Finding Meaning In Our Lived Experience
by Jo Wren
Author of A Meaningful Year: An Occupational therapy based approach to health and well-being.
It can be a really difficult decision to make to talk about your lived experience of mental illness as a mental health professional but lived experience is, and should be respected as, a positive asset in clinical work.
Since the age of sixteen I’ve had several episodes of severe depression and anxiety, one that I received treatment for on a mental health unit during my training to be an occupational therapist. At the time I remember thinking that my career was over before it had begun, as the stigma and the fact that no one would talk about mental illness, coupled with my negative thinking patterns made me try and withdraw from the training course. I was extremely fortunate that an occupational therapist who I very much respected, sat me down and told me that she had had similar experiences and that I would still be able to practice clinically.
When I qualified, I went on rotation and then into a physical healthcare setting but knew that I was a mental health occupational therapist, I just wasn't sure I could work so closely with mental health issues without being triggered myself. Several years ago I saw a post advertised with a mental health trust that were actively recruiting clinicians with lived experience of mental illness. It was then that I started to think about my experience as valuable insight rather than something to feel ashamed of. I went for the post and got it and in terms of my mental health journey, it was the best step I could take. I've found that my insight has helped me to ask the right questions at the right times to identify suicide risk in several cases. It has helped me to asses the occupational performance issues in clients with depression and anxiety and collaboratively develop person centred and effective interventions that are meaningful to the people I am working with. I am able to pace and grade interventions to help clients to engage with services and set realistic goals for the severity of the illness.
I have been able to share my lived experience with the multi disciplinary team to help those who haven't experienced depression or anxiety to understand what the client could be experiencing, and help occupational therapy colleagues to understand the specific performance deficits that might be affecting a client who is not responding to their treatment plan. I have given talks to students about my lived experience and deepened knowledge and understanding, adding an extra dimension to academic texts and journal articles.
As I have specialised in mental health occupational therapy, I have developed an approach to my recovery journey that uses my skills and knowledge to help to keep me well, and I use this in addition to medication, regular exercise, healthy eating and rest in my everyday life. My approach brings together what I have learned from working with clients and experienced myself on the value of social connection, creativity, mindfulness and connection to nature in promoting and maintaining mental health and well-being. Two years ago I started to wonder if it would be useful to share this with other people and started to write it down in draft format as a book on occupational therapy and health and well-being promotion.
Despite having been reminded again and again throughout my career how valuable lived experience was, I still debated for several weeks about if I should disclose my mental health status. Some of the worries I had were still around other people's perception of my clinical competence and how this might affect my career going forward, however, i finished it and self published on Amazon and the response I have had to A Meaningful Year has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s the thing I’m most proud of in my career to date. I have recently been asked to speak to students in the university where I trained about authenticity in healthcare and my book and hope that I can now be the person to help students value their lived experience of mental illness fully and not feel that what they want to achieve might be out of reach because of it. We need a fully diverse and inclusive workforce to meet the needs of our client group.
I am currently also advising an NHS trust on flexible working and creative solutions to allow staff with long term conditions or hidden disabilities to continue to bring their unique experience, insights and skills to client care and to reduce the stigma surrounding it.
Thank you Jo for sharing, you can find her book on Amazon here. Jo is a member of in2gr8mentalhealth. If you are a mental health professional with lived experience of mental health problems, you are welcome to join our online peer support forum, just go to www.in2gr8mentalhealth.com and request sign up. As a member, if you would like to write a #MyShare blog, anonymously or as yourself, on any of the issues surrounding lived experience in the mental health professions, drop an email to Natalie Kemp (Founder) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading.