Dr Natalie Kemp CPsychol
Founder of in2gr8mentalhealth
There was no peer group for support when I broke down in service in 2015. There was little movement in the mental health world at the time to destigmatise lived experience in it's own professions, just a sense of needing to keep up with an idealisation that we must be immune from life's traumas, from our common humanity, from the fact that we can also stuggle in response to challenging times. It left me feeling isolated, alone and ashamed.
But why should I have felt that way? My experience happened for a reason, had important personal meaning and I have grown from it. It was painful but transformative and has taken be back into the world on true ground. Working through it has given me a life full of far more possibility than before and it showed me how strong I was. I have grown beyond my trauma and moved past old ways of being that were no longer serving me. How is it that narrow stigmatised views of mental health don't allow this narrative to surface? Just google post-traumatic growth!
As I recovered, it became important to me to challenge this professional taboo and the silence that can maintain feelings of isolation in those of us (many) who have gone through this. First, I created a peer support space for my peer mental health professionals with lived experience. After a call out over Twitter they responded, it was moving to be joined and supported and in2gr8mentalhealth was born. Next, I understood from my work as a clinical psychologist that it is important to work systemically to help change happen; I began to engage with Trusts, professional bodies and training courses to speak about my journey and share my formulation of how vulnerability gets positioned in the mental health scene.
We have othered, dismissed and denied vulnerability in our professions, reinforcing an us/them polarity in services allowing stigma, silence and shame to proliferate. As a result, professionals are deemed to be forever containing, knowledgeable and immune to distress at all times and those using services (whoever we might be) only ever weak, incompetent and risky. Stigma is disasterously powerful still and we ignore what it breeds at our peril. Polarised ideas bear no resemblance to the nuance of reality, sustain distress around asking for help if needed and leave no room for understanding that those with lived experience flourish.
In2gr8mentalhealth is an organic, peer discovery project, a growing community network of support. From our sharing arises a challenge to the mental health professions to think about the fallacy of us/them polarity, whilst being aware of our relative power and priviledge when working in the context of the mental health scene.
We are multidisciplinary (mental health nurses, social workers in mental health, psychologists, counsellors, therapists, IAPT practitioners) and have felt a lack of support and recognition for the destigmatising and value of our lived experience from our professions, who are supposed to stand as beacons of understanding of psychological distress as a commonly shared human experience under challenging circumstances; this is the paradoxy that drives some anger from our members, as we know none are immune, so why should anyone suffer from feeling ashamed?
Mental health professionals with lived experience are many and our journeys are diverse. We bring an innate understanding to our work of the strength of engaging with vulnerability, the possibility of transformation and deepened personal wisdom from having travelled dificult times. We understand that any of us can be in either chair in the therapy room, or on the staff or service user roster on wards, depending on the challenges we may face. Simply, we wish to find a place of belonging in a context 'out there' that still stumbles under the weight of stigmatised attitudes to mental health difficulties.
In the case of colleagues burning out in toxic organisations, we stand with them to challenge organisations not to individualise this as a problem with staff 'resilience' or mental health. We ask these organisations to recognise that burnout is an 'organisational syndrome' which happens due to deleterious working conditions. We would like them to recognise their organisational culpability and look at how they can create compassionate and nurturing structures, resources, processes and prodedures for all employees, and particularly our colleague engaging in emotional labour in the health systems.
in2gr8mentalhealth was launched in October 2017 and was conferred Staff Wellbeing Pathfinder status by the British Psychological Society and the New Savoy Partnership in 2018, a proud moment. It remains a platform from which I continue to engage with the pillars of the mental health scene in the hope that fewer of us mental health professionals, and indeed anyone, will have to feel ashamed or isolated if we should struggle. It is the responsibility of the systems and society within which we operate, to become more open, informed and compassionate. In the meantime, the rest of us remain activists for positive change.
I provide public talks at conferences, workshops, advanced reading seminars and supportive reflective groups which focus on the systemic enablers and barriers to valuing lived experience in the mental health profession. As well as running in2gr8mentalhealth, I am currently a reserch fellow at UCL Unit for Stigma Research working with UK clinical psychology courses to develop a guide for valuing and supporting lived experience in the training community. I am also working wih the British Psychological Society on a position statement on valuing lived experience in the professions, and pulling together staff wellbeing resources for their website.
This is my heart's work.