16 April 2018

Healthy-communities-are-built-on-community

Do you remember hearing of research from the ‘40s that orphan babies that lacked human contact actually died? What about the study from 2010 that reviewed 148 studies involving 300,000 people over 7 years and discovered that those with strong social relationships had a 50% lower chance of death than those with weak connections.

Now something even more dramatic! Over 3 years, a community based intervention has reduced Emergency Department admissions by around 40%. Nothing has been previously recorded that comes anywhere close to such a huge benefit.

So this week we explore what could be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades - the discovery of the power of community, but first


     Thought for the day

Illness is a part of every human being's experience. 
It enhances our perceptions and reduces self-consciousness. 
It is the great confessional; 
Things are said, truths are blurted out which health conceals.

             Virginia Woolf  





Frome is a pretty Somerset town not far from Bath, notable for being described in 2014 by The Times as the "sixth coolest town" in Britain. But a year before this accolade was issued, something way more remarkable was set in train.

Helen Kingston is a Frome GP who was not content with the norm. Her norm was patient after patient who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives. Helen observed the system almost demanded she treat them as if they were just a bunch of medical symptoms, rather than a real person who had real human problems. The normal style of GP practice was distressing to her, her patients, and her staff.


Helen decided to act.

She launched the Compassionate Frome Project.

First, with the help of the National Health System and the town council, a directory of agencies and community groups was set up.

Gaps were identified, then filled.



Next, new staff called “Health connectors” were employed to help people plan their care, and soon voluntary “community connectors” were trained to help people find the support they needed - handling debt or housing problems, joining a choir or lunch club, locating an exercise group, writing workshop or men’s shed.

The aim was to break a cycle; a cycle of isolation.

So often illness reduces people’s ability to socialise.

And it is well known that social isolation is a major risk factor for many diseases, particularly the chronic degenerative ones.

And clearly, isolation and loneliness make it harder to heal and recover from illness.




The science is well known.
In days long gone, sickness made us vulnerable to attack. So messenger molecules called cytokines are released during illness that function in 2 ways. Firstly cytokines cause inflammation aimed at aiding the healing process; but secondly they bring on an interesting group of feelings.

Cytokines are linked with depression, but interestingly, while they do make us more likely to withdraw from society in general, they also cause us to seek out closer contact with those we love. How remarkable is this body of ours!



So the problem?

None really if you do have close support.

However, in crowded cities there is so
much loneliness and social isolation.

In America, one study found the number of people who say they have no confidant increased three fold in 20 years.



Again, in days gone by, social isolation meant more risk of sickness and attack. So our immune systems evolved to create inflammation when we become isolated, in the hope of protecting us.

Put simply, isolation causes inflammation. Inflammation causes further isolation and depression. Chronic inflammation creates greater health risks and a lowered ability to heal. A vicious cycle.

So is this reversible? 
Well a famous earlier review paper suggested the Frome project could well work. In 2010, examining 148 studies involving 300,000 people revealed those with strong social relationships had a 50% lower chance of death across the average study period (7.5 years) than those with weak connections. The researchers reported “The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking.”

Dozens of subsequent papers reinforce these conclusions. For example, HIV patients with strong social support have lower levels of the virus than those without.

Women have better chances of surviving colorectal cancer if they have strong connections.

Young children who are socially isolated appear more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes in adulthood.

Most remarkably, older patients with either one or two chronic diseases do not have higher death rates than those who are not suffering from chronic disease – as long as they have high levels of social support.

But how do you CREATE social support? 
How do you counter-act isolation?  What did they do in Frome?

The systems described above that Helen Kingston and her teams were able to establish to support isolated people with health problems were made possible by community groups and volunteers.

And the outcomes?
During the three years of the study, emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% across the whole of Somerset. However, in Frome they fell by a remarkable 17%!

Julian Abel, a consultant physician in palliative care and lead author of the draft paper, remarks: “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.”

This is a landmark study and one every community warrants taking to heart.

So what to do?
The evidence strongly suggests that social contact should be on prescription.

If you are a social activist, become even more involved in creating communities. Set up support groups, volunteer, lobby councils and government.

If you have illness or want long-term good health, become even more involved in community activities. Join a support groups, volunteer, lobby councils and government. Reach out. It could reduce health problems by around 40%!

And as one commentator observed, “the innovative work of the Compassionate Frome project has shown how, by translating impulses of kindness born out of concern for one’s fellow human beings into effectively organised social action, a town can do more than restore a sense of value and purpose in both carers and those in need of care: it can also bring significant practical and financial benefits to the whole community”.

Speaking personally
Building community is one of the things I am now most interested in. Whether it be the on-line community my new meditation app enables (more of this in the next post) or by becoming more involved in local affairs; going to art classes or supporting my own spiritual group and its community, it is not hard but it does take time and resolve. A resolve that soon becomes effortless as the obvious multiple benefits flow for self and others.

Where are the new community opportunities for you?




02 April 2018

Life-transitions-Moment-by-moment-change,-retirement,-loss-and-renewal

We all will have “retired” from many things. Many transitions. In fact, moment-by-moment everything is changing, so we could say we are “transitioning” all the time; even though we may not notice it so obviously.

Certainly, some transitions are way more obvious. How do we name them? Retirement? Moved on? Forced out? Found something new? Left it behind? Joyful change? Divorce? New Beginnings?

What is next???

My own life is in another major transition. Completed the last meditation retreat I will lead last week and am now moving into another phase. So this week, to answer the questions of those who are interested, and at the risk of sounding self-indulgent, a review of past transitions (not past transgressions!) and an outline of what is next, but first

        Thought for the day

The attainment of wholeness 
Requires one to stake one’s whole being.
Nothing less will do. 
There can be
No easier conditions,
No substitutes,
No compromises.
                                 Carl Jung


A list of earlier work related “retirements”…

1975   Retired as an equine veterinarian - having a leg amputated will do that

1984   Retired altogether as a veterinarian - to concentrate upon developing the Foundation, cancer programs and teaching meditation

1990   Took a year off to reflect on the work and planning the residential centre and programs

2009   Retired from full-time job at the Gawler Foundation

2017   Presented last cancer residential program

2018   Presented last residential meditation retreat


             Being sung to at the conclusion of the last retreat... 
          Amazing song; very warm :)


So why the change, and what next? 

The reasons I am stopping leading residential programs and retreats are multiple… For a start, at 68 my energy levels are not what they used to be. If, as in the old days, I was running the Foundation during this last retreat, while at the same time leading non-residential programs and preparing for another residential program in the next week or 2, plus all else I used to do; well frankly, I just cannot manage that level of activity at present.

But moreover, it is time to do more personal study and practice. I have attended so many great retreats as a participant, have so many incredible notes stored away; the time has come to study them and attempt to take them more to heart. And do more practice. Over the years, attempting to teach what I have learnt has been wonderful, but now it is time to go more deeply into all of this.

So the other things still on the go include the meditation platform App - the Meditation Gateway, and my personalised version of that which makes an online meditation program available in my voice - actually called My Meditation app - more of that next blog.

Then there is the writing - I am currently almost finished a new meditation book, and am considering writing on contemplation as it is so useful, and there is little written specifically on this subject that seems really clear and useful.


And the blog will continue - it feels like a good way to keep in connection...

However, on top of these things, there is a major project I have been invited to co-found by Martin Hosking. Martin is founding CEO of Redbubble, a dedicated meditator (has come to many of our retreats) and devoted Christian. Martin is keen to establish a Christian-based, reproducible meditation retreat centre and program that can provide something similar to what the Vipassana program accomplishes - a widely accessible meditation program that is available all around the world and rooted in Christianity rather than Buddhism as is Vipassana.

This project appeals to me greatly as while I do call myself a Buddhist these days, I still hold Christianity dear. Just because one has adopted something new, does not mean one needs to do away with the old. Integration is possible, and in this instance, very welcome. Martin has asked me to take a major role in establishing the program, so this is a big project and one with which I will need to manage my time closely.

Also, I am open to the occasional public speaking event or conference appearance. Considering a day workshop in Melbourne in December with 2 great meditation teachers from Europe, but more on that later.


Amidst all this, Ruth will continue with her own work - still seeing a few people privately and beginning her own new career as meditation retreat leader. She will be terrific at this. Ruth has been very happy supporting me over many recent years and while we have done many programs together, she is now ready to step forward. A big transition for her and one I am keen to support fully.


Interested in numbers?

Seems so far I have attended over 30 retreats as a participant - most around 10 days, longest 3 months. Led around 100 meditation retreats myself, along with around 250 cancer residential programs, 250 public workshops and 30 non-residential meditation groups and around 100 non-residential cancer groups.

You Can Conquer Cancer went into 13 languages and has sold over 350.000 copies. (It is now available as a spoken book on our website). On average books are read by about 4 people, so 1,400,000 people may well have read it. Peace of Mind sold over 100,000 copies, Meditation - Pure and Simple around 50,000 and the Imagery book - now renamed The Mind that Changes Everything, around 40,000. Meditation -an In-depth Guide that was co-authored with Paul Bedson has sold around 15,000; the latest has not sold anything ! - may be released in around 6 months.



On the personal front, it is great to be back at painting classes again and the garden is flourishing.

Also, despite having those 3 considerable areas of work to continue with, there is a clear sense of more time being available for the more personal things including more time with family and friends.

But overall, a greater emphasis on study and practice.





                                                                                Recent work in progress -foreground to complete....

So that is a snap shot.

Clearly not a full retirement, but definitely a major part of my life coming to an end.

I will miss the retreats. This last one was truly wonder full. Great people. Noble company. Noble conversations. And deep meditations together. The Yarra Valley Living Centre such a terrific venue. Great staff. Hard to leave behind but there is this clear inner knowing. As with all the other major transitions in my life, the inner knowing is clear. It is time for this next big transition.





        And throughout,
        moment-by-moment,
        the little transitions are constantly flowing.

             
                    Doors opening. Doors closing.




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