‘Referrals for therapy went up by 900%’ – Natasha Benjamin, Free Your Mind
Witnessing the domestic abuse of her mother while growing up made Natasha Benjamin determined to help others in similar situations. Her social enterprise, Free Your Mind, provides counselling and holistic therapies to people aged four to 25 who have experienced domestic violence as children. With lockdown putting a stop to face-to-face therapy, her team had to find ways to support children online – while responding to a huge upsurge in demand.
“I grew up around domestic violence – there were so many incidents and memories, so much trauma that I was carrying – but I had never identified with it. It was always something that I said my mum had gone through.
Around 2012, I had a breakdown. In the recovery process, I started to retrace my steps and remember thinking, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ I’d got into university, I got a job and was making decent money, I had friends. But that was really just the surface, and underneath were insecurities, a bit of a drinking problem, and issues in friendships and relationships. Everything was rooted in the lens of trauma.
It has been quite sad realising just how difficult lockdown has been for a lot of the children. Emotionally, some were almost back to square one
I started looking back at my childhood and all my repressed memories started coming back, all the things that I had experienced. It was really painful. I wasn't ready to talk to anyone about it so I started to write a blog – I was just doing my own bit of self-discovery. But I wasn't very savvy back then, and I started to get responses from people. That was when I realised my blog wasn't private – it was for the world to see!
People were saying things like: ‘Finally someone's talking about this’. So I started to look out for services that could support child victims of domestic violence – there were so many of us living with these memories and feeling very alone. I decided to do something about it myself.
I’ve been running Free Your Mind since 2013. We provide therapy, counselling and holistic therapies for children. No child gets the same service because we look at them as individuals. We have a space in Redbridge [east London] where children were able to come to receive face-to-face support. But when we heard about lockdown, I thought, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to adapt?’
In the beginning, Zoom was getting hacked a lot, so from a safeguarding perspective we decided to build our own online platform to talk to the children. I quickly put a call out on social media to say I needed this platform – and it took about six weeks to build, funded by donations and reserves. While it was being built, we would speak [to the children] on FaceTime and WhatsApp, depending on the child and what they preferred. Some even preferred just talking by text. We let them lead.
We decided to build our own online platform to talk to the children – it took about six weeks to build
Not every child wants to sit and talk, especially the young ones – they want to play and move. So usually [pre-Covid] we'd paint and draw to help them process their experience. We've become very creative over this period, in ways that we never imagined. I will get my pens, paper and coloured pencils too so that we're both drawing and can show each other what we’ve drawn. But what has been quite sad is realising just how difficult this has been for a lot of the children. For some, we'd come really far in the sessions and were almost at a place of discharging them from our service, but lockdown had triggered them. And, emotionally, they were almost back to square one.
Spike in demand
We saw a huge spike in referrals over the past few months – they went up by 900%. We've seen 80 children already this year. So we have recruited during lockdown. We grew from a team of five to seven part-time staff. We needed more people and someone who could handle all the admin. It was becoming impossible for me to juggle everything. And thankfully we have an ongoing partnership with our local council who refers children to us – and we’d already been commissioned by them for this year, so we are able to support the increase. Most children get support within a month of referral; it can be slightly longer but at the longest they might wait two months.
If I'm honest, I'm quite frazzled, I need a break. I'm at my best for the children when I've had a good sleep, and I think it's a good example to set. If I’m not in the right frame of mind myself, then it's almost hypocritical to expect the children to put the work in.”
Natasha was speaking to Sasha Gallick. Read more about Free Your Mind.
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