I’m  finalist!! Wow look at that!

I’m finalist!! Wow look at that!

I have been quiet for a season as I’ve been busy – learning more about mental health issues, improving my qualifications and gaining more experience. That has resulted in my promotion to National Trainer (one of 50 or so) which means I now train the trainers either to be trainers or to upgrade their skills further. I also work as an Associate Trainer for both the Commercial and Community Teams at MHFA England delivering courses to organisations in various sectors (commercial, third sector and education) and consequently more work. Yes, busy!

That work seems to be making a difference as I have been advised I am one of five finalists in the All Star Marketing Business Awards 2019 in the Influential Business Owner category.

The award’s night is later this year and I’ll let you know how I get on 🙂

Thank you to everyone who attends my courses, letting me influence their life both (at work and personally) and providing their feedback enabling me to continually improve my knowledge and skills.

Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health

Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health

This is the sort of book that I wish had been around when my children were younger. Looking After Your Mental Health is a great “how to” book for every young person. It is also the book every parent needs to start some of those difficult conversations.

The authors James & Stowell review almost every issue that has an impact on the mental health of young people. Written in “their” language, the chapters are short, the font is easy to read, and it is loaded in graphics and pictures. You don’t have to start at the beginning and progress through – just dip in and out as you see something that catches your eye or a topic of interest.

“Looking after Your Mental Health” starts at the beginning with “What is mental health?” A good question. We must talk about mental health more in general, but in particular with our children. Back in February 2016 the Independent published an article about the teenage mental health crisis and noted that the rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.  It also cited a Girl Guides attitudes survey that found that mental health was one of the most pressing concerns, with 62% of those surveyed knowing a girl their age who has struggled with mental health problems.

Looking After Your Mental Health

Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James& Louie Stowell

Chapters include subjects that have a huge impact on our young people – what happens in the minds, their bodies, and their feelings as they grow up. It talks about friends (and includes bullying), family (and all the different meanings that has today), sex and romance, the internet (and cyberbullying), difficult times and mental health problems. It touches on the actual mental health problems of depression and anxiety and touches on eating disorders (not a mental health problem, but a behaviour covering emotional pain). Of course, it includes some sound suggestions about finding help – talking to those closest to you for starters and a range of really useful and practical suggestions in its “Try This” sections. The glossary of terms in the back is useful to understand some of the jargon.

It does not cover a lot of actual mental health conditions (there is no mention of OCD, PTSD, acute stress disorder, phobias, psychosis, or self-harm (eating disorders’ sibling). There is no mention of contraception and safe sex (but it does talk about the emotional side of sex and saying “No”); nor of sexually transmitted diseases which may make it easier for children at the lower end of the recommended age range (9 – 18) to cope with. It does not mention the overlaying of mental health issues occurring with other conditions such as ADHD, Autism or chronic illnesses. But in not mentioning these it creates space for further discussion around the dinner table with the family.

I believe “Looking after Your Mental Health” is a really useful starter book with sound advice for some of the issues affecting our young people today. It is published by Usborne Books, so is available from your local friendly Usborne rep. If you don’t have one then please contact mine – Tracy Hickson – here.

Book Review:  Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James & Louie Stowell, 2018, Usborne, London. ISBN

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome

BOOK REVIEW: Mental Health Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome

By Mohammad Ghaziuddin (2005) Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Leaping in at the deep end is something I do occasionally. Recently I committed to doing what I do – deliver mental health awareness and first aid courses; this time to the staff and support workers at a residential college specialising in teaching young people (16+) affected by Asperger syndrome and high functioning autism.

Now, I have to admit, my knowledge of Pervasive Developmental Disorders including the autistic spectrum, was brief, from work I did years ago with people affected by ADHD. Back then I saw almost every condition including ADHD due to the generally inadequate support of childhood conditions where I was living. So knowing I needed to brush up my knowledge I asked my LinkedIn network for recommendations of specialists I could approach for advice on the overlap of mental health conditions and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD’s). Following a couple of recommendations, I bought a copy of Ghaziuddin’s book. Quite frankly, for the layperson/psychotherapist and possibly as an introduction to the subject for trainee psychologists/psychiatrists, I think this book is brilliant.

The main focus is autism, but once you understand autism the other PDD’s fall into place by exception and their uniquely different traits. For example, people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome are generally communicative with a “normal” or higher IQ; those with autism are non-communicative and can have a low IQ; those with high functioning autism are also non-communicative and have a normal or high IQ.

Mental Health Aspects of Autism & Asperger Syndrome

Mental Health Aspects of Autism & Asperger Syndrome by Mohammad Ghaziuddin

For each PDD he explains what it is, it’s historical background and prevalence, causes, clinical features, diagnosis, conditions it may be confused with (and why) and what treatments/therapies or interventions are applicable. Each chapter has an extensive reference list for further study.

There follows a chapter on medical conditions in autism, something I had not previously thought about, but which make a significant impact on an affected individual and their family when combined with PDD’s. Such medical conditions include mental retardation and seizures (or forms of epilepsy) and a whole range of specific conditions including gene disorders (Fragile X and Down syndrome) and disorders caused by viruses (cytomegalovirus, herpes, etc).

Next Ghaziuddin covers general psychiatric disorders that occur in people affected by PDD’s. He writes “All psychiatric disorders cause distress, and affect the life of the individual in a negative way.”  At this point, I was gaining an understanding of just how complicated PDD’s can be with multiple conditions affecting an individual (the PDD, the medical and the psychiatric).  He has an insightful diagram in this section that shows how the comorbidities overlap each other.  This explains why no two cases present the same and why treatment programmes must be individualised to address the individual’s particular needs. It also explains why getting a diagnosis can be challenging and why treatment may be a complicated matter posing the question of what to treat first (and why). We must also remember that no individual is alone; there are a family and a community of people around each one that may need support too.

Useful case studies are included with many of the explanations of the conditions throughout the book which help the reader gain understanding of them. A whole chapter addresses ADHD and PDD. Further chapters are dedicated to depression and mood disorders; anxiety disorders; Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders; tic disorders and Tourette syndrome and “other” psychiatric disorders.

The issue of violence is addressed late in the book but we are challenged to think about the definition of violence (should it include verbal threats or just behaviour resulting in a criminal conviction?). The role of the media and the perceptions it fosters are another issue – are people with PDD more likely to be the offenders or the victims of violence? The assessment and treatment of violent behaviour need to be handled carefully. Think about how frustrating it must be to be unable to communicate what your needs are and to not have them met?

The final chapter is a long-term view – the task ahead.  Ghaziuddin quite rightly points out that “Carrying a diagnosis of autism and Asperger syndrome does not confer immunity against other medical or psychiatric disorders.” Whilst research into the mental health conditions affecting people with PDD’s is in its infancy and the need for early diagnosis and treatment is important, getting that diagnosis and treatment is another challenge complicated further where there are overlapping conditions. Hovering in the background is the family of the affected person and the attendant discrimination applied against any mental health disorder in the media and often by the community at large. The need to disseminate facts not fantasy about PDD’s and all mental health conditions will be one small change in making society more supportive of all such conditions.

You can order your own copy of this book here.

 

Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

When Mary-Ann offered to write a blog I went to meet her and was introduced to the fascinating creations that formed such an important part of her recovery. So much of Mary-Ann’s story resonates strongly with me. She attributes her recovery from severe depression to walking Maisy, morning writing (including affirmations, which I know made a huge difference), counselling and creativity. The blog is long, there is so much we had to leave out (yes!), but it is so worth a read. Her message of recovery is strong.

Introduction

I was absolutely delighted to be invited by Sue to write this guest blog as my own experience of deep depression, which began a few years ago, left me desperately wanting to use my own experience, my personal journey to recovery, to help others.

My Story

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

I won’t bore you with the causes of my depression since this would take more words that there is space in this blog. Suffice to say that a series of highly stressful events, ill health and bereavement resulted in me sinking into the bottomless black hole that is depression. In the process I lost my career of almost 30 years, my marriage fell apart and I almost lost my daughter to the deadly disease too.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. I didn’t attempt suicide but I thought about it and planned it. Often. I felt useless, worthless and honestly believed that the world would be a better place without me in it.

How I escaped that dark route I’ll never know, but I am still here. What’s more, I’m well, more than well. I’m still very happily married, I still have three amazing adult children and I’ve learned to truly value and enjoy life.

My experience is proof that this deadly disease can be beaten.

I know some of you might be thinking, ah, but I bet she just went through a bad patch and her life is all sorted now. In the last three months I’ve buried my Dad after losing him to Alzheimer’s, organised his funeral and wake all on my own because there was no one else in my family either close enough or well enough to help and of course I’ve been looking after Mum and sorting out Dads legal and financial affairs. In the midst of all that I’ve changed jobs too. So I can honestly say that no, my life is a long way from stress-free.

It often feels as though life continues in its relentless pursuit to find ways to tear me down again, but each time it tries, I just feel stronger for having survived the latest crisis.

What I tried and didn’t try

So what methods did I try to evade the torment that I came to nickname The Ugly Thoughts Gremlin?

When I first became unwell I was also suffering constant chronic pain that was aggravated by working for too many hours in front of a PC. I had already had a disc replacement in my neck and the return of the inescapable nerve pain panicked me. My workplace provided a special chair and IT equipment, but nothing seemed to help. When my spine consultant advised that I was heading for a further double disc replacement my mood plummeted.

I desperately wanted to run away, to escape my chaotic stressful life and the pain for a while, so my GP signed me off work. The initial week, became two, then three, then a month, then two. The pain gradually subsided with regular physical activity but I knew it would return once I was sat back at my PC. I then began to experience extreme anxiety at the very thought of returning to my high-stress job. Before I realised it, I’d been off work for six months. I couldn’t see a way out. So I quit! Then the real problems began.

My GP wanted me to take antidepressants. I was prescribed them but couldn’t bring myself to take them. I already had prior knowledge of the downsides of some of the drugs. Reading the detailed information of my prescribed medication put me off entirely.

I paid for private counselling, but that made me feel worse, not better. Talking about their problems helps some people. For me, it simply bought all my very real problems out into the open, made them more real and even more terrifying than they already were.

My GP referred me to ITalk counselling but the same thing happened. Whilst the young woman was very nice, her responses were very obviously scripted and gave me absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

I thought I’d hit rock bottom when my youngest, my beautiful precious school-aged daughter, was diagnosed with depression too. She’d frequently suffered from severe pains and physical ailments necessitating countless doctor and hospital appointments over a three year period. They had various theories and tried her on numerous prescriptions. It was an old, Doc Martin type GP that realised what was wrong. My daughter’s formal diagnosis came as a real shock. I had been completely unaware that in addition to various physical pains, she was also suffering from hallucinations. These had become so severe and horrific that she was unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t any longer. Bless her, she had of course been trying to protect me, she hadn’t wanted to add to add to my long list of problems. Her diagnosis left me feeling as if I had completely failed her as a mother. I was supposed to recognise when something was wrong with my child, wasn’t I?

Ironically, it was my deep desire to help my daughter that spurred on my efforts to seek a solution to our problems.

What helped

After some lengthy discussions with my husband, the first thing I did was to encourage my daughter to ‘earn’ a long desired puppy. I created a simple puppy silhouette poster and told her she was to fill it up with her exam revision. From that moment on she never missed another day of school. She studied diligently until her exams, filling every square millimetre of the entire poster in the process. Some of the writing was so tiny it was difficult to discern what it said. Needless to say, she passed all her exams. And she got her much-anticipated puppy. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

 

Maisy

Maisy – isn’t she delightful?
She has been part of the recovery process.

 

Although my daughter became very focused, she was still far from well. I knew I needed to do something about my own condition too so I became all consumed by the need to find an answer and spent days and weeks researching, to better understand our ailment. By the time my daughter actually got to see a specialist child counsellor, I was well informed on the subject.

The counsellor was amazing. Using her advice coupled with my new found knowledge, both of us began to recover. It was slow progress. At the time a lot of blurring of the personal boundaries between us occurred. Our lives became ridiculously close and intertwined neither one of us able to cope without the other. On several occasions, we even mirrored each other’s physical symptoms.

Six months or so after getting our puppy, I began walking other dogs. As a result, I started spending more and more time outdoors with nature. I can’t stress enough how much the rhythmic walking for two hours a day helped my physical and mental health. There is a great deal of truth in the phrase, ‘stop and smell the roses’. As children we instinctively stop and look at things, examining the strange and unusual world we live in. As adults, we are so caught up in our busy lives that we have neither the time nor inclination. Without really realising what I was doing, my dog walking was encouraging me to live in the moment, to practice what is now widely known as mindfulness.

One piece of knowledge, that proved to be a real turning point for me, was discovering more about how our brain works. I already understood about strengthening the neural pathways, that is I understood how each time we learn something it strengthens that particular pathway through the brain. What I hadn’t appreciated was that each time we repeat a negative line of thought it becomes stronger, more ingrained. Therefore depression is also a learned pathway. With that knowledge, I also began to understand that I could retrain my brain. I read about thinking of my thoughts as being clouds that I could learn to observe, without engaging in emotionally, as they passed through my mind. Cloud watching became an obsession, especially when I was out dog walking. It took a lot of practice but eventually, I found I could choose which thoughts I wished to emotionally engage with. It was a revelation!

As a part of my creative journey, I also discovered something called Morning Pages. I had been journaling the last thing at night for some time; often pouring out my hurt and emotions onto paper. I can honestly say this doesn’t help as it fuelled my bad dreams and insomnia. Morning Pages, on the other hand, get everything out of your head before you start the day. This form of journaling is followed immediately by daily affirmations so it helps to put you in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. Shortly after discovering Morning Pages I had a wonderful bonfire of my old poisonous journals. Very therapeutic stuff! I’ve been writing Morning Pages and daily affirmations for over three years now.

A peaceful night’s sleep can be incredibly elusive when suffering from depression, so I went through a stage of using a recorded meditation most nights to help me sleep better. I still practice meditation occasionally, but it’s become more of a creative tool for me these days.

Art

Both my daughter and I are artistic and creative. I had a deep-seated dream of becoming a self-employed creative. My daughter’s art, which was the one subject that didn’t suffer all through her depression and long absences from school, became a focus for further education.

I longed for the formal art education that she was getting and for a while, I felt as though I was living my dreams through her. It was an unhealthy situation. We needed separation from each other. That separation came when she eventually went off to university. It was a huge wrench for us both and for a while it seemed the Ugly Thoughts Gremlin might haunt us both once more.

Little by little, we have re-built our own separate and creative lives. We are still incredibly close, but we encourage each other’s individual creative endeavours.

My creative journey

Six months after leaving my job I began job hunting. Despite my best endeavours, probably not helped by my illness and low self-esteem, the only jobs I succeeded in securing were very part-time, minimum wage positions. In hindsight, although this all but eliminated any pride I had left, I’m not at all sure I could have coped with anything more.

The positive side of all this was having spare time for the first time since childhood.

I spent hours immersed in creative sewing activities, dreaming of finding the elusive something that I would be able to turn into a creative business venture.

A lack of entitlement to student finance meant I wasn’t able to return to formal education to study art. So instead I put myself through my own home-based education. I had always sewn from a very young age, so spent hours and hours researching and trying out different sewing techniques. When I became fed up with creating my own versions of other people’s designs I challenged myself to create something entirely unique for 30 consecutive days. This proved to be a real turning point and I became more confident and adventurous in my experiments, vowing to always create my own unique work from then on. I began to make and sell a few items, but nothing I did really seemed to make sense. I was still searching.

Then about eighteen months ago, I attended a one day workshop by a mixed media artist I greatly admire, purely for fun. I became captivated by the single fantasy character I had begun creating that day. I grasped at strange clues as to who she was and where she came from. She haunted me until I completed her and christened her Minima.

Minima and Concordia

Minima and Concordia

One day, as I practised a meditation, I discovered a beautiful peaceful place in my head and realised she belonged there. Little by little that strange other world became more complete and detailed in my head and dreams. I found myself creating companions (such as the dragon Concordia) for my first born and devised stories about them in my head. I started to write them down. I created a website and joined a writing group.

Strange as it might seem, I don’t see this as a business venture. My creative adventure is exactly that. I seem to be driven to see what I might discover next, hidden away in my creative brain. My current ambition is to finish writing my fantasy fiction book and to illustrate it with images of my 3D mixed media characters.

My creative endeavours are perhaps somewhat different from the norm, but one thing’s for sure, I don’t just feel normal, I feel good. I’m in a good place and have been for some time. I intend to stay that way!

Mary-Ann can be emailed at maryanntoop@gmail.com or via Concordia’s website – www.concordiasworld.com where you will also find her blog (a great read!).

She is also on Facebook & Instagram and her book Minima’s Story will follow soon.

We must talk about mental health more

We must talk about mental health more

I received some sad news last night – the death of a bright, talented young man deeply affected by depression.

This morning I am sitting at my computer; there is a To-Do List with several items on it to my left, in my current notebook. The relevant papers are around me and on the work table behind me for the things on that list. Yet, I am distracted; distracted by that sad news. It is the sort of news that motivates me to do what I do, and to do more of it – to teach people mental health first aid – enough to make a difference to lives and communities. We must talk about mental health more. #changeonething

One way people are talking about mental health more is clearly demonstrated by the railways working in conjunction with the Samaritans. They have made a brilliant short film about the importance of talking to people, if in doubt, talk to them. They have a Small Talk Saves Lives campaign and it really does. They have calculated that for every completed suicide, six are prevented (yes, SIX!). It can be as simple as engaging with them and talking about the weather. You can make a difference. The 90-second film is available to view here.

We all have mental health. Some of us have good mental health and some of us are affected by mental ill-health. There is no health without mental health. We must talk about mental health more. Small talk saves lives.

Borrowing directly from the Samaritans website:

Signs someone may need help

  • Looking distant, withdrawn or upset

  • Standing alone or in an isolated spot

  • Staying on the platform for long periods of time/failing to catch trains that stop

Someone looking out of place or a feeling that ‘something isn’t quite right’. If you feel that way about someone, trust your instincts and try to help.

Approaching someone in need

We know that when a person is suicidal having someone to talk to them and listen to them, and showing that they are not alone, can encourage them to seek support. There is no evidence that talking to someone who could be at risk will ‘make things worse’.

A little small talk can be all it takes to interrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts and help start them on a journey to recovery. If you think that someone might need help, trust your instincts and strike up a conversation, with a comment about the weather for example. Life-saving questions used by rail staff to help people have included:

  • Do you need any help?

  • What’s your name?

  • It’s a warm evening isn’t it?

  • What train are you going to get?

So strike up a conversation if you feel comfortable and it’s safe to do so. Or tell a member of staff or call 999. Your involvement could help save someone’s live.

Tram by Michele Piacquadio

Waiting for a train – you too can use small talk and save a life.

One of the ways I make a difference is by having the Samaritans phone number on my mobile – I can contact them with a few quick keystrokes for someone if needed. That number is 116123. Why not add it to your phone right now?

There is a lot more information on the Samaritans website.

 

Why not take a look. You too could save someone’s life.

 

Art as Therapy – a local example with Donna McGhie and Powertex

Art as Therapy – a local example with Donna McGhie and Powertex

Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Donna McGhie at a business networking meeting. We are kindred spirits in many ways. Whilst I talk about mental health, teaching the language, knowledge and sufficient skills to address mental health issues on a first aid basis, Donna is very practical running workshops releasing our creativity and giving us some much-needed downtime or breathing space.

Donna writes –

It is often said that people can “lose themselves in art.” I disagree with this. I strongly believe the opposite is true. In my experience, we ‘find ourselves in art.’ I am a self- employed artist and I run Powertex® fabric sculpting workshops which are suitable for all ages and abilities.

Without fail, after almost every workshop, someone takes the time to come up to me and tell me how therapeutic they have found it to be. Often though, it is someone who is genuinely surprised at how much they have gained from simply taking a few hours out, just for themselves. More than once people have become overcome with emotion in a positive and cathartic way. Sometimes, these are people with a diagnosed mental illness and are well aware of the benefits engaging with creativity can have for their well-being. At times like these, I feel really honoured to have played a part in this release.

There is a lot of pressure on all of us nowadays to act a certain way, to think a certain way, to look a certain way. If we don’t naturally slot into the various boxes that society, predominantly social media, expect us to, we find ourselves in danger of losing who we are as we try to gain access to a box. Metaphorically we end up squeezing uncomfortably into someone else’s ill-fitting shoes simply to fit in. Sadly, the pressure to fit in is starting at a younger and younger age and schools now have to work to improve things by becoming educated about mental health issues and engaging with counsellors and inclusion workers.

Donna McGhie

Donna McGhie – the artistic and creative force behind the Powertex workshops – art as therapy

 

Art and creativity are safe ways of kicking off those too tight shoes and dancing barefoot in the woods if that is your thing. I have honestly been surprised by some of the feedback I get from my workshops:

‘I suffer from a lack of confidence.  Donna’s workshops give me an amazing sense of accomplishment.  I leave them feeling incredibly pleased with myself.  Not only have I met some lovely people, I have tangible and lasting proof I am, in fact, quite artistic. It really does my confidence a world of good.’  S, Southampton.

 

If you would like to know more about what Donna does go to her website here or contact her directly by email on donna.mcghie@sky.com