I am a Consultant Clinical Psychologist working for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), delivering mental health services across Suffolk (Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust). I am also the Clinical Lead for CYP (Children Young People) mental health for Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care Board (SNEE ICB) providing strategic advice and guidance on service development for young people’s mental health.
I have been working in the NHS as a clinician for over 20 years, providing specialist mental health support to children and their families across the spectrum of need and complexity. In recent years I have developed an innovative mental health provision in schools across Suffolk, leading to a transformation in how NHS services are delivered.
My passion for innovation and bringing mental health support closer to all parents enabled me to develop a parent workshop programme throughout the pandemic. This series of regular free-for-all parent workshops on key topics like anxiety, low mood and self-harm, have and continue to be accessed by tens of thousands of parents from across the world www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/psychology-in-schools-team-nsft, www.nsft.nhs.uk/parent-workshops.
My contribution to children’s mental health during the pandemic was recognised in the 2022 New Year’s Honours List with an MBE, bestowed by the Queen, for exceptional contributions to my field. I was honoured to have Prince William present me with the medal, with my daughter who accompanied me to Buckingham Palace.
I regularly speak on BBC and ITV local news, as well as various radio stations about young people’s mental health, I also write articles for the local papers. Often invited to be a key-note speaker at events, I was named as one of 2022’s Suffolk 100 influential leaders.
Not only do I work on the ground every day, but I have also supported Westminster, informing UK policy on the changes needed in health and education to support children’s mental health.
Interview with Together for Suffolk
Could you introduce yourself please and let us know a little about your background and how you came to work in the field of mental health?The early part of my childhood was spent in the South West. My family moved to Suffolk when I was about 9-years old. I was always a curious child and as the eldest of four, also a keen organizer and bit of a second Mum to my younger siblings. After completing my A-Levels, I choose my degree topic – Psychology. A new topic for me as it was not available to study at school and something I was excited at the opportunity to study at Uni. I was the first person in my family to go to University, my grandparents were coal miners and my parents had not had the opportunity to study beyond high school, so I was aware of what a privilege going to Uni was. Before going to University I decided to have a year working and travelling. I went to America for a year working as a nanny. I travelled across America living in Idaho, North Dakota and California and also spending time in Nevada. During this time the family’s I worked for experienced significant losses, and I think I discovered my ability to work with young children and parents when they are experiencing traumatic life events. I came back from these experiences to go to Portsmouth University where I studied for an undergraduate degree in psychology followed by an ESRC funded PhD in forensic psychology, with a focus on children’s eyewitness testimony. I went onto be a research associate and tutored students who would come to me with their challenges and problems. During that time, I realised I wanted the majority of my work to focus on helping young people who are struggling and decided to train to be a Clinical Psychologist. I was successful in getting on the clinical psychology doctorate programme and in the following 3-years completed this training, becoming a clinical psychologist in 2005. I then worked in various NHS trusts in London, Cambridge, Norfolk and most recently Suffolk with children and families.
What drew you to work particularly with children and teenagers?Once I qualified as a clinical psychologist I was keen to work with children and teenagers. I enjoyed the opportunity to work in creative ways with younger people, think outside the box, and also the idea of supporting children and young people so they could go onto live full and meaningful lives felt really important to me. My first job following qualifying was in a hospital supporting children with significant health issues with their mental health. Many of these children had been traumatised by repeated medical procedures, or had life changing health conditions that impacted on their quality of life and functioning. This work was really rewarding as I was able to work with the medical staff responsible for their physical health to consider their mental health too. We know that the two are very interconnected – so this joined up approach not only supported children have a better experience of their medical care, but also helped improve their quality of life and both health and mental health outcomes.
With 50% of mental health disorders in adulthood having started before the age of 15, the school years are critical to identifying young people who may be struggling and also supporting and teaching young people to build good mental health.” Saw this quote of yours and thought it was really insightful. Would you be able to briefly expand on this?Mental health, like physical health, is complicated. It is influenced by a range of factors. So what we are born with (our genetics), the environment we grow up in (what we learn from those around us, opportunities to have access to the things that are good for us, like nutritious food, quality sleep, exercise, the outdoors, meaningful activity, being safe, good education, positive relationships), as well as the things that happen to us. Childhood forms the foundation for adulthood. Our children’s development both biologically and socially is hugely influenced by these three things (genetics, our environment, our experiences). All children will experience some type of adversity in childhood. It could be because of a significant event (like losing a loved one, experiencing bullying) or because a young person might be struggling with the pressures and demands of daily life. Helping children manage these challenges and get the right support so their needs are met is critical to enabling them to go into adulthood with a strong foundation, that will protect them from mental health difficulties in the future. In my role, I am passionate at trying to ensure that young people get the right help at the right time, so that they can make sense of the challenges they might be facing and find ways of coping that will support them living a full and meaningful life; making sure that they access good education and opportunities for building strong positive relationships with others. This support may come from a parent, a family member, a friend, a member of school staff, a social worker or a mental health professional. I am passionate at helping all people feel more able to support young people when they are struggling with their wellbeing or mental health. The key is, that as we know childhood is a vulnerable time for developing mental health difficulties it is an important time to prioritise supporting children get the right help so that bigger difficulties can be prevented as they go into adulthood.
Could you let us know about the mental health provision programme for Suffolk schools that you helped develop and put into practice?aIn 2018 I stumbled across a new and exciting role working at large secondary school in Suffolk. This job was unusual in that rather than working in a more clinical setting, it was based in a school. I was immediately interested, as it looked like a very different environment compared to where I’d worked throughout my career previously. I’ve been based in hospitals and medical settings with young people who had significant mental health difficulties, so the idea of working in a school, where young people are learning and maybe experiencing difficulties with their mental health for the first time, seemed really appealing. It also gave me more opportunity to do the preventative work that I referred to earlier. The school became the first country to recruit and fund a full-time clinical psychologist to support its students and staff manage mental health difficulties proactively. Looking back on it, it was such an amazing opportunity, to become part of the school’s community and embed mental health and wellbeing into everything the school was doing. I was working not just with the students but with staff and parents too. It was an unusual situation, but that’s what attracted a lot of attention. It made sense to have a mental health professional working in the school, as there’s where young people spend a lot of their time, and it’s where difficulties are often first identified. As mentioned earlier, with 50% of mental health disorders in adulthood having started before the age of 15-years-old the school years are critical to identifying young people who may be struggling and also supporting and teaching young people how to build good mental health. Since 2018 there are now many more schools in Suffolk receiving support from mental health professionals. The work I did at this school laid the foundation for this. By 2024 it is hoped that 50% of schools in Suffolk will have a Mental Health Support Team to support their school community with their mental health. I am very proud to have pioneered this original project which demonstrated the value of this approach. The idea to recruit me was down to a key member of staff at the school, who had a vision which was actualised in my post. This person had understood the needs presenting in school around Mental health and had found a creative way to respond to it. It is down to her and the Headteacher at the time, that this project was initiated. Their support and commitment really enabled this mental health provision to take off and take the lead in Suffolk in young people’s mental health in the school setting. The challenges and pressures of school, as well as issues young people are managing in their home life, can create difficulties for young people – in my role I was able to help leaders in schools think about how they structure the school, the language they use, and how they talk about mental health. Mental health services are difficult to access, so the pastoral care teams in schools are doing a lot of work, looking after students, so I would support them and help them make sense of what young people are going through. I’d also run assemblies and groups to support students struggling with anxiety or low mood. Students were really receptive to the work. I made a film with them about what they found valuable about my work in the school. Many of them said just being able to go along to my office on site and access support made them feel really valued as young people – and being in a familiar environment made it easier to ask for help. They also said going to a clinic can make them feel like there’s something wrong with them, but having me there in their own school made them feel like there wasn’t necessarily wrong with them, just that they needed some extra support. The biggest thing for me is to ensure young people can get the right help they need at the right time, and that it’s easy to access. That one’s the biggest challenges at the moment with one in six children aged five to sixteen having an identified mental health problem (that’s 1,576,758 children in the UK) and only a third of these receiving the appropriate help at the right age this is a real challenge for families, schools and services. During the pandemic, we had to change the way we worked. My team and I set up a virtual parenting programme which they could access through Eventbrite. This allowed them to find out more about how they could help young people, especially when it came to things like anxiety. A lot of parents were struggling with anxiety themselves, and noticed their kids were, too. Tens of thousands of parents have accessed these workshops. They were a real lifeline for a lot of families and continue to be. These workshops run every month on a range of topics and are free access to anyone across the world: Psychology in Schools Team - NSFT Events | Eventbrite The last two years have had an undeniable impact on everyone’s mental health as reflected in a 77% increase in referrals to specialist mental health services in the last year. This has further inspired me to ensure young people can get the help they need before it’s too late. Right now, I’m the consultant clinical psychologist and lead for the early intervention and outreach part of mental health services for young people, and we’re currently looking at transforming services so we can make sure children and teenagers can have easier access to support. We’re planning to do more direct work in the community to help adults and other people who are in the lives of young people, to help support them – whether that’s schools, GPs, youth groups and parents, or just anyone who might have contact with adolescents. We’re also trying to encourage young people to support their peers with their mental health. So we’ve started filming social media posts, to make sure credible information is easily available in a format that young people easily access. We essentially want to get closer to the ground, so people don’t have to wait a long time for specialist services.
What mental health issues do you think are particularly prevalent in Suffolk?I think young people in Suffolk face many of the challenges that other young people across the UK face. When I worked in the school, I noticed the sheer volume of young people experiencing adversity in their lives. I think that a lot of young people are managing an awful lot of challenges, and they just need that reassurance quite often, that the feelings and distress they are experiencing are normal based on the circumstances. That they are experiencing distress based on being human, and that talking with supportive adults in their lives is the best way of helping; rather than bottling it up, hiding their distress and feeling the pressure to fit in and be perfect. One of the things that really struck me when I met with the young people, sometimes I only met with them once, but they’d tell me their stories and they’d be anxious that there was something wrong with them. But I’d always be clear with them, and explain that their feelings are telling them something important about the things that are difficult in their lives. Often these young people who feel they have failed I remind how resilient and strong they are as they still managing to go to school every day amongst over things. A lot of the time, it was enough for them to have their story heard by someone like me who could reassure them and tell them that the way they’re feeling is natural.
Do you feel rural isolation in Suffolk has a part to play in people’s mental health? Did this inform your work in setting up your charity The Nest and if so how does it help people in this environment?I think young people feeling isolated can impact on their mental health. Often young people, particularly those who might identify as LGBTQ+ would talk about how difficult it would feel to not have a community of other young people struggling with similar issues in their local area. They would need to rely on connecting with other young people they could identify with through social media platforms, which they often found really helpful in making meaningful connections and feeling a sense of belonging. Living rurally can make it harder to access things that are good for our mental health, like being able to independently get to community events/sports or socialise with friends easily. At the same time, rural living gives access to outside space and green space, which is good for mental and physical health. As you say, I am a trustee for a charity in Suffolk called The Nest. This charity provides young people struggling with their mental health time on a farm, allowing them to have a sense of belonging and become part of a community.
I came across your work when I saw a piece around you receiving an MBE for your work. How did you find out and how did this make you feel?I collected my medal at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in July 22, my 13-year-old daughter by her side. It was such an honour to meet Prince William and be recognised for my commitment and passion for the work I have done over the pandemic. I was so totally shocked when I opened the letter in the post; I did not really appreciate what an MBE was! I felt very humbled as I work with so many people who have made the work possible. Being a single parent of three children and a woman from a working class background, I felt proud for my children to see what they can do in life, regardless of where they have come from. It was such an honour to be able to take my daughter with me, as my kids put up with me and the crazy hours I work supporting everyone else’s kids. I also was able to take my son to the Platinum Jubilee Thanksgiving Service, another incredible honour. Receiving this honour inspired me to do more. I am currently writing a book for parents, which is a simple guide to help them better understand their children’s mental health and how to support them navigate the challenges of growing up in the current climate. I want all parents to have easy access to the information that they can relate to and will enable them to support their child/ren on a daily basis.