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Support to get online is vital for those helped by a North Wales mental health charity

From Phil Griffiths, Chief Officer, Tan Y Maen

We work in an area where it is often difficult to access the digital world in the way most take for granted. The effects of change from old industries to new technology has resulted in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town of some 6000 people nestling at the top of a range of hills in Southern Snowdonia, having to play ‘catch up’ to become part of the digital revolution.

Yes, we (unlike many parts of Snowdonia and rural North Wales) have digital telephone technology, a good mobile phone connection and a reasonable speed for broadband services (fibre optic broadband has just become available) but what has been forgotten is that it is people who have to be supported to ensure take up and this can only be achieved by improvements in resources, education and access.

This is no more evident than in the change from office and telephone based welfare benefits services to the requirement to be ‘online’ to access and maintain ‘Universal Credit’. The legacy of the decline of heavy industry locally has been a rise in poverty, unemployment and isolation. For many of our clients the choice is buy a computer or eat, it’s your decision. So it was in this context that, in 2014, we started our ‘Clwb Camau I Waith’ – ‘Steps to Work Club’.

It was clear that claimants were struggling to comply with new requirements to apply and maintain their applications on the new government website. The requirements of online daily reporting, regular online job searches, an online CV system and the need to have a functioning email account was resulting in some claimants losing out on benefit entitlements, being sanctioned for non-compliance and becoming anxious and depressed, not only by their lack of work but by their inability to manage and thrive within a totally new and alien environment – IT and the internet.

Since we started our ‘Clwb’ we have worked with anything between two and ten people every week. Age ranges from 18 to 65. Most come to access our laptop computers where they can make good their commitment to ‘job search’ and report on their progress online. Other library based public computer services are available, but the reason they come to us is that we give impartial, non-judgemental and holistic support with any IT challenges they face. We are patient. Many who come were unable to switch on a computer, and regrettably, despite our best efforts, some still are. Equally, we have enabled many to overcome the ‘knowledge barrier’ and whilst they needed almost 100% support at the beginning they are now able to be largely self-reliant, needing only occasional ‘fire-fighting support’ when trying to deal with an issue beyond their current level of expertise.

A typical example of a journey through the ‘Clwb’ might be an initial attendance with the set up information from the ‘Jobcentre Plus’ (account details and passwords for the Government website). We find out their level of competence and discuss their needs and then help them to set up an email account, explain how to use it and register their account with the Jobcentre. In following weeks we access the Universal Credit website, job search, print work related information, print job opportunities, prepare and upload a CV to the website and send out CVs to employers. We advise on the best job related online agencies and help people to register. We help people to record their job search activities and support and advocate when there has been a gap or a problem in their job search, due to personal or health related issues.

Most importantly, people’s ’fear’ of new technology has been alleviated. They feel part of the ‘digital community’ and have access to a wider range of information and services than they previously thought possible

It is clear that the levels of anxiety shown by clients at the outset are substantially reduced by the support we provide. Our staff knowledge and understanding of internet based services has been greatly improved and we have set up a ‘jobs board’, where new job opportunities are summarised and posted in both Welsh and English.

Most importantly, people’s ’fear’ of new technology has been alleviated. They feel part of the ‘digital community’ and have access to a wider range of information and services than they previously thought possible. People’s horizons have been extended beyond their own family and community to the ‘World Wide Web’ of connected individuals and groups where isolation is reduced at the touch of a button, and people can maintain connections with extended families and friends in a supportive environment.

It’s a start but more needs to be done. We have a vision of ‘connected communities’ giving support and self-help, better use of Skype-type facilities to ease the burden on overstretched medical centres and mental health services, giving internet based ‘talking therapies’ and crisis support, ‘connected centres’ providing group support services in communities and reducing loneliness and isolation for all age groups.

Our reasons for signing up to the Digital Inclusion Charter encompasses all these goals and more, especially giving hope to those who have felt alienated and
neglected by the relentless march of technology and progress which has, up to now, shown little relevance to the reality of their everyday lives.