Since the Involvement Bank of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW) advertised the opportunity on behalf of Newcastle Hospitals for its members to become involved in the development of their mental health strategy, I’ve been working alongside some of the most amazing NHS staff I have ever come across (namely Gemma and Fardeen)! And having created a post a while ago about my journey with the Trust (which you can read here), I thought I’d follow it up with this chat about everything I’m learning on this productive and inspirational journey to create a mental health strategy that genuinely has the Trust’s patients at the very heart of it…
If you’ve been reading, I’m NOT Disordered for a little while then you’ll probably know – or have noticed – that I’m very fond of creating collaborations with various organisations, charities, companies, and brands. My passion for this kind of content mostly stems from both the incredible opportunities or gifted experiences/products I’m offered, and from the idea that my blog is of a standing in the industry where being mentioned or featured on it, can be beneficial – in so many ways – for others. I feel that this says a lot about the standard of my posts, the popularity of my blog, and its examples and illustrations of the various definitions of the term ‘successful.’
Despite the fact that I’m NOT Disordered recently turned ten(!), I actually still have a ton of goals and dreams that I’d really like to make a reality at some point in my blogging career. Some of these aims are to collaborate with particular organisations – particularly ones which have affected and impacted my mental health or life in general, in some way. And so, for a long time, NUTH has actually been one of those aspirational organisations because I’ve had a number of experiences with one of their hospitals in particular (the Royal Victoria Infirmary/RVI) that have massively varied from terrible patient care and a general lack of compassion to genuinely life-saving interventions.
Having had staff sedate me and put me on life support in order to treat my suicide attempt against my will, alongside all my other experiences there, means they have been truly life-changing and so it felt almost natural to want to do some sort of collaboration with them now that I’m in a much better place (mentally). I know that achievements are really supposed to be about being proud of yourself and adding to your confidence and things, but I really love receiving positive feedback about my blog and to almost show it off! Reaching over one million readers now, has really boosted my bravery when it comes to talking about, I’m NOT Disordered with complete strangers! It’s also really cemented my acceptance and beliefs around my blog being an achievement, and so why wouldn’t I want to show the people who saved my life, that it was worth saving?
In a typical career, being promoted is quite a straightforward and informative process, whereas in the blogging industry, I feel like the notion of a ‘promotion’ is almost completely self-defined. It can still be fairly obvious and reasonable though; like, for me, the idea that I’ve sort of worked my way up in this world, has been defined by the power and influence I’m NOT Disordered seems to hold, and the way I judge the gravity of that, is by its popularity, the statistics of readers interacting with links or products I have advertised, and the reputation of the people and organisations I’m working with (particularly where the collaboration was pitched to me rather than the other way round).
When I began wanting to work with NUTH, a big part of the appeal for that goal, was the impact their staff/services have had on my life and my mental health in particular. But, another part of the attraction to collaborating with the Trust, was the recognition that they were a more publicised Trust that had a large reputation in the entire North East — they actually filmed a Channel 4 documentary following various staff in the hospital (you can actually still watch it here)! And so, in my mind, I needed to work myself/my blog up to being of a position and significance that would be persuasive and encouraging if I were to pitch a collaboration to them.
I believe that to do that, I needed to gain more experience in working with the NHS and other healthcare providers, grow the blog’s popularity, and do some more networking – because let’s face it; a lot of the time opportunities in this industry, are typically offered based on who you know, not what you know! And so, that’s what I did; I started working with the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) and continued with various collaborations with CNTW to gain more experience, knowledge, and understanding, I’m NOT Disordered reached over 1.1 million readers, and I networked my way to working with the CNTW Chief Executive and NEAS’ Mental Health Lead! It meant that when the opportunity came up via the Involvement Bank to work with NUTH, I felt somewhat confident in applying for it.
I was immediately proud just from getting an email offering me an ‘informal chat’ with NUTH, and that only improved when they determined that I could be on the Focus Group for the strategy. When I attended the second meeting with that Group, talk turned to social media and harnessing the digital world to aid in the creation of this strategy; and I – very predictably – offered to help with doing that. And just like that, my dreams were coming true, and I began taking on numerous communications and marketing tasks for the lovely Patient Experience team at NUTH!
The most recent incredible moment with the Communications and Patient Experience team has come in the shape of Comms stating that I’m NOT Disordered might be a really useful tool to be shared on the staff intranet and with the Trust Executive Team! I won’t lie… I got very emotional! When you’ve gone through/are going through a mental illness, finding, and experiencing a sense of achievement can feel pretty challenging. It’s typically incredibly hard to recognise any sort of achievement because you’re almost too focused or lost in the negativity and the time and effort you’re having to put in, just to stay afloat. This also means that something you might eventually see and accept as a win, actually seems fairly insignificant and trivial to others. Ignore them.
So, feeling like I had really achieved this collaboration, was so rewarding and exciting. And this positivity has really helped my mental health (which is especially important since I was only sectioned a few weeks ago!) and encouraged me to be so much more creative and thoughtful around my ideas on ways to help NUTH. It’s a true pleasure and honour both to be trusted with the organisation’s reputation, and to be offered so many different and amazing opportunities around this collaboration.
If you’ve read, I’m NOT Disordered for a while, you’ll probably know by now that I’m definitely not that comfortable about blowing my own trumpet! I’ve always squirmed a bit in writing posts on advice and tips because I’m so afraid it will look as though I’m being a bit cocky and arrogant in acting like I’m an expert and the best at whatever topic I’m blogging about.
For two reasons, I seem to be overcoming this to a degree though…
1. Confidence from blogging
At first, when I started my blog as a psychiatric hospital inpatient, I was blogging in a very casual way – almost like a hobby that I would just turn to when I was bored after activity groups and therapy. And then it became therapeutic, meaningful, and really important for my mental health. Then, after a few years of blogging, I recognised that it had really sparked an interest and passion around all things communication and marketing and I finally felt settled on a career path and industry I’d like to work in (having gone from Lawyer to Visual Merchandiser – and everything in between!) . That meant that I started to take blogging a lot more seriously and with a more professional head on my shoulders that resulted in me being a lot more interested in the statistics and in doing so, I kind of altered the content I was creating to really reflect on my new-found attitude and outlook.
Taking I’m NOT Disordered seriously meant that I actually experienced a better sense of achievement and pride when I was successful with collaboration pitches, or if an organisation approached me with an incredible opportunity, or when my blog reached a milestone. I felt more deserving of the rewards I was given as a result of these achievements and that notion that I had earned them, gave me more and more passion and determination to continue bettering my content in any way possible. And with that, came the influx of new readers and it was reaching 1 million readers that my confidence around this idea of blowing your own trumpet really improved. I mean, I’m not stupid – I know that not everyone who reads my blog will like it, but you can’t exactly resist the thought “I must be doing something right” when there’s one million people involved!!
2. Working in Comms and Marketing
Even though – after around 6 or 7 years after starting to blog – I had finally recognised and decided that I enjoyed blogging so much, and that I especially love the parts of it that were relevant to end up wanting to work in the Communications and Marketing industry, it didn’t mean I could instantly start working. At that point, whilst I was out of the psychiatric hospital, my mental health was still reasonably far from being 100% stable. I mean, on my discharge from the hospital, I was labelled as being ‘in recovery,’ but I very quickly learnt that this wasn’t all professionals described it to be – it didn’t mean I would always feel safe from myself or that the hallucinations would never come back or be challenging. Recovery, most definitely, isn’t linear.
So, it really wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to feel as though I could confidently take on some sort of commitment in the world of work. I definitely wasn’t ready to work full time, so I began volunteering with the Communications and Marketing team of a local hospice and after a year or so of learning so much about the industry, I was offered a three-month contract for several hours a week. I really enjoyed the extra responsibilities I was granted and the respect I received for my ideas, so that when my contract was finished, I stayed with the Hospice as a volunteer, but began searching for other contracts with a small, reasonable and practical, number of hours.
Of course – if you’re lucky – job applications can come with interviews, and I quickly recognised that trying to work in this particular industry made the skill of ‘selling yourself’ all the more important and essential if you wanted to get any further than your interview. You really need to illustrate a sense of confidence and assertiveness that hints at the fact you’re likely to complete tasks and produce work and content in an equally special, positive, responsible, and assured way. It can almost leave you with the notion that if you really want the job, you’re going to need to put yourself ‘out there’ and get it!
So, with those two areas of my life improving not just my confidence in my skills, but also the actual skills themselves(!); I found myself really recognising how they can actually help others and not just myself, my blog’s popularity and success, and my career prospects. In my years of blogging, I’ve received a lot of messages from so many people from all kinds of different walks of life, who have assured me that my blog content is helping their own mental health in some massively, vastly differing ways.
Not to minimise my appreciation for every single one of those comments, but there’s one I remember very well, and which stands out the most in terms of it being an illustration that I’m skilled in producing the content on I’m NOT Disordered… I’d created a post of advice and encouragement around reporting abuse to the Police and a female reader emailed me, telling me that upon reading the post, she found the motivation to report the sexual abuse she’d survived when she was a child and it had resulted in her abuser being arrested. That was a serious “wow” moment… And moment where I really, finally became truly aware of the power and influence my writing/blogging had the potential to have on others.
I won’t lie, experiencing that notion, wasn’t always a good, rewarding, exciting, and thrilling prospect; sometimes it was just plain scary and intimidating. I mean, I’ve obviously really, massively, benefited – in so many ways – from the popularity and success of I’m NOT Disordered and just my blogging journey in general, so the last thing I want is to sound ungrateful… But I feel like there can always be two sides to most things, and the alternative side to that honour and appreciation, is the terrifying notion that what I’m typing can truly affect someone’s life. And the fact there are now over one million people reading my blog, does just sometimes massively exacerbate this!
When I first got involved with the Mental Health Strategy project, it was as a member of the Focus Group who were assigned with providing advice, thoughts, and opinions on decisions and proposals others made around the design, development, and delivery of the Strategy. Because of my new-found confidence and recognition of how my writing and content designing skills help others; it meant that when the Focus Group got to talking about utilising social media and the digital world in these different areas of the Strategy, I – of course – asked if I could help! Upon hearing my experiences and achievements in the blogging sphere and my genuine, passionate interest in this area of communications, marketing, and publicity; the Patient Experience team suggested meeting with me separately.
From the very offset of my work with NUTH, I have felt so appreciated, and when they showed nothing but support and encouragement with my first blog post and with the other, more behind-the-scenes type of work I’ve done for them, I felt really reassured that I had done the right thing in volunteering to help. This was also really helpful because I was enjoying the partnership tasks so much that I sort of began to feel – and worry – that this was all one-sided and that I was the only one benefiting from this. So, to hear lovely feedback and receive so many comments around how useful the work I’m producing for NUTH is for this new Strategy; encourages me to feel less selfish and not to feel as though this entire collaboration is completely self-motivated!
It’s not just about being useful for the staff and the teams involved in this project; I think that the idea – or even just the thought – that what I’m doing (in blogging and this work with NUTH) can help others who are where I once was, is what really matters the most. It’s so incredibly rewarding to recognise that some actual good can come from all of those difficult and upsetting moments in my life. That how someone treat me can shape the advice staff are given as to how they should be treating people in a mental health crisis or who attend hospital and have a mental illness. I think that this is so important because hopelessness is an incredibly dangerous feeling or thought process, so anything that can bring some sort of light to a situation that could lead to those emotions; is incredible. And to be even remotely involved in bringing that light to people, is such a powerful act for your own recovery and positivity.
In my first collaboration piece with NUTH regarding this new Mental Health Strategy, I talked about the sheer full circle notion I’m experiencing from working on this project with the Trust because in 2012, it was their Doctors who had put me on life support after I made a suicide attempt! And now I’m working with their Patient Experience team?! It’s actually kind of surreal in a way because it doesn’t feel like that happened eleven years ago; the few bits I do remember from around that time, feel as though they all just happened yesterday!
Back then though – all those years ago – when my mental health was that poorly, if a professional was horrible, disrespect, rude, or saved my life (when I didn’t want it to be saved) I just almost instantly used it to pass judgment on every single other member of staff both from the same organisation and from the same profession! And I think that this happened because when I finally reported the abuse I had experienced at the hands of a ‘professional,’ the Police told me that when they interviewed his colleagues every single one of them something along the lines of either “I did wonder…” or “I didn’t see it, but I can imagine it’s true.” Hearing this, was so infuriating; it made me desperate to scream at them “why the hell did you not do anything to help me or to stop it then?!”
In my head, their admission of having suspicions and lack of surprise, made them almost as liable and guilty as my actual abuser. And I don’t think I’m alone in that – you hear a lot in stories of child abuse where the Social Workers haven’t taken things seriously or have been dismissive and it ends up in a fatality or really serious injuries etc. Then, so many people take the stance of holding those people accountable and responsible for the escalation because in all instances of abuse, there’s always the notion of: if someone stepped in sooner or if the child reported all of it earlier, would it have gotten as bad as it did? And if it hadn’t, would the recovery or aftermath have looked a whole lot different/better/easier/shorter too?!
There has to come a point though – in things like this – where you just decide to kind of… accept what happened… In so far as all those people not reporting their suspicions, I mean. Like, there’s very little point in still being angry at all of those people sixteen years later; especially considering the fact that I’m literally 99% sure they’ve all moved on or have even forgotten about it. And yes, that’s incredibly unfair – to be honest, I don’t think a lot of things are fair in mental health – particularly when it comes to the survivor of abuse feeling and being suicidal and self-harming, whilst their abuser is going about life like nothing even happened! So, to conquer that inequality and completely backwards situation, there really needs to come a point where you say, ‘what they did (or didn’t do!) is on them,’ and stop thinking about their guilt or role in the situation.
Aside from struggling to move on from terrible situations, continuing to think about the people who have treat you poorly, can also add to how you view others in that ‘profession.’ Others who literally have had no input or part in the situation that’s led you to treat or think of them badly, and who are very much completely undeserving of it… I think though, that it’s very tricky to keep a balanced, equal sight or hold on things when you have a mental illness (no matter what the diagnosis is!). My Mum always said that it was like I had tunnel vision when I had the thought to self-harm because I just couldn’t see anything else. I couldn’t see the people who loved me or the professionals who cared about me. I couldn’t see any healthy, more safe coping strategies – it felt like I really had no choice but to climb further into the darkness and self-harm.
It took me a long time to finally find a balance in recognising and accepting the failures of those particular professionals around during the abuse, but to do so whilst not allowing that to shape my attitude towards, and treatment of, those with the same job title or who play a similar role (I would even go to the extreme of tarnishing those who were merely of a similar role in society on a whole!). Something which really helped in reaching this new and healthier thought process, has come from doing Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) because it helped me to gain the insight and rationale needed. It led me to recognise the importance and validity of determining a professional to be representing their employer and others in the same role, but that this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is the same. And it definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give a professional a chance purely because their colleagues behaved in a particular way or made certain comments.
I found that it’s also important to recognise whether any elements of a professionals behaviour or attitude that you’re upset with or don’t find helpful, are more of a personal preference. I mean, if a member of the Crisis Team suggests I take a bath to ‘relax’ when I’m struggling; that’s really not helpful because I have a wet room so there is no bath! However, someone out there might have a bath and might not have thought to take one to see if it helps them and so the comment/suggestion could actually be so useful for them. It’s still equally important that you voice how you feel about the ‘take-a-bath’ idea even though it’s more of a personal preference, because it can be really vital for people – well, mental health professionals especially – to know as much as possible about what they can do to benefit you. So, if you don’t want that to happen again, still speak up about it.
Then, an equally important issue to talk about is when you receive a response or are treat in a way which might be very obviously ‘wrong’ or considered a ‘failure’ no matter what your personal circumstances are. I mean, there are very obviously a lot of lines in mental health and crossing them, can very realistically and evidently, lead to incredibly unsafe reactions and responses. The thing here though, is that if you are treated so poorly, and you don’t become unsafe or react in an unhealthy way, it's still worth speaking up/complaining in whatever way is most appropriate; because whose to say that if another person is treat the same, they won’t become unsafe? And, of course, if you don’t speak up against any wrongdoing, how much of an influence are you having – or how much responsibility do you take – on that continuing? The answer should be ‘none’ – it shouldn’t be your fault in any way at all – but let’s be realistic and consider how many people don’t think like that!
So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, in 2012, I had to be put on life support at one of NUTH’s hospitals, and their Psychiatric Liaison Team ended up being pretty hopeless and completely dismissive. And as I said earlier, this gave me some motivation to want to collaborate with the Trust; but at the same time, I’ve also had a lot of reluctance to do so. I was unsure that I wanted I’m NOT Disordered – and the reputation and popularity I/it has built over the years – to be associated with a Trust who could treat someone in a mental health crisis like that.
Having now worked with the Patient Experience team for some time, I’m so glad I listened to the more positive side of my thought process who wondered whether collaborating would be the perfect opportunity to speak up and maybe play a small part in things improving for other service users/patients. Gemma and Fardeen, from the team, have honestly been some of the most incredibly kind and passionate NHS staff I’ve ever met – and I’ve very obviously met a lot! And that notion that not all staff are the same, is so heart-warming and reassuring that it can actually be really helpful in encouraging the belief not to give up hope. I mean, in a mental health crisis it can be an incredibly difficult and important step to reach out for help and to tell someone how you feel, so to be treat badly by one member of staff can so easily and understandably result in a person developing a huge reluctance to ever interact with anyone remotely similar (whether that mean from the same team, department, ward, hospital, job title) to that awful one. And this work with NUTH, has really taught me just how important it is not to do this.
Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust links: