can be a great ally for anyone living with a mental illness.

Mr. Henderson spoke of creativity as a saving grace, little appreciated for the gifts it offers. “If we exercise our imagination by writing poetry, music, or doing any art, then when that problem hits us instead of going ‘oh my god it is a catastrophe’, which is how people with poor mental health often think, we’re like ‘oh dear, there’s a problem. I wonder how that could be different’.”

For centuries, art was viewed as a means of entertainment or an example of status; if you played an instrument you were an intellectual, if your living room walls were decorated with paintings you were an aristocrat with taste. However, the many people touched by art can attest to the fact that sometimes help does not confide between the walls of a squeaky clean hospital ward, but between colours and materials and sounds.

Reclaim the night: Women against gender violence

According to UN Women, women and girls of all ages are exposed to the threat of rape, sexual assault, or abuse universally, whether in wartime or peacetime. The exact number of rape and sexual offences remain unclear due to the impunity surrounding perpetrators’ prosecutions, a situation worsened by some courts putting the blame on the victim. Survivors are reluctant to come forward. And abuse and violence against women remains a neglected issue amongst the public.

In recent years, through campaigns such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NotOneMore, people have rallied globally to say that it is time to face up to the issue of sexual violence. It is no longer acceptable to shy away from confronting the perpetual abuse that women have to suffer while going about their daily lives. To support the UN annual campaign of ending violence against women and in the hope of raising awareness, Sheffield Students’ Union has organised several events in the upcoming two weeks as part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

On 23 November, women of all ages gathered in the streets of Sheffield, reclaiming their right to walk in the night as untroubled as anyone should be. For Sheffield, Reclaim the Night holds a particular historical significance due to Peter Sutcliffe, a man better known to the public as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. From 1975 to 1980 he murdered thirteen women and attempted to kill another seven around the north of England. The result of this horrendous incident was a curfew preventing women from walking outside past nightfall. However, the order, while much needed back then, has remained an unspoken rule for many women to this day.

During the march, Rosa Tully, SU Women’s Officer, highlighted the importance of women coming together to raise awareness in hope of bringing about real change.

“Women still remain victims of gendered violence and they still are not listened to, even when it comes to court cases,” she said.

“So this is a very important night for women to come together to say that we’ve had enough of it and we are here to resist the kind of oppressive system and experiences.”

Rosa identifies the sad truth that while both men and women rally for every other issue, when it comes to the well-earned rights of women, women often have to march alone, shouting in the hope that men in power will hear them.

Nahyun Kim, a 19-year-old European and international law student at the University, notes that gender inequality is not a historical problem nor a past event, it is still happening now. It is our reality.

“If women do not stand out and speak up, there would be no one to protect our rights. It is important for us to let people know this is a real problem and try to solve it.”

There is a misconception that, when referring to violence against women, it encaptures physical and sexual abuse. However, women are not afraid to walk down the streets only when the sun falls. Speaking with Tara Kimberlee, Vice President of the Feminist Society at the SU, she told me that she tends to be wary when walking past pubs filled with men that start drinking at 12.00pm. The abuse does not come during a specific time of day; women at night are living in fear of dark-lit alleyways and empty streets and during the day, they are subjected to catcalling and sexist slurs.

“What do we define as verbal abuse? How can we treat people better, more fairly? It’s an opportunity [for us to think].” said Thea Padley, a 22-year-old computer science student at Sheffield Hallam University, asking us to contemplate whether we are aware of the broad context of ‘verbal abuse’.

Many think that it only entails straightforward insults but in reality, snide remarks, uncalled for criticizing of appearance, becoming a frequent target of yelling, a disagreement that develops into a string of accusations and ‘guilt-tripping’ are some of the many behaviours listed under ‘verbal abuse’ by Healthline. We should be taught from a young age on what falls under the title of abuse so we know to report it when it happens to us or someone we know. Yet, we should now support schemes which educate to prevent such behaviours. The World Health Organization (WHO) fund a number of school and community programmes to educate and prevent abusive behaviours, moving the responsibility away from the victims, to the perpetrators.

Although successful, these schemes are still in their early stages. According to UN Women, at least 70 per cent of women in the UK have experienced ‘sexual and/or physical violence’ by a partner during their lifetime. WHO also pointed out that up to 70 per cent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Being an issue across many societies, rates of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner ranged from 15 per cent in Japan, to 70 per cent in Ethiopia and Peru, according to the WHO study.

The impact of gendered violence is profound: women are deterred from viewing relationships in the same way, live their life under insecurity and flinching in the prospect of physical contact, others might become prone to a range of mental health disorders, and some are led into the path of offending. In fact, over 50 per cent of women currently in prison were victims of some kind of abuse from an ex-partner.

Megan Binning, a 20-year-old politics student participating in the march, considers conversation the best way to pave the path towards a concrete solution:

“Silence just kills any progress of change whatsoever. And even if the conversation is just an incremental one, it’s going to make a lot of difference for someone. Don’t change the world; change someone’s world for the better.”

But while these women were marching the streets, devoting themselves to trying to make that conversation happen, there are still lots of issues left unheard and many female voices not being taken seriously. During Reclaim the Night, some men swore and yelled at the crowd, made offensive gestures and teased the marchers. Ironically, the circumstances were better this year than the last one during which some women felt fearful for their wellbeing. The difference was that, on this march, security presence was requested; in any other kind of march guards are not usually needed.

As with many movements in recent years, more awareness has been raised and people in power have started acknowledging the need for women to feel safe. But it is a process moving at a slow pace, and many are still neglecting the issue. This shows the need of constant conversation to enable people to understand the impact of gendered violence. It is also giving us as a society an opportunity to reflect: what else can we and those in power do to make this matter more recognizable to all and to effectively reduce it?

Published at Forge: http://forgetoday.com/2020/01/09/reclaim-the-night-will-women-ever-be-able-to-walk-safely-at-night/

Opinion: The UK should allow Shamima Begum to come back

Published at Forge: http://forgetoday.com/2019/04/01/opinion-uk-should-allow-shamima-begum-to-come-back/

If you’ve been following the news or are on social media, you probably know about Shamima Begum, the 20-year-old British girl who travelled to Syria in 2015 and recently had her citizenship revoked after asking to return to the country with her newborn child. Her face has been on every front page with people seemingly hugely divided on the potential rights and wrongs of allowing her to come back. With the recent passing of her baby that debate has been reignited and, to my mind, Britain should set a humane example by letting her come home.

In July 2017 it was revealed by multiple papers that the UK had revoked the citizenship of 150 ‘jihadists and criminals’, yet Shamima Begum belongs to neither category. A jihadist is someone who is involved in a ‘violent struggle’; as far as we know, she has never killed anyone or been part of propaganda spreading messages. The media continues to portray her as an extremist and a danger to society yet there is no concrete evidence to support this, except a collective displeasure towards her choice to go to Syria, which surely only highlights further the problem of Islamophobia that this country is trying to resolve.

What is also not mentioned is how susceptible today’s teenagers are to external influences; the effects of social media and peer pressure can add to the feelings of confusion that often consume many teenagers. That, in addition to their search for a purpose and a place they belong, makes them more likely to rebel or even be lured away. What happened with Shamima happens on a smaller scale with millions of teenagers on a daily basis. Should every teenager who acts out or makes a wrong move be turned away?

Even now, when speaking in interviews, Shamima did not appear the composed and threatening woman that she is portrayed to be, but a frightened young girl fearing for her and her child’s life. Instead of this situation being an opportunity to show that there is compassion and acceptance in this country, it has turned into a fuel for the existing hatred and Islamophobia that has created such problems to begin with.

So, unlike Sajid Javid’s belief that revoking her citizenship is somehow for the good of the British people, the truth is, when the country is turning its back on people who ask for a second chance, it is essentially proving the jihadists’ point that there is no home in the UK for these people. This is a dangerous and counterproductive message to send to these frightened young people, and as a society we need to make sure we prove them wrong.

The Amazon Fires: A discussion on veganism

Published at: Forge Press

While it is now more widely accepted, veganism has always been a controversial subject in the eyes of the world. The plant-based diet carries a social stigma for its community, described as the latest ‘trend’ for new generations to sell their alternativeness, scorned for differing from the norm and deemed extreme by many. A 2015 study by Cara Mclnnis and Gordon Hodson shows that it is often viewed with equal or more hatred than groups of targeted prejudice such as atheists or members of the LGBT community. However, if there was a time to reconsider the meaning and value of veganism, it is today.

It has been an eventful summer, with temperatures reaching such heights to place 2019 in the top three warmest years, naming July 2019 as the hottest month to date. These climate anomalies have resulted in deaths being recorded all over Europe but the latest story that taking over the news are forest fires. Specifically, the one currently scorching the Amazonian forest. 

The Amazonian forest has been harvested by farmers and cattle ranchers for decades to create pasture for mass-breeding of animals. When the fire broke the news it was quickly confirmed by both experts and environmentalists that the extreme agriculture was the catalyst. This was also followed by assertions that the Brazilian government hindered the news of the disaster from coming out, either to save face or to keep it going for as long as possible. So, after three weeks of the forest silently burning, the resulting public outrage led to a storm of prayers and donations from the public as celebrities and governments rallied to save the forest commonly referred to as ‘the planet’s lungs’. Be that as it may, one has to wonder if a response such as this one, that has come a thousand times before, will only have superficial results and, perhaps, we should dig a little deeper this time. 

The reasons detected behind the Amazon disaster are deforestation along with (and a by-product of) extreme agriculture. These not only ascribe to 80% of the Amazon’s fires each year but they are also some of the main aggravations of climate change and greenhouse emissions. Maybe what we need to ask is: Why? Why is cutting a couple of trees in order to breed more animals so bad? Why should we give this issue more attention than other sources of carbon footprints, such as cars and factories? How is this even related to veganism? Let me shed a slither of light to a few of these questions for you dear readers.

Deforestation is a tale as old as time, with woodcutting being one of the oldest professions to date. It might surprise you to learn that deforestation by fire is the healthiest way to clear a forest land without preventing it from rejuvenating. But times are new, businesses are greedier than ever and the market is demanding; meat is one of the cheapest and most sought out products. So, naturally we cut down as many trees as possible in order to build the needed farms and warehouses. Lands are left barren while the high temperatures and wind encourage fires to blaze. And, again, why?

As much as we love meat on our table, according to healtheater.com from a health perspective we actually do not need the amount we consume or purchase and which contributes to this level of farming. It is actually advised by the World Cancer Research Fund to never eat more than three small servings of red meat per week, which to note is described as a safe amount, and to avoid processed meat such as ham, bacon or sausages all together. That being said, beef production takes up about 60 percent of agriculture land while it amounts for less than 2 percent of the world’s calorie intake. That is because we live in a world which values quantity more than anything. The production of beef and lamb makes up 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from food which amounts to a high 26 percent of the total emissions. That is an inflated percentage for something that seemingly should not be a concern if we regarded our diets with the same care we do with our clothes and belongings. 

The truth is, veganism, with its strict dietary rules and restrictions, was never vital before but years and years of exhausting and mistreating our natural sources for an extraneous number of products, has led to this lifestyle becoming not just a stand but a valuable weapon. In fact, a recent UN report backed by 107 scientists advocated that a plant-based diet is a reliable and effective way to deal with climate change. It is a way for people to be hands-on to a threat becoming more and more apparent with each passing year.

But, we needn’t forget that veganism was initially a stand against the cruelty of animals that pasture is created for. It is a bit ironic to see the animals for which the trees are cut and burnt are also being treated with the same cruelty. While we are sold advertisements full of healthy cows happily chewing  grass, the industry is actually notorious for its mistreatment towards these animals. A quick internet research will expose you to hundreds of images of scrawny cattle with their bones visibly sticking out underneath their skin, so apparent you could count them with little effort. In these ‘factory farms’ the cows are made to produce 15 gallons of milk each day (14 more than they naturally do), while living in awful and unsanitary conditions that inflict them with wounds and infections in their hooves and udder. 

In a similar case, battery chicken farms house four-week-old chicks who are shot with growth hormones turning them as big as four-year-old chickens for big brand stores to be stocked faster with our favorite chicken wings. These chicks are put in warehouses toppling over each other with no space to move and in total darkness as the overdose of hormones slowly leads to various physical impairments and chronic pains. Chicken meat is a beloved dish by many and a big source of protein but described above are just a glimpse of the suffering these animals endure before ending up packaged in our freezer. Their treatment is unnecessary, unjustified, and inhumane.

Consequently, even in the case of the Amazon fires, the root of the disaster can be traced back to overeager food industries as every aspect of their work is contaminated with greed and cruelty.  The saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ has been a very convenient excuse to avoid responsibility for a long time, but now we have reached a point where the problem can no longer be ignored if we hope to salvage anything for our generation and the ones to come. Scorned, dismissed or frowned upon, veganism is regardless an effective, scientifically proven action we can all take. No shout-outs, likes or distant donations will achieve long-term results if we do not embrace some change in our own lives. 

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that veganism is not an easy lifestyle to follow, nor is it for everyone. The UN study pointed out that a plant-based diet could alleviate the current climate state but does that mean everyone has to renounce all meat and dairy products? Veganism for environmental purposes should not be viewed as a stop sign for food, people that are unable to follow its strict rulebook can instead take something from it and become more conscious eaters.  For example, when it comes to dairy there are a variety of non-dairy milks to choose from as a vegan, but if you are in need of actual milk there is the alternative of goat milk. While comparatively lesser known than cow milk, it is actually a great substitute, lacks the animal abuse scandals, and the cheese is delicious. 

However, where an absence of milk can be tolerated, some people find giving up meat more difficult than quitting smoking. Fairly, when someone says they are vegans or vegetarians one thing that is unconditional is a zero percentage of meat in their diet; but it is possible to be a part of the change and cook a beef steak once in a while if we are careful of where we buy it from. Whether the goal is to reduce the general intake of meat or stop animal cruelty we should not be overlooking a particular sector of the business: local or independent farms. Local farm products are undeniably a bit pricier but they come from people who ethically raise animals. It is a business currently being smothered under the overbearing shadow of factory farms and well-known meat and dairy brands that stock the shelves of big chain stores such as Sainsbury’s and Asda.

As humans we have a tendency to see things very black and white, right or wrong, but that is seldom the case. When it comes to changing the status quo, completely forgoing and renouncing the use of certain products should not be viewed as the only way. This change can be achieved not only by quitting habits, but also switching them, finding better alternatives, supporting the right businesses, and getting informed. Local farms and businesses are the perfect way to be conscious of what you are eating and having the knowledge of how the food on your plate was made. 

It is incredible to watch the change in the way we view veganism since the climate crisis struck red, but it is vital to not also view it unilaterally. A plant-focused lifestyle that also includes dairy and meat products can be just as powerful if they come from the right farms, and can even produce a manifold effect: helping the environment, taking a stand against animal cruelty, and helping local economy flourish. So, while veganism’s value has grown in the past few years, it is important to acknowledge its importance and benefits, take something from it, and understand that it is not the only way to help. Instead, add more greens than processed food in your plate, visit your local farmers’ market(s) or your local farm, and get more informed about the food you consume every day. 

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