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Scotland women’s football international on how Lego helps her Tayside mental health business

Gail Penman represented her country against England in the 70s and 80s, and set-up NEWSolutions CIC after years in community care.

Gail Penman Image: 
Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson
Gail Penman Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

Gail Penman is one of the chosen few who has pulled on the dark blue of Scotland and faced off in a football match against England.

And after 25 years in her other job — mental health support — she is leading a different kind of team in wellbeing provision in Tayside and the north east.

She noticed an “obvious gap” in access to mental help, and started her company NEWSolutions to counter-act it.

Gail talks us through the ups and downs of running a small business with a big heart and how Lego plays its part.

How and why did you start in business?

Having worked in mental health support in the NHS, local authority and third sector for 25 years, I saw an obvious gap in access to mental health and wellbeing provision for children, young people and families in the Angus and Dundee areas.

Gail Penman. Image: FSB

I have a strong belief in “getting upriver” of the problem – the late Desmond Tutu advised we need to stop people falling in the river, not just be good at hauling them out.

This spurred me to start North East Wellbeing Solutions CIC (trading as NEWSolutions CIC) as a community interest company to support these people, as well as businesses, by building resilience and promoting awareness of mental health and wellbeing.

How did you get to where you are today?

Hard work, lots of encouragement and support from my husband (and essay proof-reader), dad and my friends. I’m pretty driven to problem-solve and offer what’s needed at the earliest possible stage and not wait on “a problem” presenting itself.

Who helped you?

Too many to name, but lots of people who do what I can’t. Some of my biggest champions are those who did most of the hard work behind the scenes so I could do the easier up-front presentations, which I’m pretty good at. I can’t highlight enough the necessity of all the work behind the scenes. The member resources of the Federation of Small Businesses have also been helpful and continue to be.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

“If you’re going to do a job, do it right” – my dad when I helped him doing older folks’ gardens when I was 11.

What is your biggest mistake?

Where would I start? Too many to mention, but I’m pretty good at holding my hand up and trying again.

What is your greatest achievement?

Workwise, completing my MSc in Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Psychological Therapies at Edinburgh University in 2014. I’m not particularly academic and have to work hard to produce what academia is looking for. I was at the stage of almost giving up when a friend said “just start writing!”, so I did!

I’m also very proud of having co-developed a portable screen so I could safely continue essential face-to-face work with patients during Covid restrictions (you can’t see everything on a video call). I also devised ‘sensory path’ mats which allow teachers to help pupils who’ve become ‘dysregulated’ and unable to learn, be able to re-engage with what’s being taught. They’re helping scores of pupils in Angus primaries.

Away from work, I’ve represented Scotland at football three times between 1979 and 1983, including playing against Hope Powel (England women’s football manager a few years ago). It’s true that the moment you pull on the shirt you’re bursting with pride. But as a newbie in the squad, I was also trying hard to act cool about it. An ankle injury ultimately curtailed my football career opportunities.

How are you managing rapidly rising costs, and how could the government help?

We’ve managed to maintain our costs at the same level over the last three years to support those who invest in our services, mainly Angus primary schools and parents.

Gail Penman, with Colin The Crow was used in family forest events. Image: FSB

I think governments should consider benefits to Community Interest Companies who provide not-for-profit public services as we’re treated and taxed as ‘profiting’ when all our ‘profit’ is returned into service provision.

What do you still hope to achieve?

To develop our team of staff to continue a culture where they invest themselves in connection and relationship with the families we serve.

I also want to help more businesses with the Lego serious play (LSP) – which help them maximize the full potential, insight, confidence and commitment of their people – and the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. Companies which invest in our LSP programme are contributing to their wider mental health programmes too.

What do you do to relax?

I read, tidy in the garden and love reading in my garden on a sunny spring day.

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?

I’m re-reading The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog by Bruce Perry. Reading it first time around sparked my interest and practice in psychological trauma.

What do you waste your money on?

Ask my husband. I think I’m pretty frugal. I do like books – mostly to do with work – but have recently started to pass on some from my wall-to-wall collection.

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

Coffee – I have to have my Nespresso hit before I’m ready for the day.

An espresso.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

I drive a 10-year-old Ford Mondeo. I dream of driving a small campervan at weekends.