The Soke, founder Maryam Meddin

The Soke and the wellbeing impact of Covid-19, it’s healthy to talk…

The Soke interior
The Soke interior
BARN DOOR.jpg

It seems timely that The Soke will open in the wake of Coronavirus and all the mental health issues the time has triggered, how long has it been since idea to execution this Autumn 2020? 

Maryam Meddin
Maryam Meddin

I first thought about a modernised, service-led mental health solution almost 10 years ago when I was studying part time for a Masters in psychotherapy and becoming increasingly aware of the shortcomings of the sector. At that time, I already had my hands full with a branding & comms agency that I’d launched some years earlier, so I didn’t do anything about it and assumed that someone else would be better placed to fill the void. In the summer of 2018, much to my surprise, that “someone else” had yet to emerge and this time I was in a stronger position to think about it seriously myself. The starting point was to speak to a handful of people whose opinions could have swayed me either way – without exception they were encouraging and supportive. This gave me the confidence to devote a significant amount of my time to researching, learning, listening and refining every detail of my idea until it turned into an audience-ready business plan. All in all, it will have taken about two years between starting to put together that business plan and opening our doors in October 2020.

Why did you choose your Chelsea location – how do you feel connected to the community? 

Integral to the idea behind The Soke is the distancing of non-acute mental health services from the clinical treatment model. That meant literally distancing ourselves from Harley Street and positioning our home in a residential area that would be physically and psychologically easy to access for our prospective clients. I was so intent on finding a site in the neighbourhood that it featured in all the plans as “The South Kensington centre” – and that’s how we ended up with our abbreviated name: The Soke.

I lived in RBKC for about 20 years before I moved to Maida Vale 15 years ago. Most of my friends live in the borough and because of that its where I spend most of my leisure time, so I still feel very connected to it. I’m now thrilled to be returning with something new and interesting for a community that’s always receptive to businesses that are prepared to maintain its high standards for quality.

I know The Soke is built upon the tenet to progress mental health conversations and in particular practice approach but can you tell us more about the ideas behind it? 

As I mentioned, one of the central ideas is to create a distinction between mental health and mental illness. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to contend with the burden that comes with a diagnosable mental illness but we do – without exception – need to engage with our mind in order to keep it healthy. For different people, this can take different forms – we’re not suggesting that without therapy there’s no mental health – but in many cases having someone to help you through the process of resolving an issue, overcome a challenge or indeed just develop clarity and strength, can be an immensely effective route to being in a better place: emotionally, psychologically, professionally or whatever else you’re aiming towards. The Soke is positioning itself to work with you wherever you are on that scale of health, understanding that it’s not only the broken who get better by engaging with their cognitive wellbeing, everyone does. 

How is the space designed to be different from most mental health therapy/counselling? 

The recent advances that have been made in the conversations around mental health are really remarkable – so much effort and investment has been made to persuade people, particularly young people, that depression, anxiety and so on are perfectly normal elements of a life experience. However, if and when they do decide to seek out professional help, the physical experience remains  very much on par with any other “medical” intervention: a clinical reception, an anonymous environment, a bland consulting room.. Providing a solution in such an environment can make it more difficult to persuade an individual that they’re not “ill”. The attention that we’re paying to the detail of The Soke space is therefore not to be mistaken for superficial aesthetics (although there’s nothing wrong with wanting to receive any sort of service in a nice environment), but should be viewed in the context of creating a space that considers – and fuels – the sense of wellbeing, positivity and safety of those who pass through its doors.

How do you personally define the term ‘psychological wellbeing’ – the basis of The Soke space? 

Adding to what I have mentioned above, I think that psychological wellbeing should be viewed as at least on par with physical wellbeing and the literal and metaphorical strength that comes with it. In the same way that the people who most often go to the gym are not those whose health may require it the most (but those who are in fact the fittest), psychological wellbeing should be something that is seen as health that can continually be improved upon.

As much as the stigmas surrounding mental health and conversations around it have opened up vastly over the past few years, where do you think we are still behind in accepting it in a day to day way? 

I think that there’s still some way to go until we get to a point where it really does become a normal aspect of day to day conversation but, at the risk of blowing our own trumpet, I think that spaces like ours will play a large part in making further necessary advances. 

Corporates are showing a real change in attitude but we know – through anecdotal evidence – that what appears to be company policy doesn’t always translate into a sense of security for the employee. 

Society still needs to evolve from permission, ie: “it’s ok to talk” towards aspiration: “it’s healthy to talk”. In other words, one day soon (we hope!) talking with be a sign of a commitment to wellness.

With Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown seeing a huge spike in issues such as domestic violence, eating disorders and depression, what do you expect to be the legacy from it (good and bad)? 

We really are in the realms of the unknown and will have to wait & see with so much of what’s yet to come. However, what seems to be on the horizon at the moment is a huge increase in demand for mental health services and, unfortunately, an infrastructure that simply won’t have the resources to deal with it. I don’t know what our role will be beyond our own centre but I know that as an organisation we’re committed to contributing to our community and to wider society in any way that we can. This is a real live issue for us at the moment and something that comes up regularly in our leadership meetings. One of our goals in establishing a strong clinical and organisational reputation is so that we can make our voice heard when & where it counts. Ultimately any solution has to be joined up across the sector and we won’t hesitate to be involved.

On a positive note: for those in the fortunate position whose lives or livelihoods haven’t been devastated by Covid-19, the period of isolation has been an interesting exercise of “living in the now”. Without the ability to make plans, we’ve had a slower pace of life forced upon us and actually a re-evaluation of what we do out of habit vs what we do because it adds to our quality of life. It’ll be interesting to see whether this too will leave a legacy in terms of how we look after our mental wellbeing when life regains some semblance of “normality”.

You began as a trained lawyer, tell me about your path to psychotherapy and how these experiences all inform/come together in The Soke? 

I didn’t complete my training as a lawyer, although I did chase ambulances for about 9 months when I lived in California. That was enough to completely disillusion me and persuade me to follow a different path. I discovered branding & communications in the mid-90’s and knew I’d really found my calling – the interrelationship between the heart and the mind fascinates me, which may also explain my interest in psychotherapy.

The other explanation would be that life hadn’t been smooth sailing and with a history of depression and suicide on both sides of my family, I didn’t hesitate to seek help when I felt that I could benefit from it. Being a bit of an “I need to know” freak, I decided that I couldn’t just experience psychotherapy from the user side, I also wanted to know how it worked. And that’s how I ended up studying it at the same time.

Without my background in branding & communications I would never have seen what I perceive to be the shortcomings of the mental health sector and without spending 25 years in a client-focused industry (preceded by several years of life as a waitress) I would never have understood the importance of service. These experiences came together, with the knowledge I gathered as both a user and a provider of psychotherapy, to result in The Soke.

You also have a non-profit The Soke Foundation aligned – can you tell me more and how these co-exist? 

The Soke is a business that will consider its purpose in conjunction with its profits. We believe that we can be a significant actor in a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good. 

£5 from every client session at The Soke will be automatically donated to the foundation from our launch date. We hope that every practitioner who conducts a clinic at The Soke as well as our staff, our clients and our external stakeholders, will know that they play an integral part in helping us to put our values into meaningful action.

Beyond the £5 per session donation, 5% of our annual profits will be allocated to the foundation. Funds accumulated will be distributed annually to one or more local mental health initiatives that have developed effective solutions for the mental health needs of their communities. 10% of the income from my personal shareholdings have also been pledged to the foundation.

How would like The Soke to have contributed to developments in mental health conversations and practices over the next 5 years? 

We hope that in the next five years the public’s expectation of the mental health industry will have changed and that they will consider the sector as a directly relevant service provider to them, no matter who or where they sit on the range of wellness, income or status.   

Check out The Soke on Instagram @thesokelondon and The Soke’s website here.