Update: Taking time out of employment

Over the last six months or so I have faced a perfect storm of stressful situations and knock backs that have had a pretty disastrous impact on both my mental and physical health. I have fought to stay in full time work for several months despite the protestations of friends, family, my GP and my mental health team. But if you know me you will know I am someone that will go out of my way to do what they’ve been told they probably can’t. It’s not something I wanted, to have to walk away, especially from something like Buddy which is such an incredible social business but I am grateful that the decision was finally taken out of my hands.

I am really sorry that over the last few months I have withdrawn a lot from the people that care about me. I still can’t talk about the nature of the stresses that have led to this relapse for various reasons, mostly that it’s not my story to tell. But needless to say the last 6 months have been incredibly stressful. If you have seen me in person you will know that I am very unwell as a consequence of what has been going on – If you haven’t seen me you may have picked up this from the few pictures of me I’ve posted (I desperately don’t want to trigger any of you and even I can see I look like a walking bag of bones right now).

I am lucky to have an incredible family, partner, friends and mental health team and GP. My family have banned me from seeking paid employment until the new year at the earliest and will support me in the meantime and my GP and team are closely monitoring my physical and mental health (3.5 hours of therapy a week, monthly GP and blood tests which may come to fortnightly blood tests if my health declines any further.

I will be doing some sessional work and blogging in the meantime as doing nothing is detrimental to my health too but I will be taking the next few months to try and rebuild my shattered body and mind, take up yoga and see my friends and family more – basically practising what I preach and doing some self care.

So essentially I am actually not completely devastated to be unemployed which is what I expected. Last night I slept for 12 straight hours which is the longest I have managed in months. I no longer have the stress of the job and after 6 years I am finally going to have a break longer than 2 weeks (yes the last time I had an actual relaxing break was 2009).

I am just sorry I couldn’t tell you all sooner, I’ve hated lying to you or dodging the truth hence withdrawing.

Particular and undying gratitude to my partner Ryan for his seemingly endless patience and love, to my brother James for getting angry with and for me, Amy-Louise Murray for trying to talk some sense into me when my brain has been less than rational and Kat Pugh and Kenny Johnston of CLASP for never giving up on me.

So there we have it. I’m free for sporadic bits of work like blogs and sessional work but otherwise I will be taking it a lot easier, which I’m sure a lot of you are pretty relieved about.

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2014: My yearly review

Well it’s been another whirlwind of a year, it seems to have flown by at breakneck speed and all of a sudden it’s the end of 2014 and I’m wondering what I’ve actually done this year.

For once it’s been no surprise that the year has flown, it’s been busy after all and I’ve done quite a lot. In fact this year I’ve not only started a new job but also moved house and been on the holiday of a lifetime. And that’s on top of my usual way more than 9-5 with some volunteering and a lot of campaigning thrown in for good measure.

So here’s a bit of an overview of my year which will be followed by a blog summing up some of my heroes of 2014.

January

2014 didn’t get off to the best start as I ran around the town I was living in and London desperately trying to get ahold of some medication. Being on long term medication feels like second nature after all the years and it does go along way to levelling me out and keeping me functioning but definitely has it’s downsides. Being on a relatively unusual medication and trying to get a GP appointment near Christmas and while working full time is not a good combination and I still manage to mess up my planning from time to time.

It did get considerably better thankfully, January was the month my Chrissy B appearance talking about growing up with mental health issues was aired.

chrissyb show

I also found time for my parent’s annual Burn’s Night party at the end of the month which was, as usual completely tartan and tasteless and a good way to celebrate the end of a very long month.

February

In February I finally got a chance to do Mental Health First Aid training with colleagues from NHS England. I think it’s great that my employer gave us all the chance to do this course and, upon competition, publicised the fact the office now had both physical and mental health first aiders. As many mental health issues surface or are even caused by work I’d love to see more workplaces taking this step. It was also an opportunity to bond with colleagues, many of whom opened up about their own experiences.

I also had the opportunity to co-facilitate a special online talk for the sadly now defunct MindFullUK during Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Having spent a few years now doing something similar for YouthNet on a regular basis it was interesting to try this method with a new group of young people.

March

As the NHS Expo was held in Manchester this year I had a great excuse to start the month of March with friends Rachael and Claire and their assortment of rats.

March was also pretty amazing in that I was given a regional award at the Vinspired Awards in the “Most Outstanding Social Entrepreneur” category for my work on the WellHappy app. I even got to attend a fancy awards ceremony at the 02 with my partner Ryan, parents and colleagues from myhealthlondon.

Boyfriend looking quite proud don't you think?

Boyfriend looking quite proud don’t you think?

April

In April I had the opportunity to speak to the Clinical Senate at the Kings Fund about young people, mental health and technology. Even though it’s a talk I’ve given so many times I could probably recite it in my sleep I received an inordinate amount of praise for this one. It got me thinking about the audiences I tend to speak to; usually a group of people who have signed up because they already have an insight and interest in what I’m speaking about, in other words, preaching to the converted. This is something that’s troubled me a lot this year; how do I reach a broader audience including some of the sceptics and naysayers?

I had the opportunity to learn a huge amount when I received Dementia Friends training from Katie Nichol and since then have, unfortunately, had the opportunity to put this learning into practice. I’d recommend the course to everyone as Dementia is something we will all be affected by at some point in our lives.

I also got a chance to attend the launch of the YoungMinds HedMeds project which had been something of a labour of love and personal interest for me. Along with a dear friend, Annabelle, we opened up the event and even preceded Jo Brand who very kindly called us a hard act to follow!

Some of us with Dr.Ranj

Some of us with Dr.Ranj

May

May was a big month that began with me presenting at the Patient Information Forum conference alongside Macmillan.

This was followed by an interview for my current role at BuddyApp..the beginning of big changes.

Then the biggest media appearance of my life, a live slot on Newsnight to talk about self harm with myself and Tanya Byron taking on the legendary Jeremy Paxman. I was approached by YoungMinds and asked if I would like to appear..only a few hours before broadcast. It was probably one of the most surreal moments of my life to be sat in the BBC green room and having a chat with Mr.Paxman.

Kat Cormack on Newsnight

I am very used to being on the receiving end of calls for help, queries, comments and young people generally asking for help and advice but this has increased by an order of magnitude since my appearance. As I may have mentioned these messages usually start with the same phrase, “I’m really sorry but I don’t know who else to talk to”. While I’m glad that I’m seen as approachable it does sadden me that young people still struggle to find people to trust and open up to and how few positive mental health role models that they can easily access there are.

June

In June I received some good news about my health when I learnt that, by some miracle, my bone density is still at a reasonable level, certainly better than I could have hoped for. Throughout the year I’ve had countless run ins with the medical world from a personal perspective, thankfully most of them positive.

June was also the month where I prepared myself for leaving the NHS and my lovely team at myhealthlondon. This was bittersweet, I was going on to a fantastic new role but leaving so much behind. Having worked in the NHS for 18 months I learnt so much about what happens “on the inside” and it gave me a really helpful perspective for when I’ve got my service user hat on and am wondering why things aren’t happening the way I had hoped in my treatment. I also met the most amazing people during my time working for the NHS, too many to name here, and thankfully I’ve managed to stay in contact with most of them.

myhealthlondon team

I’ve argued for a long time that the people who work for the NHS are some of the best people you will ever meet, their kindness, compassion and work ethic can be incredible but they are bound by a system that can be slow, bureaucratic and seemingly impossible to navigate so it’s no wonder things don’t always work.

Something that really fascinated me during this time was the way the NHS is perceived by both the general public and the media.

I feel as though people see the NHS as one big, monolithic organisation, especially when they are commenting on their experiences, “The NHS did this/didn’t do this” etc. This is a serious misunderstanding as the reality is the NHS is a jigsaw (and the pieces don’t necessarily fit well), made up of hundreds of different providers and a huge number of staff. In fact the NHS is the biggest employer in Europe and can be almost impossible to navigate..even if you work in it.

Throughout my time in the NHS we also noticed a change in the media’s attitude towards us. It got to the point where everyday there was a new story coming out, almost all negative and this has a huge effect on staff morale as you can imagine. And yet when we reached out to the media to get good news stories they were passed up time and time again. Bad news may sell more papers but it’s disingenuous and can be downright dangerous in painting an unrealistic picture that scares people off and causes them to lose faith in what is still an incredible British institution.

Obviously I have had a huge range of experiences having used NHS mental health services in particular on and off for a decade. Some have been great, some terrible but it’s been a spectrum and I can’t just focus on one end. I also look at countries like the USA and think about how terrifying it must be to have to pay so much for what I would argue is a basic human right; the right to life. I look at my friends who have poor or no insurance and gasp in horror at their medical bills festooned with zeros and wonder what my own care has cost and wonder where I would be if I had been born on that side of the pond.

July

On the 1st of July I started my new role at BuddyApp. This has been such a huge but positive move for me. I left one of the world’s largest organisations to go work at a start up with less staff that I could count on my fingers and of which I am the only female so that was quite a shock to the system.

I can honestly say that working at Buddy for the last six months has been a pleasure and I have particularly liked working in a small, dynamic team and the chance to work on the edges of the NHS, working directly with front line staff.

There have been challenges certainly, getting the NHS to buy into and embed something innovative is a slow process, definitely more of a marathon than a sprint, but it’s worth it. Because when it does work, we help patients get better and support clinicians in doing their job, what could be better?

So July was mainly spent settling in, meeting colleagues and clincians for the first time and a few events thrown in for good measure. My favourite was probably the NHS England Youth Forum’s “Celebrating Positive Youth Mental Health” event which I attended with Miranda Bunting whose blog you can read here.

August 

In August I took part in another Cormack family tradition; Cropredy festival. Big events can be a challenge for me especially when it comes to my anxiety but last year I decided that this would be the one weekend every year when the mental health issues would just have to sit in the backseat and sulk. This year I kept this resolution going and had a great time as you can probably tell from this picture of me and my brother.

Cropredy festival

Sadly August was somewhat marred by ongoing issues in our housing situation, most notably problems with our neighbours. Having moved into our flat two years previously and built a wonderful home for ourselves, my partner and I found the last year unbearably stressful due to issues next door which culminated in a police raid-a pretty traumatic experience for anyone.

For me a home should be somewhere that you feel safe and by the time we decided to get the hell out of dodge this was no longer the case. It has been a huge step and at times a bitter pill to swallow but, for the sake of our sanity, we left and moved in with my parents.

After 7 years away from my hometown it’s obviously taken time to adjust but I’m lucky that I still have some great friends in the area and above all a ridiculously supportive family who have taken in both myself, my partner and our ridiculous and noisy cat. It makes it easier knowing that this is a temporary solution and I’m grateful to have this time to settle, relax and rebuild.

September

September was dominated by the holiday of a lifetime as me and my family embarked on our Trans-Siberian Railway adventure. There’s definitely an entire blog post to be made out of this at some point considering we crossed China, Mongolia and Russia in 16 days and saw and experienced so much I don’t even know where to start. As someone who commutes 5 days a week as it is the idea of being on a train for the lion’s share of a fortnight initially didn’t appeal much but believe me the tube and this experience just don’t compare.

Rocking my YoungMinds Vs tshirt on the Great Wall of China

Rocking my YoungMinds Vs tshirt on the Great Wall of China

Some highlights include seeing the Terracotta Warriors, standing on the Great Wall of China in my YoungMinds Vs tshirt, drinking the water of Lake Baikal and being chased around China by people who had never seen redheads. I think my brother, all 6 foot of his bearded, tattooed and pierced self was a bit much for some of them. My brother was a bit bemused by this too, as well as many of the tshirt slogans we saw.

A confused James

Upon my return the rest of September was mostly spent given presentations at The Kings Fund, Westminster Briefing (The role of technologies: what young people want from services today) and attending the NHS AGM and NHS Citizen event where I may have caused a bit of a stir by wearing a protest t-shirt from 38degrees on stage with the NHS board of directors..oops..

October

In October I went to the launch event for the London Health Commission Better Health for London report which was held at the House of Lords and involved a lot of alcohol (how the other half live!).

The highlight of October and in fact one of the top events I took part in during 2014 was CLASP’s Walking Out of Darkness event. Over 300 of us descended on London for a 10 mile walk to raise awareness and funds for mental health and in particular, suicide. We raised a staggering £30,000 and are already planning the next event, you can join us on May 16th and raise money for whichever mental health charity you choose.

claspwalk

I also became a trustee for CLASP and have had the pleasure of working with the CEO and founder of CLASP, Kenny Johnston.

November

November truly felt like conference season was underway with me speaking at both Health 2.0 and HANDI Health Apps during EHILive about Buddy app including my experiences of using Buddy in my own treatment.

I also filmed a short piece for Techforgood.tv which you can now see here.

On top of a lot of travelling during the month I also found time to attend the Social Enterprise UK Awards around the corner from our office in Old Street. It was great to do something fun with my colleague James Ryan and I loved the atmosphere, social entrepreneurs in the UK are a fairly close knit and very supportive bunch and I’ve really enjoyed entering this world in 2014.

Social Enterprise UK Awards

December

Far from winding down towards the end of the year it feels like there was even more going on than usual during December.

I gave a presentation at UCL to Clinical Psychology students about the pros and pitfalls of peer support and social media for people experiencing mental health issues. During this I was reunited with the fabulous Tanya Byron who I shared the screen with during my Newsnight appearance. I also had the chance to have a sneaky drink with the lovely Grace who I know from VIK days, I think the students were a bit surprised to see me in their bar after the talk but it was the last day of term so I blame getting caught up in the atmosphere!

I also sat down with young people from YoungMinds Vs project (the next and very exciting generation of activists, definitely worth checking out) and Norman Lamb to discuss youth mental health, you can find more information from our afternoon with the minister here in a great blog written by two of the young activists.

On a personal note the most touching experience I had this month was helping out one of my role models Monique-Amy Newton in her annual “Help the Homeless” event. Sadly I was only able to attend one evening but we gave out clothes, food and toiletries to a large number of people both on the streets and in hostels. Their gratitude for a bowl of soup or pair of gloves was humbling and really put my own life into perspective.

Helping the homeless at Christmas

TL; DR: Overall it’s been a whirlwind of the year. I’ve had some of my greatest experiences and biggest challenges. I’m very thankful to have some time off between now and 2015 when it all starts again. Hopefully onwards and upwards to better things.

Thank you so much for everyone who has supported me this year, it has meant the world. I’ve stayed in contact with some great people and met some truly inspirational movers and shakers in the health and social care world. It’s people like these that give me the courage to keep going, keep standing up for what I believe in and keep fighting the good fight.

A particular thank you to my family, the never ending support of Ryan Jackson and a particular thanks to two ladies who have had me both in tears of laughter this year, founder of Diabetics With Eating Disorders (DWED) Jacq Allan and Kat Pugh who runs the wonderful #EndTheWait campaign for earlier intervention in Eating Disorders. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by powerful, disruptive, caring female role models.

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

Risk, resilience and young people online

A few weeks ago i attended two conferences on how young people use the internet and the risks and opportunities involved. Both were fantastic experiences and i not only enjoyed attending the conferences and hearing from young people and practitioners around the country but also presenting to such fantastic audiences.

Munch, Poke, Ping

The first conference, “Munch Poke Ping”, was hosted by Stephen Carrick-Davies and was something i had been looking forward to for a long time given that the subject matter was so intertwined with my own experiences and work. Originally i had asked Stephen, who i met through Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach, if i could attend. This led to me not only attending but also presenting at the conference about my own experiences of using the internet as a therapeutic tool, the positive power of peer support and the work i am doing currently with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon.

The conference was attended by professionals working with children and young people from a variety of perspectives including teachers, support workers, youth workers, psychologists and others and the line up on the stage was just as varied as the audience itself.

Among the line up were speakers from PRUs including pupils, staff and a headteacher as well as Online Youth Outreach, Blackberry and Dr.Richard Graham who works with young people with technology addictions.

Although i am well versed in public speaking this event, for me, was a little daunting as it was my first foray into speaking as a professional and not just a “young person” or “service user” (the labels normally attributed to me). However as soon as i had a microphone in front of me i was fine! (Something that i imagine would shock those who went to school with me where i was known for being quiet and anything but happy about standing up in front of large groups of people).

After a somewhat dark session in the morning looking at grooming i spoke about the positive effect of the internet and how i believe it has helped me and helped me help others over the years. I did this through talking about my own experiences of mental illness and using and running support groups and forums online. I wanted to stress that not everything that happens on the internet is bad or untoward and that actually thousands of young people are helped every day by the peer support they receive online.

I have noticed that professionals, when considering young people and their internet use (especially “vulnerable” young people), find it very hard to see beyond one thing. Risk.

This means that projects are often slowed down or more likely not even considered, I hear a lot of fear and dismissal of service user involvement and participation let alone the concept of peer support within this.

My answer? Yes there are risks involved in going online, and yes some people are more “vulnerable” than others, however there is risk inherent in all areas of life. Risk is a fact of life and people will do “risky” things regardless, you may not be able to stop it but imagine the effect it would have if you could at least help manage and minimise it.

The ban and block  culture and our fear of the worst case scenario paralyses us and certainly does not move us forward.

 

And while bigger organisations are pondering all the worst case scenarios of having even, say, a pre-moderated, closed forum for service users, service users like me have been doing this for a decade now.

And i understand the fear that exists, believe me. I understand the fear of lawsuits and Daily Mail fodder but please bear in mind it can be done, and done well.

It’s not about trying to making risk obsolete, it’s about building resilience, educating young people and providing support; just check out what the Cybermentors do.

There are safeguarding measures that you can put in place, so many i wouldn’t know where to start..and do you know what? A lot of them are common sense! Like not giving out personal details online, just like you shouldn’t give them to a stranger in the street.

I’m sure most young people would tell you too that we don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool and actually we need to learn by experience.

Personally i doubt exactly where i would be today without the peer support i have and currently still get online, i don’t imagine it would be a good place.

It has been a part of my life for around ten years now including before, during and after more conventional psychological help. Yes the help that i was receiving wasn’t from someone qualified in any paper-based way but i was fully aware of that going in. Not only that but the support was free and, unlike most mental health services, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A stark contrast to most service provision which operate on a strictly 9-5 basis (with a few exceptions of course). No two year waiting lists in sight either..

I don’t blame the services. I understand the pressure they are under, it was pretty bad ten years ago and with the brutal cuts to the NHS things aren’t looking too good here on the ground right now.

Peer support should be encouraged, as a grass roots movement of sorts it already wields immense power and touches and enhances the lives of thousands. Just look at the hit counts on websites that are already doing it. And look at how successful ChildLine and Beat Bullying for great examples of how to reach out online.

It was amazing to be given a platform to speak about something that is so important to me both personally and professionally. It is the reason that with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon i am developing an app and website to help young people who need support.

I met some incredibly interesting people throughout the day and the conversation continued both at the conference and on twitter (#mpp #munchpokeping).

The day after was a conference run by YoungMinds and ACAMH titled “Young people in the internet wilderness: a ticking time bomb?”,  my next post will be coming shortly!

A little teaser..

My lovely readers, it is only Wednesday and i am already exhausted after two days of running around speaking at conferences and presenting to over 300 delegates. 

I will be blogging about these events of course but in the meantime a little teaser.

This is the conference report from the conference i attended on Tuesday: “Young People in the Internet Wilderness: a psychological time-bomb?”: Dangers and Opportunities of the Internet by YoungMinds.where you can read a little bit about why i was there and about the work of my wonderful VIK colleagues.