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.

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!

claspwalk

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

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

I’m not brave

“Thank you for talking, you are so brave”

image_preview

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.

Join me Walking Out of Darkness

Over the years i’ve watched many friends take part in fundraising events like Race For Life. I’ve always been so proud of their achievements and amazed by the scale of the events and the energy that surrounds them.

And yet it has always saddened me that there didn’t seem to be anything on a similar scale specifically for mental health. Sure you can take part in a thousand different types of marathons, triathlons or even do a skydive and support individual charities. I thought maybe wanting an event dedicated to this issue was a case of having eyes bigger than my stomach and being too ambitious and did not hold my breath waiting for one.

So, last year, when I first heard about CLASP charity and their planned Walking Out of Darkness event in London next month I was very intrigued.

clasp

A few weeks ago I had the genuine pleasure to speak to the man who started it all, CLASP CEO Kenny Johnston. Like me, Kenny is very open about his own experience of mental health issues and it was these experiences that led him to setting up CLASP and the CLASP helpline which will launch later this year.

Watch Kenny in this short video:

The walk will be held on July 19th starting at 8pm and there is a 5, 10 and 25 mile route depending on what you feel capable of. Personally, and sadly I will only be able to do the 5 mile walk at most this year. I am attempting, for once in my life, to be mindful of my limitations and practice some self care.

I will be joined by thousands of others including NHS England, the Department of Health, British Transport Police, Charities, Organisations, MPs and celebrities. The event is gathering huge momentum even before it has begun and I strongly recommend you follow on twitter and follow the hashtag #WalkingOutOfDarkness.

Mention me and get a discount!

I hope you will be joining me on the walk. If you do wish to register you can get a £10.00 discount by using the code “Kat10”. All money donated using this code will given to one of my favourite mental health charities, DWED, who do incredible work on a shoestring.

About Diabetics With Eating Disorders (DWED)

DWED supports people with Type 1 Diabetes and Eating Disorders and their carers in numerous ways including online, by phone and face to face. They also provide advocacy support for service users and training for professionals. I have worked with them recently alongside NHS England, myhealthlondon, London Strategic Clinical Networks and the WellHappy App on a project to raise awareness of Type 1 Eating Disorders and improve outcomes.

Acceptance speech perhaps?

It’s taken me awhile to put out this first blog of the year. After the literal and figurative madness that sums up the end of 2013 I for some reason naively thought January might be a bit quieter..how wrong I was!

Over the Christmas holidays I was surprised to discover I had been nominated for not one but two awards from Mentally Wealthy. I’m a long time reader of the site and previous iterations such as This Week In Mentalists and have a huge amount of respect for the bloggers involved so I was certainly not expecting to see my own name appear in the nominations!

I came runner up in This Week In Mentalists Award 2013 in “Campaigning” and the Twitter based
Twental Health Awards 2013  in “Professional Not Otherwise Specified”.

Clearly all those teenage years hidden behind a computer screen blogging, moderating and being on social media paid off!-I have of course pointed this out to my parents to show them I didn’t waste my teenage years online! It is still something I have to pinch myself over though. As someone who at points genuinely didn’t expect to see her 16th birthday let alone their 24th it amazes me how far I have come. I’ve said many times before that if I could go back and tell my 14 year old self what things would be like in a decade I would most likely laugh in my own face. I am proof that it can and does get better even if “better” isn’t what you expected or planned.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough (and believe me i was taken aback as it was), Vinspired announced that I was a Regional Winner in their Vinspired National Awards as “Most Outstanding Social Entrepreneur” for my work on the WellHappy app.

This is a huge thing for both myself personally and for the WellHappy project and I am still so stunned that I’ve won.

So I guess I have to do some kind of acceptance speech? Don’t worry i’m not going to sit here for the next 10 pages and bore the pants off you but I do have some people that need to be thanked for their part in this.

YoungMinds

Firstly I need to thank YoungMinds which includes all the young people and staff I have been so fortunate to have in my life these past five years. It’s corny but it’s also fair to say that I could not have done this without you all and you deserve a lot of the credit for this award. Before I started volunteering with the charity I was very much in the mental health “closet”..now I am winning awards for speaking out about mental health & wellbeing. Participation helped me find my voice and campaigning gave me a platform and a purpose and I don’t dare think where I would be now without your support.

NHS

I also want to thank the NHS or more specifically my employers and colleagues within the NHS and in particular at myhealthlondon. When I was brought in to work in the NHS on secondment from YoungMinds for the WellHappy project it was a test, a trial run for 4 months. 15 months later I am still working with you after repeated contract extensions and a promotion. You took a chance on me, knowing full well all of my mental health history and that I was still technically a “young person”. It has been a pleasure having a job where I actually feel accepted and like I am able to do some good and make changes for the better.

And I would also like to say a big thank you to my wonderful friend Jenny Hills for nominating me.

And one last thank you to my long suffering boyfriend Ryan Jackson for putting up with me while i run around like, (once again both a literal & figurative) crazy lady. I certainly couldn’t have done half as much over the past 5 years without your support.

Anyway that is quite enough gushing for me for one day, i’m not sure it suits me! At this point I would probably trip over my feet on the way off stage.

And the thing is, this was only the start of the year and much has happened since then, but that is for another post.

EHI Live 2013

Last week was a busy one, i was at EHI Live 2013 in Birmingham on Tuesday and Wednesday and wisely for once chose to take the rest of the week as leave to recover: i predict many of you that know me just fell off your chairs reading that last part!

I was one of the speakers at the HANDI Health App conference as part of EHI Live 2013 and it was a great experience and quite unlike most big events i’ve been too in the past.

Live-and-HANDI-logos

Now this is really silly but i must confess that at first i had no idea what i was signing up for. I was approached by Ewan Davis to speak at HANDI Health about my experience of working on the WellHappy app. I’m always more than happy to talk about the app (in fact you try and stop me!) so i quickly said yes.

It was only after i said yes and got some more details that i realised i was going to be speaking at EHI, one of the biggest health/tech events in the calendar!

It was nice to know that i was going to be in good company, i found out early on that Sarah Amani who i met in person for the first time recently at the IAYMH Conference in Brighton was speaking the day after me about developing the “My Journey” Early Intervention in Psychosis app. I was also going to get the chance to meet up with an old VIK friend Mark who i don’t get to see often now that the project has ended.

The first person i ran into at the event in fact was Geraldine Strathdee, the National Clinical Director for Mental Health in the NHS & Royal College of Psychiatrist award winner. I had been so busy preparing for my part of EHI that i didn’t even realise there was also a workstream dedicated to Mental Health Informatics.

Being the massive nerd that i am i ended up attending a talk and one of the workshops on mental health informatics and in particular the Mental Health Minimum Data Set produced by the Health & Social Care Information Centre. I won’t go on about this bit as i know it’s niche but if this is your area i strongly recommend you read into the minimum data set. It’s where we get much of our mental health statistics and is only going to grow in terms of the amount of data and it’s importance.

Overall the event was very interesting, a lot more tech based than most of the events i attend so i definitely feel i learnt a lot that i probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It was also a chance to check out some really innovative things like a 3D Printer being used to make artificial limbs and a game you can play with eye movement detection-so completely hands free!

I will leave you with a slightly more off the wall note..the conference was also a good excuse for silly free things..apparently stress balls are out and odd animals are in. I’ve been picking up these oddball things for years now and these are the new additions to what i jokingly call my stress farm! I also have a telephone, sheep, cow and a stress pizza of all things knocking around somewhere..

Yes i know i have weird hobbies..

Yes i know i have weird hobbies..

The state of young people’s mental health

To coincide with World Mental Health Day, guest blogger, young person and professional Kat Cormack looks at the state of young people’s mental health in 2013 and examines access to treatment, perception of people with mental health issues and stigma.

So here we are on the week of World Mental Health Day 2013 and I can’t believe a year has passed already since the last one.

It’s also ten years since I started receiving mental health treatment and so now seems to me like a good time to take stock and see what is currently happening in children and young people’s mental health. I guess that makes this my “State of the mental health nation” speech.

Mental health, illness and everything in between is a massive area and I could talk to you about everything from ADHD to Z-drugs but then this would be less blog and more book: or five! So I’m going to focus on a few areas that I feel make for good indicators to assess the health of our mental health and services.

The last 10 years have been huge for me, seeing me going from a severely ill 14-year-old to a moderately ill but high functioning adult. In this time I have gone from being a student at school using CAMHS to someone who now works for the NHS and with YoungMinds (and occasionally uses Adult Mental Health Services).

I have also spent five years working with YoungMinds, the Royal College of Psychiatrists as well as completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology where my dissertation was based on young people’s experiences of transitions from CAMHS to adult services. This puts me in a somewhat unique situation (not unlike a tightrope at times) of being a professional, a “young person” and a service user all at once.

So where do we begin? I think two of the most salient indicators are access to treatment and perception of people with mental health issues. These are the two areas I will be covering in this blog.

Access to treatment

Asking for help with a mental health problem is daunting. I’m not going to lie. It takes courage to admit that things aren’t right and that you’re struggling and I commend everyone who takes this first step.

For most young people the first port of call is their GP, it was for me too. Ten years ago when I first asked for help my GP (newly qualified) had no idea about mental health having received no real training in the area. At the time I didn’t think much of it but looking back that’s pretty shocking given that such a high percentage of GP visits are related to mental health.

Fast forward 10 years and some progress has been made and I have met a lot of GPs who are very much up to speed with mental health and act accordingly. However many still have limited training and understanding and I have had my fair share of run-ins with GPs who are ignorant to the point of negligence. This needs to change. We cannot keep telling young people just to “talk to a teacher or your doctor” if they’re worried if we don’t then train these professionals to respond appropriately.

After seeing the GP for many young people they are referred to CAMHS. However we know that waiting lists are still unacceptably long with many young people waiting months (or even up to 18 months) for the support they so desperately need. This is not acceptable.

There is much talk of bringing about “parity of esteem”, to put it simply this means we need to start treating mental health as seriously as we treat physical health and that includes holding services to account to the same waiting times. You wouldn’t have to wait 18 months to get a broken leg fixed!

Another big problem we face in 2013 is the increasingly savage cuts to health and social care. Through an FOI request YoungMinds found that two thirds of local authorities have cut their budgets for children and young people’s mental health services since the coalition government came to power in 2010. One service suffered cuts of 41%. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/21737173)

At a time when even more children and young people are experiencing mental health problems the last thing we can afford to do is cut services. Children and young people are not immune to the effects of the recession which have lead to a surge in family breakdown, youth unemployment and stress for young people. And as Tier 3 services like children’s centers are closed the burden increasingly falls even more heavily on CAMHS which was struggling as it was 10 years ago when I first came into contact with them.

With three in every classroom affected by a mental health problem we are letting down too many children and young people.

This is why I am happy to hear that many schools are beginning to ask more organisations like the wonderful BodyGossip to come in and talk to their students. I’m also glad that there is a lot more talk of teaching children resilience and even screening for mental health issues from the age of 7.

Perception of mental illness

Another area that I have watched with interest over the last decade is the way mental illness is viewed and the stigma associated with it.

Thankfully I can say that we’re making some progress with this. When I was at school we never ever heard about mental illness. Now we have amazing campaigns like Time to Change’s Stand Up Kid, YoungMinds in Schools, Student Minds, The Acseed initiative and Mental Wealth.

But we still have a long way to go. I may now be very open about my mental health, something I definitely didn’t feel able to do 10 years ago, but I am part of a minority. I am lucky enough to have the support of my family, friends and importantly my employer. This has not always been the case and I have suffered discrimination in the workplace because of my health as have many thousands of others. We need to create an environment in our country where it is okay to talk about how we feel.

I think that the recent ASDA/Tesco “mental patient” costume scandal is a very good example of some of the stigma we still face in society. Although having said that, the fact that this story hit the news as hard as it did is actually quite heartening. It wouldn’t have made mainstream news 10 years ago.

I also recently ran into the anti-psychiatry movement founded by Scientology, the ironically named Citizens Commission on Human Rights. As I stated in my blog here this was really shocking for me. I know people struggle with the idea that children can experience distress and mental illness but to run head first into people that don’t believe that mental illness exists at all?

There is definitely a lot of work still to be done to help educate people but I also know that there are lots of fantastic organisations, too many to name, fighting daily to reduce stigma and increase awareness.

So overall how is the state of children and young people’s mental health in 2013? I don’t think we can say clearly that it is “better” or “worse” than it was 10 years ago. There have been improvements, there have been set backs but perhaps, if I am dangerously optimistic, I would say things are gradually improving in some ways.

What we need now is for proper investment in children and young people’s mental health, and in mental health in general. For too long it has been a Cinderella service and we cannot continue this way. Research shows both that over half of adults with a mental health issue developed it by the age of 14 and that prevention and early intervention work and save both money, and more importantly lives, in the long run.

Why participation is important to individuals and organisations: an insider’s view

This is a speech i am giving at an NHS England meeting:

Everyone’s business: Patient engagement, experience and involvement

nhsenglandlogo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Kat and i am the project manager for myhealtlondon’s WellHappy app for young people in the capital.

I’m also a service user and i’ve been using mental health services for about a decade now. When i was 19 i was lucky enough to become involved with the charity YoungMinds as part of their participation project for young service users; the VIK Project. That project has sadly ended now but was a huge part of my life for 4 years.

I came to this event knowing that i would be the only service user (at least openly) and the youngest person here so i’m here to talk to you about a couple of things from my own experiences, especially in relation to youth services & mental health although a lot of what i have to say has much wider applications.

And as much as i am very thankful for the invitation to speak today it doesn’t sit right for me. I’m not special and i am not representative of the areas i campaign around, especially the somewhat catch all group of “young people”. After all how can one person be?

I consider myself to be incredibly privileged to stand here in front of you today and share my experiences with you. But i kind of wish it always me on the stage!

And believe me i’m not the only one out there with an opinion, with things to say. But unfortunately there are still a huge number of barriers in the way of young people actively participating in not only the services they use but their own health.

Some of these barriers are tangible, things like running participation groups at times where young people are not able to attend, but a lot of them are more insidious, they are part of a culture which i believe needs to change.

It’s a problem that is widespread and not just applicable to health services. Young people are all too often  dismissed as being apathetic and disengaged with nothing worth saying. We’re told our exams are getting easier and we’re getting stupider and fatter.

And the media is full of awful depictions of the worst side of a very small number of young people. I work with a lot of young people from Tottenham and the surrounding area who live in the areas worst affected by the riots a few years ago. They speak of their despair at the way young people were targeted by the media. Never mind that some of the looters and vandals were grown adults, there was even a teacher in there! All the focus was on them.

In fact a whopping 76% of all press coverage on young people is negative and a shocking 39% of adults cannot not think of a single positive thing that young people do.

Not surprising then that surveys have shown that 1 in 4 adults would cross the street to avoid young people

And if you were a young person why would you want to engage with people who had so clearly written you off before they had even met you?

This is a dangerous state of affairs when we know how incredibly important prevention and early intervention are. But would you trust official figures like politicians and police or even feel comfortable talking to your GP expecting to meet this level of prejudice?

And how as a clinician or a service are you supposed to engage with people who are actively trying to avoid you because of this? It creates a very damaging “us” and “them” culture and shuts down potential dialogues.

It becomes very easy to only engage with the loudest, most active young people who come to you. Easy to ignore the hard to reach groups, for example young men and the BME community are hugely underrepresented in mental health participation circles. And the problem with this is, yes it’s great that you’re engaging service users, but you’re still only consulting a tiny and not representative group. The more people you consult the more points of view you have and the more likely that changes will be made for the common good and not just the perceived good.

And is such a shame because participation can change lives, i’m a perfect example.

Being a young person and a service user can often leave you feeling a number of less than optimistic things about yourself. You can feel like you don’t have a voice and that your opinion doesn’t matter and will never be heard.

It’s easy to become just another statistic and to begin to feel the way that you are treated by professionals who often label you as “manipulative”, “attention seeking” or a hopeless case.

You can feel like you have no right or ability to make even the most basic decisions about your care and your life in general just because you are young and have mental health problems and this is nonsense.

And it can also be dangerous self-prophesising. If there is no point why bother trying?

I know that before i joined VIK i definitely felt like this. I wanted to make a difference and to help change the mental health system so others wouldn’t have to go through some of the things i have and would have a better standard of care but i didn’t have the faintest idea as to how to go about this and didn’t think it was possible, especially not as an individual.

After all where do you start? How do you get people to listen to you and who should be listening when the government and the NHS are so vast and feel so faceless?

But then due to pure chance i became involved in YoungMinds VIK panel and things started to change for me. It took time, it took at least 6 months before i really understood what participation was and it came as a real surprise to me! I’m allowed to get a second opinion? I’m allowed to ask, i don’t just have to sit there and have things like therapy or medication done to me and i can be an active participant in my care! Let alone actively participation in the design and delivery of services. Or being able to give feedback on government policy that directly affects me.

Unfortunately this all happened long after i had left CAMHS. Funnily enough the reason i left CAMHS was not because i was in any way “better” or “recovered” but because i was jaded, disengaged and no longer saw the point. All dialogue between myself and the team had completely broken down.

Oh and just to point out during my time in CAMHS the closest i got to experiencing participation was once being asked to fill in a small form about how i would like the waiting room to look. This in fact is quite an ongoing annoyance..if i had a pound for everytime i had been asked about a waiting room i would probably not have to work!

So just so you know for the future waiting room decor is not participation, it is tokenism at best!

Thankfully though when i went into adult services i had all this new knowledge at my fingertips and it has, overall been a much better experience. I have the confidence and the knowledge to know when something isn’t right and can now stand up for myself-for me this is HUGE. Not only that i can engage with professionals, we can have honest discussions and make shared decisions. It feels so much better to work in partnership and not just be prescribed to!

You would not recognise me if you met me 5 or 6 years ago. I could barely leave the house, i couldn’t put my hand up in class, i was petrified of public speaking. I had no self worth whatsoever.

YoungMinds have provided me and the other VIKs with some absolutely incredibly opportunities. While i was in CAMHS i never thought that i would, for example, meet politicians, go to government meetings or be able to get my voice heard through national publications and radio programs.

But through VIK all of these things and many others have been possible and it is hugely encouraging and empowering. When we speak at conferences we are often approached afterwards by professionals who are completely taken aback by our ability to present ourselves and our experiences in an eloquent, coherent manner and talk with great passion about what we feel should be done to change the system.

I think this shows that even professionals who deal with young people on a daily basis are often unaware that we are unable to express ourselves or know what is best for us. That is why being a part of VIK was amazing. It gave us a chance to prove people wrong and hopefully change some people’s minds about what it means to be a young service user and what we are capable of.

When i ask young people i come into contact with what they think their rights are in relation to their healthcare, especially mental health care, i get laughed at. In fact most of them don’t even know what their human rights are.

“We have rights?”.

Imagine if we got things right this time. If the experiences i have been lucky enough to have were common practice.  Too often participation is seen by services as a nice add on, a favour to their clientele, it’s an after thought if anything is left in the budget.

Imagine if participation was just part of the process, if we spoke about it at schools and explained why it is important. If we actually taught kids their rights. If we taught them about the services that they could use if they needed it instead of the current system when you only find these things out too late..when you are stuck in the middle of services. It’s a scary place to be when you don’t know what’s happening.

My parents have always said that the worst thing was that they had no knowledge of the mental health system before i got ill. They too felt thrown in the deep end. Unsure of what was happening, what was meant to be happening and what they were allowed to do or say. I’m so glad that because of my experiences, if my kids ever have issues, i will not only know what to do but have the confidence to help them and fight for them if i have to.

If we get things right we could have a group of people, the next generation in fact, who  are health-literate and havethe skills and the support to be empowered, confident enough to take control of their health and their role in services and the desire to change things to make them better instead of the current model i see which is enduring and then escaping services never to return or even think about them again.

It’s a big ask i know but i also know it would be worth it for everyone.

And that is why i make it a priority in all the work that i do to involve as many young people as i can. I want to give as many of them as much of the experience of participation as i did that i can so that they can grow, flourish even and help pave the way for a better, healthier future for everyone.