From Stranger To Sounding Board - How Problem-Solving Booths Can Improve Mental Wellbeing

26/07/2017 11:39 BST | Updated 26/07/2017 11:39 BST

Who do you turn to when you need help solving your problems - your friends? Your partner? Your family?

Or strangers on the street?

Last week I was taken right out of my comfort zone. I volunteered at a 'problem solving booth' in City Hall, London. I stopped strangers - those on their lunch breaks, those passing by - to help me solve a problem.

The basement of City Hall was set up with conversation in mind, simple human interaction - a few picnic chairs, some cardboard signs to indicate the 'helpers' and the 'helped', and people offering their time and support to solve a problem.

I really liked the concept. Getting people to talk, encouraging people to help others solve problems and shifting power. Those helping, offering solutions were not professionals - they could be anyone.

It started with a conversation one of the co-founders of Owls had with a young man newly released from prison - when asked what would help him to re-build his life, he said 'a problem solving booth on my street'. Problem solving booths are now a key feature of the new ThriveLDN campaign - a movement to improve the mental wellbeing of all Londoners, in a way that has never been done before.

But I was still unsure as to how would this work in practice. I convinced someone to stop for a few minutes, we sat down and I asked them for help. I asked the passer-by for help in solving my own problem. The more we chatted, the more engaged they became. I was empowering them to help me, which felt empowering to me.

After I had been offered advice and we had built a rapport, the same person was then open to me asking them if they had a problem I could help solve. I had conversations where I sought advice on achieving an effective work-life balance. In turn, I helped with a range of issues, from noisy neighbours to the importance of physical activity in helping with our mental health.

I asked for feedback from those I spoke to. It was positive, they liked the idea, talking to someone they didn't know - helping and then getting help. Other volunteers spoke of the same experience - they said that when helping with a solution for someone else, that very person realised that their solution could also solve their own problem - the most empowering kind of conversation.

My experience of this simple tactic to get people talking was overwhelmingly positive, but it can't end here. The booths will be progressed by Owls and ThriveLDN to continue to support the mental health of Londoners. As part of my role as Director of Alternative Delivery at Catch22, I'm keen to develop problem solving booths for care leavers in Southwark as part of our care leavers partnership.

Supporting peer-to-peer problem solving, with young people empowered to help each other, is a concept I think could be incredibly powerful. I'm left wondering what other solutions this simple, and very human concept could help to solve.