The Soke graced the London wellbeing scene late last year but has already carved a reputation as a clinic with a difference. Aiming to transform perceptions about mental health and how it is discussed, The Soke actively centres its clinic around user experience while offering a diverse selection of tailored services. From its interiors to its experts, the Soke has challenged preconceptions of mental health care and created a modern environment that is comfortable, engaging and progressive. We spoke with The Soke’s founder, Maryam Meddin and Head of Wellbeing, Holli Rubin, to find out a little more about the clinic’s mission and their tips for improving your mental health during lockdown.
The Soke opened in October last year. When did you first think of the concept and what motivated you to open the clinic?
Maryam: I’d worked in the branding and communications sector for about 15 years when I decided to study psychotherapy. Almost immediately I was struck by the way that the mental health world functioned.. it seemed to be operating in a vacuum, oblivious to its responsibilities as a service provider (emphasis on the word service) and completely removed from the talk of de-stigmatisation that was increasingly gathering pace around it.
It seemed that if there was a genuine desire for the public to feel comfortable about engaging with the mental health world then it was up to the industry to do its part to reinforce the message of normalisation through action. This meant creating environments that felt inviting, ensuring a process that was comprehensible and, above all, building relationships that – whilst respecting boundaries and discretion – didn’t feel anonymised. I thought individuals should be made to feel like clients, not patients. When, several years later, it became apparent that nobody else was going to do what I was thinking, I decided to bite the bullet myself.
How would you describe the defining principles and values of The Soke? How is it modernising mental health services?
Maryam: Organisationally we have a series of principles that are the foundation and the guiding light for the way that we operate – they include values such as integrity, respect and responsibility. But at the risk of being clichéd, a business is its people and I think that anyone who comes into contact with the individuals who work at The Soke will quickly be able to identify that a high regard for dignity, broad emotional intelligence and a genuine desire to collaborate are qualities that run deep through our team. If you put all of these qualities together, you have a wonderful breeding ground for creativity – we’re always trying to think of new ways in which we can make the client experience better, whether it’s about process or literal comfort.
How has The Soke adapted to the coronavirus pandemic and how has it impacted The Soke’s mission?
Maryam: As an essential service we have been able to operate throughout the various tiers of lockdown. We’re very strict with our protocols and procedures in order to ensure that everyone – clients and staff alike – is as safe as its possible to make it. Of course we provide video consultations for those who prefer to have remote sessions, but our experience has been that most people prefer to engage with their therapist in person so we’re taking every precaution to continue to make that possible.
Its service-led offering has quickly cultivated a respected reputation. How have you managed this growth?
Maryam: Thankfully we haven’t had to work from home, so for those who come to our centre we can continue to provide the service that they’ve come to expect from us. But the beauty of The Soke is that our service isn’t just about physical comfort and our environment. We have a Client Services Team who are there to speak to clients (and prospective clients), providing them with support outside the therapy room: checking in, answering questions, helping with access to other resources that they may need as part of their treatment pathway and so on. Those are service elements that are completely unaffected by the lockdown and have been very enthusiastically embraced by almost everyone who has come into contact with us.
Aesthetically, the interior design of the building was a significant consideration. What was the inspiration behind its considered style?
Maryam: Highest on our list of priorities was to create a space that felt nothing like a clinic. This wasn’t just part of our mission to create a distinction between mental health and mental illness, it was a practical response to a common concern I was hearing from my friends who were parents. Those whose children were experiencing anxiety or issues that may have warranted therapeutic intervention felt extremely reluctant to expose their child to an environment that could potentially exacerbate the problem. So, we wanted to ensure that no young person who came through our doors would be intimidated or see it as a sign that they were ill and required a clinical solution.
And then we tried to put ourselves in the place of clients and think: what is the actual physical experience like for them? How could it be improved? One example is the fact that in most centres’ clients leave the therapy room and have to go straight back out into the world. We decided that we would have a low-lit pod adjacent to each of our therapy rooms so that clients could have some quiet time following their sessions, to recline and regroup before they left the building. Beyond that, our brief to our interior designers, Covet & Noir, was to create a space that was luxurious but relaxed, soft but not feminine. The general consensus seems to be that they absolutely delivered.
The Soke intends to challenge existing preconceptions about mental health. How do you think the pandemic has shaped how people perceive mental health nowadays? What permanent changes do you think will arise in the industry post-pandemic?
HR: This time last year mental health conversations still often involved one side persuading and the other playing devil’s advocate. With the arrival of the pandemic, understanding of mental health services – and its relevance to the lives of the same people who used to be the cynics – was propelled forward quite significantly and quite fast. It’s fair to say that those who still think that therapy is the domain of the mentally ill are few and far between.
In terms of permanent changes, I’m hoping that as a society we’re not going to try to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. We’re on our way to being more tolerant of feelings and more comfortable about asking for help. Long may it continue.
Spending more time at home can be challenging. How have you stayed positive and managed the stress of the pandemic?
Holli: Fortunately, as an essential service, The Soke has remained open throughout, so my lockdown experience hasn’t been as constraining as for many others who have had to work from home all day every day. Beyond that, my dog Marly – who’s also a registered therapy dog and comes to work with me – keeps me positive, as does having a sense of humour.
I know from a lot of people that I speak to that for those who aren’t stressing about job security or illness, then the knowledge of no external obligations or social events, nowhere to go or to be, and nothing to get dressed up for has enabled a slower pace of life and allowed proper relaxation to take hold more frequently than it had ever been possible before the pandemic. Luckily, I can put myself in the category of those people too.
My advice to those who are working from home full time is singular: try to create firm boundaries between work and personal – don’t fall into the trap of turning the concept of “working from home” into “living at work” just because the desk and the work are always there. Keep structured working hours.
Achieving a balanced and healthy lifestyle was hard, even before the pandemic. Do you have any simple steps for adopting a more wellness-focused lifestyle?
Holli: I’ll share with you my own wellbeing rules:
1. Getting out every day is imperative. Make the effort to leave the house, whatever the weather.
2. Meal planning. Try to be organised for the week ahead so you have what you need to hand for meals. It’s helpful to have healthy snacks (fruit and vegetables) cut up and ready so when you’re hungry, or you just want something to chew on (literally) it’s there and making it easy for you to make good food choices.
3. Make time to speak with people you care about on the phone - the good old fashioned way - and not just via text. That human connection and engaging in the moment of a conversation is more important and satisfying than ever right now. I know someone who’s made a rule to go alphabetically through her phone book and call one person that she cares about, and hasn’t spoken to for a while, each day. I’m not saying that’ll work for everyone, but she’s definitely got positive something out of it.
Being confined at home can strain relationships with those we are living with, whether it’s a family member or a partner. Do you have any advice on how to improve co-habitation?
Holli: Co- habitation is improved by communication. The more we can share our plans and schedules the better we can manage and create space for time together. Discuss the week ahead and the requirements - work, familial, personal, and combined.
It’s important to respect everyone’s time and everyone’s individual schedules so that we can then arrange and incorporate time together.
There’s a lot to do around a house. In a family, when one person does the lion’s share, this sets the stage for a breeding ground of resentment. By deciding how to fairly allocate jobs and chores based on time (and ages of children if there are kids in the house), everyone will feel that they’re able to participate and are a valuable member of the team. By teaching these life skills, it empowers children as they develop a sense of independence and of responsibility as well as what it means to live with others once they leave home.
What can families do to support their children during such a difficult time?
Holli: Communication again is the answer: making sure the adults are taking the time to check in with their children. A lot of people are supporting their children with home schooling, so “checking in” may seem like overkill, but it’s worth finding out not just how they’re managing the practicalities but talking about their experience of it. This’ll give parents the chance to make sure they know what’s going on with their child in terms of their emotional and psychological state.
Secondly, physical space is also an important element of supporting your children - especially with teenagers. There’s a lot more family time right now than anyone bargained for, so having some breathing room is necessary for every member of the family.
Lastly, every family has their own characteristics, interests and ways of having fun together. Take the initiative to make your thing a regular thing. It doesn’t matter if it feels contrived – push through the awkwardness and joke about it, if it helps. Finding something to laugh at together, however nonsensical, is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
There has been a great emphasis on physical fitness in the past year as home workouts and jogging have exploded in popularity. What are your tips for prioritising your mental wellbeing alongside your physical health and how can we continue to do so when things return to normal?
Holli: Mental and physical wellbeing are inextricably linked. After I’ve exercised, I always feel invigorated, sharper and more ready to focus. As an integral part of my “treatment plan” with clients, I encourage them – if they aren’t doing it already – to incorporate movement/exercise into their lives. Inactivity can leave us feeling lethargic which in turn can lead to low moods.
As far as mental wellbeing is concerned, The Soke’s whole ethos is that your mind deserves no less attention than you pay to your body. If we look at a person who regularly goes to the gym and sees a personal trainer, we don’t assume that they do this because there’s something wrong with them – we admire their commitment to good physical health (and usually the visible results that go with it). It’s only a matter of time before we learn to have the same positive regard for those who work on their psychological and emotional health – we won’t assume that they see a therapist because there’s something terribly wrong with them, but because it’s a helpful and productive element of their self-care regime.
Can you tell me a little more about the initiatives of The Soke Foundation and what it aims to achieve? What led you to set it up?
Maryam: We always wanted to be a successful, modern, forward-thinking business and these aspirations, if realised, also come with responsibilities – to our wider community, the society to which we belong and, of course, each other. There was never a question in my mind that if we were lucky enough to one day be in a position to do good, then we would embrace the opportunity wholeheartedly. Thankfully, every single one of our investors shared our ambition to do something impactful, as did the individual practitioners that we spoke to, so we set up a foundation that derives its income from a percentage of our turnover. Once a year we’ll distribute the accumulated funds to help one or more community mental health initiatives that may be in need of a helping hand.
Finally, you’ve had a long and demanding day at work, how do you relax and unwind?
Holli: Unwinding is a process that begins with ending work and regrouping as a family in the kitchen to catch up with what has happened in each other’s days. My husband and I then take Marly for a long walk in the park. It does us all good to be in the fresh air just before bed - until we wake up to her wanting us to do it all over again.
Maryam: I’m a big fan of not having to talk to anyone when I get home in the evenings. It doesn’t matter what I do... read, watch TV, listen to music. As long as the phone doesn’t ring, I’m relaxed and content.
Find out more about The Soke at thesoke.uk/
The Soke's Interior Designers: Covet & Noir
Hero image courtesy of Covet and Noir