Practice what you preach: Mental Health & Wellbeing

Over the years, I’ve realised I’ve become, in some ways a role model for some young people struggling with mental health issues. However I’ve often told people to do as I say and not as I do.

Of course I’m not perfect (newsflash: no one is) and I’m often guilty of neglecting my own mental health while campaigning on behalf of others. My overexertion and incidents of burnout are well known and I’m often asked told to slow down and put myself first for once.

I’ve been inspired to write this blog, and to actually practice what I preach, by two things recently.

Firstly:

I recently heard the brilliant Clare Gerada speak about the need for those on the NHS front line to “pull their oxygen mask down first”. She argues that it’s very hard for a doctor to look after others when their own health and wellbeing are suffering. Clare set up a groundbreaking service in London for NHS doctors and dentists with mental health or substance misuse concerns called the Practitioner Health Programme. There is, as you can imagine a real need for this type of service and in the last 5 years it has seen over 1,500 people.

Secondly:

One of my wonderful friends Vanessa, a great mental health activist, wrote here on Time To Change Leeds blog about being in hospital and feeling, in her words, “muted” by the experience.

what I can’t quite cope with is how that has spread to me being unable to stand up for other people and be an advocate for them or Mental Health in general. I am questioning my validity or role as a volunteer and not pushing as hard as I should be in standing up to the stigma and discrimination that exists for people experiencing a Mental Health Problem. There is this sense of disconnection at the moment and instead of being out there campaigning, I am in a unit not being very aware of anything that is going on or if I am aware letting them slip by me.

What struck me at that point, and I told her too, is that for me at least, the fact she is even accessing treatment, being brave enough to go through gruelling inpatient treatment in particular, is massively inspiring and a very powerful thing for the mental health activist community to witness.

We can speak at conferences and shout on picket lines until we lose our voices but often the most powerful things are the actions we take. By accepting treatment and sticking with it Vanessa has put herself first and has actually inspired me to bite the bullet and accept a referral back to mental health services.

It’s all well and good us shouting from the rooftops about mental health but it doesn’t reflect well on us when we ignore our own advice and let our health slip down our list of priorities.

I was recently asked to get involved in an organisation that promotes body confidence, I turned it down because I know I am a horrendous role model in that regards. But I don’t want that to be true forever.

So today I bit the bullet and asked to be referred to the local mental health team. I also have a new GP who is lovely and am willing to engage in whatever treatment they offer me. I’m doing my best to carve out time every day just for me, to practice self care and allow my brain to wind down and it’s already helping a huge amount.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not replying to all the messages I get from others needing advice straight away but then I remember; I can’t help people properly if my brain is fried through over work or neglect.

It’s all well and good me helping other people but I can’t forget to look after myself too.

I encourage others to seek help if they are unwell, I am no exception, I must practice what I preach.

Amanda Bynes, Robin Williams, and the Spectacle of Mental Illness

Kat Cormack:

Amen, such a brilliant article

Originally posted on Let's Queer Things Up!:

Internet, we need to have a talk.

I’ve had a number of readers ask why I’ve neglected to write about Amanda Bynes this last year. It’s simple, really. I don’t believe that celebrities are “fair game,” and that, when they have very human and very difficult struggles, I should capitalize on those things by writing an article, however well-intentioned. I believe they are deserving of privacy and respect, by virtue of their being people.

However, I’m making an exception here, because in the midst of the negative and callous press that Bynes has received, I think it’s time we had a chat about it from a different perspective. And then, after we’re done, I think it’s time we stop speculating about it altogether. Deal?

First and foremost, there is no way for us to know what, if anything, Bynes has been diagnosed with. The family has denied schizophrenia and bipolar…

View original 1,157 more words

Talking & Walking Out Of Darkness

The following post is a write up of the speech I gave on Saturday at the first ever Walking Out of Darkness event. Some of it may be slightly different from what was actually said on the day; mostly because I got the most emotional I have ever been giving a speech!

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Hi everyone,

My name is Kat and I’m here today because when I heard what Kenny was trying to achieve this weekend, I had to get involved.

These days I’m very open about my mental health, so I’m happy to share with you that I’m not okay and in fact I haven’t been okay for a very long time.

I’ve used mental health services on and off for a decade and probably have enough labels to keep the post-it note industry alive. I’ve also come far too close to the edge myself and there were times, certainly, when I couldn’t bear the thought of being here for another day.

Looking around today, I can see a fair few familiar faces and, given what we’re all here for, I’m pretty sure I may be preaching to the converted, but let’s give it a go anyway.

Even for me this has not been an easy speech to write which these days is a novel experience for me. Over the last six years I have dedicated a large amount of my life to campaigning around mental health issues including Suicide.

I have spoken to countless individuals, and at events around the country about my experiences and those of my peers. Hell I even took on Jeremy Paxman live on Newsnight earlier this year to talk candidly about my experience of Self Harm and what I think needs to be done to help other young people suffering in silence.

But Suicide, even now, is something of a taboo within a taboo and not something that I can easily find words for.

You’ve probably all heard the statistic, that one in four of us will be affected by mental health issues. However I’ve often argued that it’s four in four. Because one in four doesn’t take into account the distress and despair felt by friends and family when a loved one is struggling. And yet many do not, cannot talk about it.

I used to be one of them. Even though I’ve been ill most of my life it wasn’t until six years ago, aged 19 that I “came out of the mental health closet”.

I was lucky enough to stumble across an amazing charity who changed, if not saved my life. The charity in question was YoungMinds and without their support there is no way I would be here today giving this talk. YoungMinds helped me to find my voice and start standing up to stigma. I joke that they gave me the activism bug, but more seriously, they helped me express the injustice I had long felt and gave me a platform to actually do something proactive.

In fact some of my friends from YoungMinds are here today so if you see anyone wearing our tshirts come up and say hello. I’d also urge you to sign up to our mass movement for change, YoungMinds Vs as we attempt to fight the pressures faced by young people across the UK.

I now work for a mental health start-up called BuddyApp. We’re a small team and we work with NHS services up and down the country to help people of all ages have a better experience of treatment using something strikingly simple and accessible; a text message.

Because I am so open I am often seen as one of the more visible advocates for service user voice in the mental health community. Because of this a lot of people reach out to me. It happens, sometimes several times a week and the sad thing is the conversation always starts the same way:

I’m really sorry but I don’t know who else to talk to

Now I’m glad that people reach out to me, don’t get me wrong. However it saddens me that, even in 2014 in a supposedly enlightened culture, there aren’t more of us willing to stand up and speak out. I wish my friends and the acquaintances and strangers that message me don’t have more options.

So everyday, sadly, I see the human cost of distress, of mental illness and of suicide. And sometimes it feels to me as though it’s everywhere, just hidden behind a thin veil. Perhaps if we stopped and looked around the crowds we would see that not everyone manages to keep their mask on, perhaps we could take a bit more time to carry out some random acts of kindness.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

When it comes to Suicide, we can talk about statistics until the proverbial cows come home. I could rattle off numbers and tell you how many thousands died last year.

I could tell you that the biggest killer of men aged 20-49 is not road traffic accidents, it’s not Cancer and it’s not Heart Disease..it’s Suicide.

But I guess, and I can’t believe i’m quoting, or rather misquoting this person, but as Stalin almost said:

The death of millions is a statistic. The death of one man is a tragedy.

What makes us sit up ad think, what really pulls our heart strings and makes the numbers feel more human, what we sadly often lose, is the individual tragedy.

I’m guessing that many of you, like me, are here today because you have lost someone you love or have come too close to taking those final steps for yourself. There is no pain like it, I know.

I was 18 when I first lost someone to suicide. Her name is Casey Brooks. She was a charming, funny, caring girl with friends all over the world (we met through an online support group). Although I never met her she provided me, and many others with support in our darkest hours. And yet, in hers, that last time, she didn’t reach out.

Casey Brooks

Casey didn’t think much of herself, a common problem for people like us with mental health issues. I wish she had truly understood the love and the laughter she brought to people’s lives and what the absence would mean. I wish could see the effect her leaving had. I don’t think she could have guessed that all these years on her online memorial would have almost a thousand members. I wish she knew that her parents never stop talking about her, or about the work they’ve done in the last few years to help save other young lives. Her dad has also written this book which I would recommend.

Since that fateful day I have come far too close, far too often to losing far too many others.

Three weeks ago I received a text that made my blood run cold. It was one of my dearest friends, who I have known and cared about for years and she was saying goodbye. I think my heart stopped beating as I read those words.

I know she’s come close before, I’ve held her as she wept, whispered supportive words down the phone at 4am when everyone around me was asleep, I’d do anything for this girl. But this time felt different. I guess after all these years being involved in the mental health community, and all my safeguarding experience, you start cultivating a pretty accurate gut reaction. It didn’t help that I was also several hundred miles away and couldn’t do what I desperately wanted to, which was to hold her and keep her safe until the storm passed.

I’m so happy to be able to say that she’s still with us but it breaks my heart knowing how close she came and how little she felt she had left to live for.

And i’m proud of her for telling me, I am so grateful I didn’t lose her that night.

When we are struggling and feel alone, we need the courage to reach out, to say this is not how my story ends. And appropriately for today, if we see that hand reach out, we must have the courage to clasp it and hold on, as long as it takes.

I want to thank you all for joining us today Walking Out Of Darkness; blessed are the cracked for we let in the light. I’d also like to think Kenny, the CEO of CLASP, who has worked so incredibly hard to bring us all together today.

And I will leave you with this quote from Ben Okri, which struck me as apt for today;

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and be greater than our suffering.

Thank you

What are you doing next weekend?

Me proudly sporting my CLASP jacket
Me proudly sporting my CLASP jacket
What are you all doing next weekend? I ask this because as you probably know next Friday 10th October is World Mental Health Day.
This year I’m doing something special and I would love it if you could join me, if not in person then in spirit, Walking Out of Darkness to raise awareness of mental health and in particular suicide.
The walk has been organised by CLASP, an amazing charity which has been started by a pioneering man named Kenny who has himself, been affected by suicide, having made an attempt a few years ago. Later this year they will be launching a helpline for people affected by suicide or suicidal thoughts including friends, families and carers which will link up with 111 and be an amazing resource for people across the UK.
The walk is 10 miles but don’t worry, if you don’t feel up for it you can still join us on the day and show your support. There will be stalls to browse with information too. You will be in good company with several thousand others including members of the NHS, supporters, charities, Department of Health, British Transport Police, MPs and celebrities. Not only that but some of my BuddyApp colleagues will be joining me and we will have a Buddy stall on the day.
Sign up here for just £10. If you use the code “Kat10” the money will go to the charity of my choice, DWED.
You can also sponsor me directly, I’m raising money for the charity DWED (Diabetics With Eating Disorders), a charity close to my heart. Type 1 Diabetes with a co-morbid Eating Disorder is a little know, much understood condition although we do know that females who are type 1 have twice the risk of developing Anorexia or Bulimia as their peers and as many as 40% of 15-30 year olds regularly omit insulin.
Every little bit helps, so please donate a couple of pounds or share with others.
If you can’t join us please do tweet your support using the hashtag #WalkingOutOfDarkness and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do the same

My recent talks about digital youth mental health

Hello readers,

I must apologise for the lengthy gap between my last blog and this one. My blogging activity (or lack thereof) is directly linked to the amount of time I have spent running around working, speaking and campaigning so as you can imagine I’ve been very, very busy recently.

I will be following this post up with a blog on what young people want when it comes to mental health support, and in particular what role they want technology to play. It’s something I care about passionately and have dedicated much of the last six years of my professional life to.

There have been two events I’ve spoken at recently that have acted as the catalyst to the aforementioned blog which I thought I would summarise to give you all some context and an update on what I’ve been up to recently if you haven’t been following my Twitter account.

The Kings Fund:
The Art of The Possible: How will health and care be transformed in the age of information sharing?

This first event was a roundtable discussion, it was incredibly popular as you can imagine given the title and by the end it was standing room only. It heartens me that there is such a clear, strong appetite for discussions of this nature.

It’s also one of the first events I’ve been to in a long time where I knew next to no one- often I feel I am just preaching to the converted so this was a chance to share my experiences and ideas with a new crowd.

We adhered to Chatham House Rules during the event so I can’t divulge who said what but I will say that it was very interesting how many people started their contributions with comments along the lines of “I could never say this at work..”. This suggests to me there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to bring digital to the masses in the health sector as well as a fair amount of resistance to new ways of working which is something I certainly experienced while working for the NHS.

I gave the opening talk, sharing my personal experiences of using mental health services for the last 11 years and being a digital entrepreneur and activist. This involved a quick run through of my own health journey from the age of 6 when I became symptomatic right up to where I am now aged 25.

I spoke about how much the internet and the support I received online not only helped but probably saved me, especially during my teens when I was at my lowest point. If you’ve heard me speak before you will know I have spent a good 12 years using online support such as chat rooms, message boards and in the last few years social media to provide and receive advice, information and very importantly peer support.

If you’d like to read more I strongly recommend you read this article by Dr Roger Stedman who attended the event which has the brilliant title; Time For a Digital Citizens Revolt.

Westminster Briefing: Improving Mental Health Services for Children and Young People: Identifying Need and Targeting Support 

Yesterday I found myself on a list of speakers which pretty much sums up my dream team- three incredible women who I’ve had the distinct pleasure to work with over the last few years:

Geraldine Strathdee- When I first started working at the NHS a few years ago everyone, and I mean everyone that had anything to do with mental health said to me, “Kat you have GOT to meet Geraldine, she is your kindred spirit” – I was not disappointed.

Geraldine has some serious clout as National Clinical Director for Mental Health in England but what I find truly inspirational about her is that she’s so down to earth and when it comes to mental health she just “gets it”. She  works, often 18 hours a day, always seven days a week, to try and improve mental health services. She is a passionate advocate for service user voice and involvement and I think she, against all odds, bringing about real change in the system.

She’s on Twitter and always open to ideas, comments and suggestions- in particular if you know of good practice happening in mental health please tell her so she can share the learning. She also blogs and you can find some of them here.

Lise Hertel- Lise is one of most inspiring and driven GPs I’ve ever met. She’s based in East London and also works for Newham CCG. It has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that I should probably move to her catchment area so I would never have to worry about having a bad GP-mental health experience ever again!

Lise is very forward thinking and a real believer in innovation and technology. As a service user, before I met people like Lise and other CCG mental health leads in London the idea of GPs commissioning mental health services scared the **** out of me because of my many awful experiences previously. However many of my concerns simply evaporated when I met people like Lise. I think, as much as there is a lot of risk, there is also a huge opportunity in GP led commissioning for mental health and will be watching closely to see what happens in the next few years.

Sarah Brennan- Sarah is the CEO of a charity you’ve all heard me rave about before: YoungMinds. I got involved in the organisation six years ago in January and I can honestly credit them with entirely turning my life around and giving me purpose.

Before YoungMinds I didn’t talk about my mental health offline, I didn’t wear short sleeves and I lived essentially in the mental health “closet”. YoungMinds helped me find my voice and gave me a platform to share my experiences, build my confidence and also introduced me to a group of young people who are essentially now an extension of my family.

I’d strongly recommend you:

Sign up to the YoungMinds VS campaign which has five areas in which we want to fight the pressure experienced by young people and create a mass movement for change.

Sign the YoungMinds petition to stop cuts to children and young people’s mental health services- you will be in good company as over 16,000 have already signed.

The event

I did my usual talk, very like the one I gave to the Kings Fund around what young people want from mental health services and also gave five examples of really great digital tools and services currently available including the amazing organisation I work for; BuddyApp..this will be the subject of a blog coming shortly.

We also heard from the awe inspiring work of Highfield Community Primary School in Sunderland who, through work with Place2Be have become a real beacon of hope to the children, parents and community they work with. As someone who had an awful time with mental illness at my own school growing up I really wish I had a Tardis so I could do my time again and attend this school which really prioritises the health and wellbeing of their pupils.

If you have any questions or ever want to pick my brains when it comes to technology and youth mental health please don’t hesitate to contact me, either through my twitter account or by email at kat@buddyapp.co.uk

Join our first #buddyapp Tweetchat

Twitter_chat_image

On Tuesday 26th of August between 12:00-14:00 we are holding the first of what will become monthly tweet chats for anyone and everyone interested in or using Buddy App. We would like to invite you to join in the conversation:

Follow the @BuddyAppUK Twitter Account

Tweet us using the tag #buddyapp

If you don’t have a twitter account you can still participate:

Email your questions, comments or thoughts to info@buddyapp.co.uk or speak to your comms team about getting involved.

We look forward to tweeting with you!

The Buddy Team

I’m not brave

“Thank you for talking, you are so brave”

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I talk about my mental health very openly. In fact if you’re reading this blog you may well have seen me give a talk, workshop or presentation or even on television talking about some issue or concept in mental health; usually weaving in some of my own experiences. I probably look like a natural, as though i’ve been an open book my whole life.

All in all it has taken me 19 years to get to this point. I’ve been ill or at least symptomatic since the age of six. It took me eight years to get a diagnosis, another five until I started opening up and another two  until I really made my peace with my experiences.

For the last six years, since the age of 19 I have had the incredible pleasure and honour of being involved with the mental health charity YoungMinds. Before then I was so far in the mental health closet you could saw I was in Narnia. They not only helped me find my voice but helped me to nurture it and form a narrative around my experiences.

The effect has been profound. During my school years I was completely unable to speak in front of groups of people and used to feign sickness for weeks to avoid the annual public speaking contest. The thought alone of standing up there with nothing but a sheet of notes to shield me caused incredible levels of nausea and anxiety leaving me all but paralysed. I certainly never, ever expected to stand in front of hundreds. In fact I doubt my teachers would recognise me now.

At this point I cannot comprehend what my life would have been like without these monumental changes but I do know I would have had a poorer life. I have spoken on record to such diverse organisations and people as the BBC, MTV, Royal Societies, politicians (including a PM) and many more and gained so much by letting go of my fears.

After every talk I give, people approach me. Some will put their hands up during Q&A sessions and speak openly in front of the group, many though will take me to one side after and quietly speak.

Without fail, at every single speech people do two things:

One in Four? More like four in four

1) They open up about their own run-ins with mental ill health.

Sometimes it is their own experience, something they have never disclosed before. Often it is about a friend or family member and they come to me in sadness or desperation. I have developed an uncanny ability to work out, during a talk, who will approach me afterwards.

This has taught me one simple thing; we are all affected by mental health and illness. We talk about the 1 in 4 statistic but that doesn’t sit well for me. We ALL have mental health just like we all have physically health; we sit on different points of the same spectrum. Which suggests to me that mental illness affects 4 in 4 of us..but only 1 in 4 will admit it. And perhaps even that statistic is too high.

2) “You are so brave” I’m not so sure

Secondly, I am told, almost like clockwork that I am “brave”

Now before I start unpicking this one let me say; I get it and I appreciate the sentiment. But it makes me sad.

I think what people see is a very young looking girl (more 15 than 25) standing up and opening up in a really honest way. Yes I am those things but I am much more. I have been standing up and telling my story repeatedly for six years and at this point I feel no fear, no misapprehension about what I do.

I am lucky because I do not need to be brave any more. Just myself.

It is brave to stand up and say something for the first time, to give words to wooly concepts and feelings. It is brave to stand up when you don’t know what the reaction to your words will be.

But what I have learnt, much to my early surprise, is that opening up about mental illness does not automatically mean opening yourself up to criticism and abuse. In fact 99% of the reaction I get is overwhelmingly positive and empathetic. So in fact all I am opening myself up to are compliments and smiles-that suddenly doesn’t seem too brave does it?

I am seen as brave for standing up and speaking when others don’t. And that is a damn shame. If you had my experiences you would see being open is a wonderful gift to be shared. Like I said in my blog about running up against anti-psychiatry Scientologists:

If I won’t stand up, someone who has been ill for a lifetime, used services for a decade and has worked for the NHS and mental health charities, how can I expect anyone else too?

I don’t want to be seen as brave but as a role model. I don’t want to be the only person on a podium or the token service user. I want us to stand up together, regardless of whether we are students, doctors, psychiatrists or siblings and talk.

I know it’s not very British but it shouldn’t be seen as brave either.