Holding the Family in Mind

The fourth 1001 Critical Days conference for Newcastle upon Tyne took place on June 11th 2019 during Infant Mental Health Week. The annual conference promotes the 1001 Critical Days agenda. Three services in the North East: NEWPIP, the Perinatal Community Service, and the Family Community Hub in the East of the City described their services providing vivid descriptions of practice with families. The conference explored links between the realities of adversity during early childhood, with contributions from Dr Wendy Thorley on the ACES approach and supervision practices for the workforce with Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Solihull Approach. Dr Ian Robson invited the 200 participants of the conference to develop the City’s narrative of Early Help using creative and visual methods. The conference is organised by Newcastle upon Tyne’s Collaborative Learning and Strategic Planning group (CLASP). CLASP members come from the key partners in health, social care, statutory and community services who provide services within the 1001 critical days. This group was chaired by Deborah James from its inception in 2015 until 2018 when she left Northumbria University to join Manchester Metropolitan University. This year she was invited back to chair the meeting. Her opening address is provided below.


Good morning everyone. It’s so good to be here with you.

I want to start this morning with where we left off last year. In her summing up of last years’ conference, Dr Caroline White took up the personal story Ellie Fletcher Robbins, who, you may remember, presented, with the perinatal teams from Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, to this conference.  Ellie talked about the mountaineering work of recovery through perinatal mental illness. In her summing up, Caroline imagined Ellie at the top of the mountain; she saw her sending lines down to the climbers below – helping others on their own climb. Over this year, Ellie and I have been working towards that vision in the development of a small networking grant to the Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Fund.  The grant, if successful, will enable us to consider some of the conceptual resources that form the braids in those lines. The conceptual resources that form part of our working practices, are deeply rooted in our biographical narratives which themselves are entwined in the narrative infrastructure in our dwelling places.

If we are lucky, our biographical narratives are entwined in the history of our families. Those family stories can guide in how to live a good life in the face of adversity.

When we face the threat of dying on the mountain, it is the concepts embedded within the stories that remind us how to find love, keep faith and persist in hope.

If someone has already taken that route up the mountain and left a guide of how to tackle it, we can also use their prior experience to help us find a way to survive. We can graft our own experience into theirs and use their guide to help with our own survival.


All these braids in the line – our own family stories, our understanding of what it means to lead a good life and our ability to graft into other stories of survival – depend on our ability to extract meaning for ourselves from what we see and hear. Extracting meaning from the world around us is, I think, enabled or disabled by our sense of belonging to a family, a place, and a society. If I do not have a sense of belonging, the stories that might guide my survival are not accessible to me.

Belonging – becoming and going on being – these are the life lines – that yes, are rooted in the first 1001 days, but we need these lines to be available to us throughout the life course. When we are in pain we tend to recoil, take our limbs into ourselves, at such times, it is hard to reach out and grab hold of the lifelines.

As workers, I wonder if our most important role, is to create space where people can, unfold, just enough, to reach the lines that their families, their histories and their dwelling places have already thrown down for them.  Contemplate that image for a moment – how would it change our practices?

Ellie has sent in this image – her family – her son, James, who is holding because he was held.

Providing a holding space. A space where we are refreshed, a space where our shared cultural concepts of what it means to do good work are renewed and reinvigorated. That is what CLASP is all about. It is our ambition to use this conference to create such space.

This is your day.


Deborah James: Professor of Educational Psychology, School of Childhood, Youth and Education Studies, Faculty of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.

8 thoughts on “Holding the Family in Mind

  1. Changing the view, treatment and most importantly prevention of mental ill health in children and in adults, has to be the absolute priority if our communities and wider society are going to develop and prosper in these times.

    There are so many people, for so many reasons living devoid of true belonging, hope and contentment; that the notion of you trying to address this is both imperative and inspirational.

    I have no doubt that if achieved, the very seeds of mental health issues would be disrupted and could have an immeasurable positive impact on human nature.

    What a challenge to tackle, but what a potential outcome.

    You have my admiration and support.

  2. What a brilliant concept and one that sends out a powerful message in a way that enables you to grasp the reasoning behind it all. Let us hope you get the funding to carry this most necessary and valuable work on.

  3. This work is massively important in an area close to my heart. Funding for help for families who have been on this experience has been cut in recent years and its important for families to have resources to access for help and support not only during the initial 1001 but in the following years to come.

    Keep up the great work.

  4. In response to ‘Holding the Family in Mind’; My Grandma had postnatal depression after having my Mum and it was never spoken about, which affected their relationship throughout their lives. My Mum was much more open with us and was supported by various pre-school groups in the community. Any work being done to get a better understanding, open lines of communication and allow parents to solidify their families and address these issues should be fully supported. Good luck to Deborah and Ellie with their grant!

  5. I’ve had too many friends touched by the indiscriminate nature of this. Keep up the good work, it is such an important cause.

  6. Great to hear the positives coming out of this story. Good luck with the Wellcome Trust grant, Ellie and Deborah – and I hope you find ways of continuing this important work however the funding application works out!

  7. Fantastic work on such an important issue that needs far more exposure and support.

    All the very best with the application.


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