Researching Reform were very lucky to be invited to the UK launch of Heal For Life, an organisation dedicated to supporting, empowering and ‘healing’ children and adults who have suffered physical or emotional abuse.
Heal For Life started out in Australia in 1995, and is essentially, as their website explains ” a residential healing programme for survivors of childhood trauma and abuse”. The founder and CEO, Liz Mullinar, was at one time a very successful casting director, responsible for helping to kick-start some of the most famous Australian actors we see on our screens today, from Nicole Kidman to Geoffrey Rush and even Cate Blanchett. However Liz had suffered abuse as a child herself and wanted to be able to create something she felt wasn’t available to people who had suffered the same or similar experiences in childhood.
Heal For Life in Australia has been very successful, too. 57% of those who attended a programme in Australia felt that the experience had been life changing for them and the programme currently has a 96% success rate, which also sees a 45% reduction of symptoms in people considered to have a serious mental health illness. And further independent analysis of the programme confirms that after 4 years post treatment, there continues to be an ongoing reduction in symptoms such as depression and mental illness, in visitors to the Heal for Life centre.
The centre is unique, in other ways, too. All of the people who volunteer and work at the centre have been victims of abuse, which range from emotional to physical abuse, and have all taken part in the Heal For Life programme. We understood from the meeting today that ensuring volunteers are no longer in pain is considered a priority when making sure that they are able to help visitors to the centre without conflicts of interest (like personal agendas from unresolved past experiences) getting in the way.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Heal For Life programme is the sophistication in its simplicity. The work done at the centre focuses very much on the idea that it’s important to acknowledge painful feelings and work through them and the way the centre is set up to do that is very interesting indeed. People can stay as long as they want at the centre and the peaceful environment has been designed with what we would call intimate breathing space – pockets of landscape which whilst offering visitors to the centre their own space is designed in a way to make sure that if comfort is needed, there is someone nearby, visible, who can be there. One such space is called a Crying Space: visitors can use these spaces to let go, cry and get in touch with their emotions, but they are not alone. If they should need a hug or some form of human reassurance, volunteers at the centre move around in this space, for easy access.
The launch itself was also simple, but effective and very elegant and among the speakers for the launch were the Reverend Ravi Holy, who is the Chair for Heal For Life, Liz Mullinar herself and her sister Lucy, who is a highly accomplished landscape designer and responsible for creating the spaces at the Heal For Life centre in Australia, Hereward Harrison, best known for being The director of policy and research for ChildLine (and was at the launch because he has been advising the organisation), and several survivors who worked at Heal For Life and shared their stories with us.
Liz Mullinar opened the launch, which was held at the very lovely Saatchi & Saatchi headquarters on Charlotte Street, and which featured, though this is something of an aside, the best ever buffet lunch we had ever been to (gorgeous crockery, fresh sandwiches and more Diet Coke than you could shake a stick at), but our tummy digresses….. and with the launch in full swing, she introduced Hereward Harrison, who spoke only briefly but relayed a message of support from Baroness Howarth who was going to attend but was unable to make it. Baroness Howarth had very kindly organised a meeting for the organisation in the House of Lords in preparation for the launch. The organisation is also supported by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams’ wife Jane, who was also hoping to attend, but couldn’t do so.
We were then shown a short video about Heal For Life, which included testimonials from people who had used the centre.
Liz then continued to talk about Heal For Life and why she bought the programme over to the UK. Liz felt very strongly that abuse was a significant cause of adult dysfunction throughout life and that if abuse was addressed holistically, it could not only heal sufferers but also allow them to move on and life healthy, happy lives, which in turn would break potential cycles of abuse and improve quality of live and society at large. She went on to explain the history behind trauma, and talked about the steep learning curve in relation to PTSD and shell shock, with notable psychiatrists like Dr Bessel helping to increase understanding of how the mind and body react to stress. Trauma, Liz explained, is defined as “more emotion than a person can bear”.
Liz went on to highlight the structure of the programmes at the centre, which focus not just on acknowledging feelings but working through them and finding healthy ways to let them go. The centre is designed to be a safe place where people can do just that but it is not meant to be a stand-alone project. Heal For Life sees itself as part of a wider network of counsellors, therapists and psychiatrists, essentially clearing the cerebral cogs so that survivors can go on and make effective progress with their ongoing professional support. Heal For Life then, is designed to target the heart of the obstacle or painful blockage and clear it, so that survivors can move forward without the anxieties that they have carried, some, since childhood.
Liz then ended her speech with a look at culture; how we perceive problems and the modern approach to life which sometimes limits our ability to solve these problems. She went on to tell us that she often receives children at the centre who are told they will never be able to come off medication – but those same children leave the centre, medication free. And often, after only five days (one programme).
Jane, a survivor and organiser of the Kids’ Programme at Heal For Life went on to speak about her experiences and how the centre truly helped her and she was followed by Liz Mullinar’s sister, Lucy, who spoke about her experience of abuse and her subsequent desire to help with Heal For Life and how she qualified as a carer and facilitator and then also became involved with pastoral counselling. Last to speak was Francis, also a survivor and carer at Heal For Life who only spoke briefly to tell us that the UK website for the organisation would be launching at the end of this week and that Heal For Life was hoping to receive its charitable status in the new year.
The floor was then open for questions with people offering a show of support for the organisation and one gentleman expressing a cautionary but supportive note, as he described important new research which we ourselves have mentioned recently, about the importance of acknowledging that everyone reacts to trauma differently as a result of their genetic make up and the importance such a distinction might have on how we look at trauma and its origin: that trauma is not the cause but the trigger.
On that note, everyone was set loose on the sandwiches and began chatting away. We had the privilege of talking with some lovely people that afternoon, who were passionate about their work and one striking feature for us at least, was that while the organisation was fundamentally run by priests and practicing Christians, there was no apparent correlation between the work and any religious motivation. Everyone is truly welcome and with church abuse being a prominent aspect of the work the centre must engage in, it takes purity of thought to courageously tread on such ancient toes. Especially, if they are yours.
We would like to thank the Reverend Ravi Holy for so kindly inviting us; we had thought about greeting him as the Reverend Pasta (Pastor), but shyness got the better of us in the end and all we could manage was a wonky smile.
Holistic healing, with well thought out and secure environments, meticulous management and fluid processes which welcome rather than bind the pained body, is our future. To witness such elegance in action, is why we love what we do and it’s no co-incidence that we, like a growing number of people inside the family justice sector all share the same vision – stabilising the head and the heart for the journey ahead; whether that is rehabilitation, divorce or transforming your life.
We wish Heal for Life much success and hope that they grow and flourish.