‘Setting Free’ event on mental health, addiction and prison: conference report

On Saturday 11 March, more than 40 people gathered at The Charterhouse in central London for the third conference organised by Being Alongside since the start of 2022.

The day focused on the inter-related topics of substance addiction, mental health and prison life, and we were pleased to welcome a range of expert guest speakers to help explore our subject.

Revd Jonathan Aitken, chaplain at HMP Pentonville, addresses the conference

Delegates heard from experienced psychiatrist Dr Paul McLaren about the current medical approach to major substance addictions – chief among them, alcohol dependency – and about recent updates to the international classification system, which guides healthcare professionals in making diagnoses. We also heard about the remaining gaps in medical knowledge about the nature of addictions and their treatment.

Our second speaker, Tess, focused on the long standing work of Alcoholics Anonymous, introducing the audience to the 12 step programme and other founding principles of the movement’s approach.

In the afternoon, we heard from the Revd Jonathan Aitken and CM Neil Fraser, two professionals working in the prison service, on their experience of mental health and neurodiversity among prisoners. Jonathan and Neil highlighted a project at HMP Pentonville which is actively seeking to better support inmates with autism and other related conditions.

In closing, BA Chair Ben Wilson set out plans by the charity to award grants to local churches and other faith groups interested in setting up frontline services – such as befriending schemes and cafĂ© style drop-in services – which would help support in “being alongside” those experiencing mental health difficulties, and facing gaps in statutory services.

Feedback from delegates suggested the conference was very well received. The trustees would again like to express their gratitude to the team at The Charterhouse for their hospitality in granting use of such fantastic facilities for the day.

You can listen back to the addresses given by our guest speakers below.

Dr Paul McLaren speaks on addiction

Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Group gave an overview of the current psychiatric approach to addictions and trends in such behaviours, and recent updates to the international classification system. Dr McLaren also offered thoughts on the relationship between addiction and mental health.

Tess, a healthcare professional working in private psychiatry, who gave a personal account of the support offered by Alcoholics Anonymous, drawing upon her professional experience working in rehabilitation.

CM Neil Fraser introduces delegates to the concept of the Neurodiversity Unit

Revd Jonathan Aitken, chaplain at HMP Pentonville, and his colleague Custodial Manager Neil Fraser, who gave insights onto how mental health difficulties are handled in UK prisons, and introduced Pentonville’s pioneering approach to supporting inmates with neurodiverse conditions such as autism. (While such conditions are today understood by the medical profession as neurodevelopmental in nature rather than psychiatric, the former can coexist with and exacerbate the latter, particularly in stressful contexts.)

Jamie Summers introduces Jonathan and Neil
Revd Jonathan Aitken and CM Neil Fraser speak to delegates