Recent writing: Early menopause, cancer and fertility, and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder

The more I write about women’s health – and particularly hormonal issues – the more I see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Lack of understanding, lack of choice, lack of support. And medical professionals consistently failing to trust women with choices about their own bodies. Choice and autonomy aren’t just about abortion and reproductive rights; there’s a broader culture of sexism and ignorance around women’s health – but women are starting to speak out.

I was really privileged in May and June to interview a few of those women, all aged between 17 and 41, about early menopause, infertility, and hormonal depression. Many thanks to all of them for their openness and willingness to share their experiences.

This is what it’s like to go through the menopause at just 17 – for NetDoctor:

Also republished by Hearst Magazines’ sister sites Good Housekeeping and Cosmo.

The menopause is one of those huge life changes that all women know is coming, but no one ever feels fully prepared for when it does. But when it strikes before you’ve even turned 40, the shock is all the more distressing.

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the menopause typically occurs between the ages of 47 and 53, but premature menopause affects around 1 per cent of women before the age of 40, and 5 per cent of women under 45. So what is it like to be hit by menopausal symptoms so early, and what support is available?

Continue reading at NetDoctor…
Continue reading at Good Housekeeping…
Continue reading at Cosmopolitan…

What It’s Like To Go Through The Menopause In Your 20s – for The Debrief:

How often does the menopause cross your mind? It’s something far off, in the distant future, to worry about once you’ve finished building your career, your family, and whatever else you’ve got planned, right? For most of us, the menopause will strike at some point roughly between the ages of 47 and 53, but premature menopause affects one per cent of women before the age of 40. And, for the one in a thousand women under 30 who are affected, it can be especially devastating.

Emily is 17 years old and was recently diagnosed as going through an early menopause. As someone who’s always wanted to have children, she says, it’s been heartbreaking. She feels like she’s lost a fundamental part of who she is. She says it’s isolating, ‘there isn’t anyone to talk to about it, because it’s not a common problem, so it’s always this little thing I’m hiding.’

Throughout puberty, Emily says she’s always felt different from her friends. ‘I was the last of my friends to get my period. It was something I longed for so I was excited when, in year 9, I started,’ she says. ‘I was irregular for the next 9 months, but my mum reassured me that was normal – and then they just stopped. My physical appearance has taken a long time to develop too, so I have very small boobs and no hips.’

Continue reading at The Debrief…

PMDD: Imagine Having To Choose Between Your Mental Health And Your Fertility – for The Debrief:

Naomi* was just 14 when, in the fortnight before each period, she started seeing and hearing disturbing images and voices. ‘I thought there were sexual images everywhere – like I’d be watching TV and see sex toys and stuff, or I’d be looking at books and they appeared to have changed, or I thought they were talking to me in some way,’ she says. ‘It was really frightening. Then, when I had my period, the symptoms would stop and go away.’

Now 23, Naomi has been diagnosed with conditions known as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and pre-menstrual psychosis (PMP) – and is facing a stark, life-changing choice between her sanity and her fertility.

A severe form of PMS, PMDD is thought to affect an estimated 2-5 percent of women which equates to around a million women in the UK alone and, at its most extreme, symptoms can include acute depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. While it can be managed with hormonal treatments, currently the only sure-fire way of putting an end to PMDD is with a hysterectomy, bringing on an early menopause and leaving you infertile.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

What it’s like to be left infertile by cancer at the age of 23 – for Cosmopolitan:

Becki McGuinness was left infertile by aggressive cancer treatment when she was just 23-years-old. Now 30, she’s launching a national campaign to ensure women facing cancer are given all the fertility options she should have had. This is her story

“I was 21 when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer – in my sacrum and spine. Because the cancer was so aggressive, and located around my pelvis, I knew there was a chance my fertility could be affected by treatment. But doctors explained to my mum and I what treatment I’d be having and told us there were no other options for my condition. We took them at their word.

Continue reading at Cosmopolitan…

Recent writing: Bowel disease, and good mood food

I’ve been a little quiet on work updates since Mental Health Awareness Week. Not because there hasn’t been any recent writing, but because there’s been so much of it! I’m going to share May and June’s articles over the next few weeks, grouped together (vaguely) thematically. First up: a couple of my recent pieces for NetDoctor.

The first, my interview with Crohn’s sufferer Ed Corrie, was a real pleasure to work on. Some people are so much fun to interview that it doesn’t feel like work, and Ed was definitely one of those interviewees! Not only that, he’s also incredibly inspiring in his efforts to break the push-up world record and start some difficult but important conversations.

The second, on food and depression, was more personally significant. Many thanks to Lucy, Kirsten and Bexx, who spoke to me about the benefits – and the limitations – of changing your diet to improve your mood.

Bums Out Guns Out: The man using push-ups to get men talking about bowel disease – for NetDoctor

“Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a 14-year-old boy was crippling,” recalls Ed Corrie, the fundraiser behind the cheekily named Bums Out, Guns Out campaign.

“When you’re rushing off to the toilet for 45 minutes at a time, you can’t really disguise it – and the worst was on school trips, where you’re sharing a bedroom with two other guys. I used to pretend I had a vomiting problem, because it seemed more manly somehow.”

Twenty years on from his diagnosis, 34-year-old Glaswegian Ed is on a mission to break the Guinness World Record for most press-ups in an hour. As well as raising thousands of pounds for Crohn’s and Colitis UK, Ed wants his “fun and irreverent” campaign to get more men talking about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

The complicated truth about food and depression – for NetDoctor

“It’s your diet that’s the problem, you just need to eat better.” I’ll never forget those words, said by a university counsellor when – faced with friendship dramas in my shared house, and all the usual student stresses of exams and essay deadlines – I went to her suffering from depression and anxiety.

For most people affected by depression, it’s a familiar story: all those well-meaning people who so regularly dismiss very real distress with advice to simply “eat better” or “exercise more”.

Of course, there is some truth in it – rationally, we all know that we feel better when we’re eating well and getting plenty of exercise – but changing your diet isn’t a quick and failsafe fix for depression, and it’s often the last thing you want to hear, or do, when depression takes hold.

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

Recent writing: Mental Health Awareness Week 2017

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event organised by the Mental Health Foundation. It’s a great week for getting friends, family, celebrities and politicians talking more about mental health – particularly in the run-up to a General Election! But it can also feel a bit tokenistic, because we desperately need to get better at having these conversations, and actually converting them into actions, all year round.

The theme for this year’s MHAW was ‘surviving or thriving’. I’ve written articles for NetDoctor, Sebastian & Millicent, The Debrief, and Mental Health Today, exploring what it means to thrive with mental health problems.

Is anxiety sabotaging your career? – for NetDoctor:

Mental health problems affect one in six employees in the UK, and work-related stress is the number one health and safety concern for 70 per cent of businesses. Yet, for employees suffering from anxiety, a lack of support at work too often means lowering their ambitions to fit in with their emotional needs.

35-year-old Unite representative Tom* works as a telesales advisor for an energy company, and believes that his long-term anxiety has “held me back from applying for higher roles in the business, as management don’t really understand mental health.” More recently, he adds, “I have been off work due to the severity of my anxiety, and instead of being supportive they are over-riding my fit notes and taking me through disciplinary procedures to sack me.”

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

Is There Life After SSRIs? – for The Debrief:

More of us than ever are on antidepressants. Doctors in England wrote out more than 64 million prescriptions for them last year, and use of antidepressants is now seven times higher than 25 years ago, in 1991. The most widely used antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine (aka Prozac), sertraline and citalopram, which act on your levels of mood stabilising neurotransmitter serotonin.

Some people need antidepressants and anyone who has a problem with that should get over it, stat. There is no shame in taking antidepressants and for many people, they are life-changing. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ treatment when it comes to depression. But, with so many of us taking these pills as part of our normal daily routine, it’s worth asking whether there can be life after SSRIs, in which it’s possible not just to survive, but to actually thrive? We spoke to three women who’ve been there, plus Dr Mark Salter from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and mindset coach Ebonie Allard, to find out.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

The troubled mind of fashion – for Sebastian and Millicent:

How much does what you wear say about you? Anecdotally, we all know there’s some kind of link between how we feel and what we wear. Who hasn’t spent whole days in their pyjamas, or a tracksuit, while feeling stressed, burnt out, or depressed? Not to mention the burst of confidence and self-esteem that comes from pulling on your best outfit and leaving the house looking a million dollars. In recent years, scientific research has confirmed what many of us already knew: how we feel affects what we choose to wear, and what we wear affects how we feel.

Continue reading at Sebastian and Millicent…

Using art therapy to thrive – for Mental Health Today:

“Writing and performing gives me the freedom to speak clearly, and the power to make my audiences listen,” says 45-year-old Ugandan refugee Jade.

Jade is involved with writing and drama groups run by the charities Freedom from Torture and Women for Refugee Women. For her, creativity, humour, and community have been crucial elements of her journey towards healing from the traumas she suffered back home.

“It’s very therapeutic to have that time with friends, writing together, listening and supporting each other,” Jade says. “I write a lot of poems and short stories now, but I always try and write something that will make people laugh. If I dwell on what happened to me, those people will have won.”

Continue reading at Mental Health Today…

The dark side of meditation – for Sebastian and Millicent:

The ancient eastern practice of meditation and mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but far more recently exploded into prominence in the western world. It’s now rare to go a week without hearing or reading about the much-celebrated wellbeing benefits of taking time each day to focus on your breath and the sensations of your body, and enjoy simply ‘being’ in the moment. A key component of mindful meditation is the idea of noticing the small pleasures in life, and habitually bringing your wandering thoughts back to focus on your present situation.

Continue reading at Sebastian and Millicent…

March writing: stress, hormones, and psychological photography

Despite taking a lot of time off to recover, work-wise it’s still been a surprisingly busy month. Quite by accident, a lot of my recent writing seems to have focused on stress – an unexpectedly therapeutic subject to write about when your own life feels pretty stressful. Here’s a quick round-up…

My latest blog post for insurance company LV= was published in early March. Written for their Life Insurance blog, it looks at symptoms of stress and how to tackle them. A lot of it sounds like common sense but, collectively, we’re so bad at really managing our stress levels. It was great to get some really practical expert tips on how to identify the signs and catch it early.

Speaking of stress, later in the month I wrote for The Debrief about the science behind burnout. Experts told me what causes it, what it does to our physical and mental health, and how to avoid running on empty. Also for The Debrief, I spoke to endocrinologist Dr Helen Simpson about the crucial roles hormones play in our bodies. They might be another source of monthly stress, but turns out they’re also pretty essential to life!

For healthcare publication Mental Health Today (MHT), I looked into problems with mental healthcare transitions. Young people moving from child and adolescent (CAMHS) to adult (AMHS) services are often left in limbo, without support. I spoke to three young people about the unnecessary stress this caused at an already turbulent time in their lives.

Finally this month, I wrote for Broadly about the exciting work of photographer Diogo Duarte. When I first met Duarte I was struck by the vulnerability and intimacy of his self-portraiture. Since then, he’s been pioneering psychological photoshoots as a way of uncovering something of his subjects’ inner selves.

Identifying 5 stress symptoms, and how to tackle them – for LV’s Love Life blog:

Symptoms of stressHeadache, sweaty palms, increased heart rate: we’ve all felt the symptoms of stress before – but some are less obvious than others…

Mental health journalist Sarah Graham (@SarahGraham7) talks to the experts for their top tips on tackling the lesser known signs of stress.

Stress is a huge issue that many of us face in our day-to-day lives. In fact, between 2015 and 2016 there were nearly half a million (488,000) reported cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety.

Although it’s often clear when stress levels are creeping up, there are some symptoms that can be harder to recognise.

Continue reading at LV…

The Science Behind Why We Get Burnout – for The Debrief

The science behind burnout

Stress, exhaustion and burnout sometimes feel like inevitable side effects of modern life. When we’re all so busy working, playing, and burning the candle at both ends, how is anyone ever meant to avoid the occasional bout of feeling totally and utterly worn out?

Burning out is one of the major reasons for employees taking time off sick, and it can have a huge impact on all areas of your life, affecting your work, your social life, and your mental and physical health. We spoke to the experts about the science behind burnout, and how you can keep yourself from running on empty.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know Your Hormones Control – for The Debrief:

9 things your hormones controlWe all know hormones have a lot to answer for – the wild mood swings, the monthly acne, the brain fog – but do you know just how many everyday processes your hormones have an influence over?

As women, we tend to only think about hormones in terms of PMS, pregnancy and the menopause, but there’s so much more to our clever endocrine system than just regulating our fertility.

We spoke to hormone doctor Helen Simpson, from The Society for Endocrinology, about all the things you never knew your hormones were controlling.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

Young People’s Mental Health – the Importance of Transitions – for Mental Health Today:

The importance of transitions

Young adulthood is a turbulent time for anyone. The hormones, the acne, the first loves, the pressure of exams, and the seemingly endless identity crisis about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. It’s a big and difficult time of changes and transitions; and that’s without throwing a mental health problem into the mix.

There are also the well-documented problems with the transition from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS), to contend with. But how exactly is this affecting teens on the cusp of adulthood – and what can be done to make things better?

Continue reading at Mental Health Today…

A Celebration of Self: Capturing the Inner Lives of Women and Genderfluid People – for Broadly:

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but in a world where 93 million selfies are taken worldwide each day, how much can we really say about ourselves in a photo? For one London-based photographer, the answer is more remarkable than you might expect.

29-year-old mental health worker Diogo Duarte is the creative mind behind PhotoBard—a business offering clients “psychological portraits” that intimately reveal something of their inner selves. And for his mostly female clientele, like psychotherapist Jessica Mitchell, the results have been profound.

Continue reading at Broadly…

I’ve got lots more new stuff lined up for April, so watch this space! And if you’re interested in finding out more about working with me, please get in touch.

Recent writing: Gut health, and cancer’s impact on fertility

My latest health articles for Refinery29 UK and Broadly, published in January and February 2017, respectively explored the science behind gut health, and the impact of chemotherapy on young women’s fertility.

Is Gut Health A Load Of Sh**? – for Refinery29 UK:

Gut health

‘Gut health’ is the wellness industry’s buzzword of choice right now, with UK sales of digestive remedies set to reach £333 million by 2021. There’s been some pretty groundbreaking research of late into a part of the body that, until relatively recently, has been taken for granted. So what does science actually now know about how the gut works, and does the secret to a healthy gut really lie in overpriced yoghurt drinks and chia seeds?

Microbiologist Dr. Lindsay Hall is a research leader at the Institute of Food Research, and she really knows her bacteria. “The gut provides a home to trillions and trillions of beneficial microbes,” she explains. “This complex ecosystem is called the microbiota, and the number of bacteria we have in our gut day-to-day is equivalent of about 2-3kg. We’ve known about these bacteria for years, but it’s only really in the last 15-20 years – and, in a really focused way, in the last five years – that we’ve begun to understand the different health benefits that these bacteria actually provide us with.”

If you’re anything like me, your knowledge of this complex microbial ecosystem probably begins and ends with the words ‘good bacteria’ and ‘bad bacteria’. Years of yoghurt adverts where women complain about bloating before eating a magic fromage frais and having a giggle about nothing in particular have taught us that not all bacteria are bad. But in fact, the impact they have on our body – and potentially, our brain – is incredible.

When Chemotherapy Saves Your Life But Leaves You Infertile – for Broadly:

Cancer treatment reproductive health fertility

When Becki McGuinness was diagnosed at the age of 21 with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, she was anxious about the impact treatment could have on her future fertility. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have pushed further,” she says, “but my concerns were brushed off by the doctors.”

Now 30 years old, and infertile as a result of the intensive chemotherapy that saved her life, McGuinness is campaigning to ensure all young cancer patients have access to the fertility options she was denied.

“A fertility specialist told me later that there had been enough time to save my fertility before I started treatment, but I feel like [the cancer specialists] made the choice for me,” she adds. “Being young and infertile is such a hard thing to take. There’s no chance for me now; once you’re infertile you can’t go back.”

Continue reading at Broadly…

‘When we get it right, we save a life’: domestic abuse teams in hospitals

Domestic violence support in hospitals

Domestic violence support in hospitals

My first published feature of 2017 looked at the role hospitals and other healthcare settings can play in tackling domestic violence. It was also my first freelance piece for The Guardian!

I’m very proud of this article, and it was a real privilege to work with domestic abuse charity SafeLives. They, and the organisations they work with, are doing such vital work in this area. Particular thanks to Sharon*, who so bravely and candidly shared her own experiences of violence and abuse.

The Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) is one of around 25 hospitals in the UK to have a team of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs). Now SafeLives, a charity dedicated to ending domestic violence, is calling for every hospital in the country to invest in on-site IDVAs to support more abuse survivors like Sharon.

More than half of domestic violence victims identified in hospital access A&E in the year before getting help, according to SafeLives’ A Cry for Health report. The charity believes health professionals are ideally placed to identify victims and intervene earlier.

“Domestic abuse is extremely difficult to talk about but a lot of research suggests health settings are a good place, in terms of not carrying stigma and feeling safe,” says chief executive Diana Barran. “We also know that clinical staff are unlikely to ask about domestic abuse if they aren’t confident there’s a someone they can refer to. This is simple; let’s have two or three specialist practitioners in every hospital.”

Many thanks also to IDVA Punita Bassi and nurse Mandie Burston, for sharing their experiences and expertise. They’re both such wonderful examples of how clinical staff and IDVAs can work together to protect patients experiencing violence. If only the system worked so well for all victims!

Read the article in full at The Guardian…

*Not her real name

 

If you need support

If you are based in the UK and experiencing domestic violence, or other forms of domestic abuse (including emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual abuse, or stalking), you don’t have to suffer alone. Please contact one of the following services for specialist advice and support.

For women:

Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid)

For men:

Freephone Men’s Advice Line, open 9am-5pm Monday-Friday: 0808 801 0327

For LGBT people:

Freephone Galop, open at the times below: 0800 999 5428

  • 10am-5pm Monday-Wednesday
  • 1pm-5pm Tuesday: trans-specific service
  • 10am-8pm Thursday
  • 1pm-5pm Friday
  • 12pm-4pm Sunday

Why, like Mark Zuckerberg’s, my views on religion have softened

zuckerberg-getty2Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got some flak over the festive period, after innocently posting a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah” message on Facebook.

Despite having previously defined as an atheist, Zuckerberg explained, in response to comments under his post, that: “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important”.

Having been raised in a Christian family myself, I wrote for Independent Voices about why I can relate to Zuckerberg’s change of heart. I recently lost someone special, whose love, warmth and openness were a big influence on my life, and whose funeral really made me rethink the value of having a faith like hers.

Despite the headline (which I didn’t write), I’ve never really considered myself an atheist, although I’m not sure I believe in a God. I guess humanist probably comes closest to how I’d define my views. But I do also believe that my Christian upbringing played a big role in shaping my values and outlook on the world, and I can definitely see the importance of religion – or faith, or spirituality, or whatever else it may be – when it’s based on love, compassion, openness, tolerance and respect like my Aunty Grace’s was.

Of course, with eye-watering predictability and zero sense of irony, a small number from the band of anonymous, militant Twitter atheists saw my thoughtful, personal reflection on the compassion of my late relative, and responded to it with caps-lock, abuse and name-calling. Which doesn’t make all atheists tw*ts any more than all Muslims are terrorists or all Christians are “God hates fags”-placard-waving, abortion-clinic-protesting, science-denying creationists. I did have to laugh though!

You can read my article here*

(Please don’t bother getting in touch to insult my intelligence or the memory of someone I love.)

 

*Incidentally, my byline on the Independent website is Sarah Graham-Cooke to differentiate me in their system from LGBT activist Sarah Graham, who has also written for them previously. I’ve no plans to make it a regular pen name – I’ve never used my husband’s surname except as a collective noun (the Graham-Cookes) – but it seemed less confusing than having the website group two writers’ articles together under the same name**.

**With hindsight Sarah Graham-Cooke would almost certainly have been a better SEO choice than either Sarah Graham or Sarah Cooke, but I’m now pretty well attached to the name I’ve always had!

Was 2016 A Tipping Point For Mental Health?

Mental health in 2016

My latest article for The Debrief looked back on the situation for mental health in 2016. How has the conversation changed, and where is there still work to be done?

Mental health in 2016

Wow, 2016. What a year you have been. Between the collective mourning of more beloved celebrities than we can bear to count, and some frankly terrifying political shifts, it’s been a real emotional rollercoaster. As a society our collective emotional health has been rocked by game changing event after game changing event. Given the way this year has unfolded perhaps it’s no wonder that the NSPCC reports receiving more calls than ever from young people experiencing anxiety.

On a more positive note, in terms of our personal mental health 2016 has, arguably, been a year in which many of us were more open than ever about our personal struggles. You might even say it was something of a tipping point; much has been done in attempts to combat the stigma around anxiety and depression in particular. However, mental health services – treatments and support – are still falling short of the requirements of those in need. We have serious issues with access to services and delays in the NHS.

So, with 2016 (thankfully) drawing to a close we ask if it really was the year that saw conversations about mental health take their place in the public domain. Indeed, was it the year that we got closer than ever before to finally doing away with the stigmas that have shrouded mental health problems for so long? And, is it possible that all of the shocking political events we have witnessed have actually played a role in putting us all more in touch with our collective emotional wellbeing?

Continue reading at The Debrief…

 

IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

For Pregnant Refugees, Every Day Is a Fight to Survive

My latest article for Broadly looks at the horrifying experiences of pregnant refugee women, many of whom have no access to antenatal healthcare.

pregnant-refugees-1480690270

‘There was only one thing on my mind: to get to the UK, to reach a safe place where my baby and I could have a good chance at life’

Eritrean refugee Helen* was two months pregnant when she left Calais refugee camp in France, hidden in the back of a lorry. But when she arrived in London, she immediately knew something was wrong. “I was in pain, and when I got up I saw that I was covered in blood.”

Having boarded the lorry with 29 other desperate migrants, Helen was the only stowaway not to be found when police searched the vehicle at the border. “I was hiding under the flooring so they couldn’t find me. It was a dangerous hiding place; unknowingly, the police were walking on top of me. I didn’t think about the pain I felt. All I thought about was getting to England,” she says.

On arrival though, the pain and panic kicked in. “The lorry driver shouted at me when he saw me, but I begged him to show me to the nearest police station,” she says. Later, in hospital, a doctor confirmed that Helen had miscarried her baby.

As difficult pregnancies go, the circumstances don’t get much more grim than preparing for a baby while fleeing your home in search of safety—and, for Helen, this pregnancy really was traumatic from beginning to end.

Continue reading at Broadly…