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

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…

 

Aphantasia: The Condition That Makes You Unable To Imagine Things

My latest article for Broadly looks at a recently discovered neurological condition, aphantasia, which affects people’s ability to visualise mental images.

aphantasia

‘It Was Just Black…’

“If I tell you to close your eyes and picture a beach, can you do it?” This is probably the most unexpected of all the weird questions my friend Sam has asked me over the last ten years we’ve been mates. “My brother’s just told me that most people can. But we can’t,” she explains, in response to my bemusement.

At 26, Sam has discovered that she’s one of an estimated 2 per cent of the population affected by a condition called aphantasia, meaning that their mind’s eye is effectively blind.

“When my brother first asked me if I could actually see the blue sea and picture the yellow sand, it seemed like a ridiculous question,” she explains. “He’d been reading a news article about aphantasia, and said that most people can actually form some sort of image in their head. But I couldn’t—it was just black.”

At first, she adds, “I thought it might just be that people interpret it in different ways, but then I spoke to a few people and what they described was definitely nothing like what I experienced. I felt a bit gutted, like I’d just found out everyone has an amazing super power they’ve been keeping secret from me.”

The term aphantasia has only been around since 2015, when it was coined by Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in the UK. Since then, Professor Zeman has heard from 10,000 people who, like Sam, are unable to visualize mental images.

Continue reading at Broadly…

Debunking The Problematic Myth That Mental Illness Always Goes Hand In Hand With Creativity

Creativity and mental health

Creativity and mental health

My latest piece for The Debrief explores the popular myth that mental illness and creativity are somehow intrinsically linked. This was a really interesting subject to dig into, and I had some fascinating conversations with young women who’ve experienced mental health problems, and with experts from Rethink Mental Illness and the University of Nottingham.

When you think of mental illness, what are the first things that come to mind? For many of us, so much of what little we know about mental health comes from cultural reference points – our literary heroines like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf; and so many of history’s great artists, composers and scientists.

It’s not surprising, then, that the common association between mental illness and brilliant minds persists – despite the fact that worrying stats published last week show as many as one in five women in England report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We can’t all be struggling with our mental health because we’re creative geniuses (and, even if we are, there’s a very real danger that this long-running association glamourises mental illness) but just how much of a role does creativity and intelligence play in making us susceptible to mental illness? Are mental health problems simply the price you pay for having a ‘brilliant mind’? Well, the simple answer is no – but – it’s complicated.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

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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.

How The UK Is Failing Women’s Mental Health Needs

World Mental Health Day: Women in MindFor World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, I wrote for Refinery29 UK about young women feeling let down by NHS mental healthcare, and why charity Agenda is campaigning to keep Women In Mind.

Many thanks to the women who spoke to me so candidly about their experiences.

There’s a short extract below, and you can read the article in full at Refinery29 UK.

How The UK Is Failing Women’s Mental Health Needs:

The first time Tess* sought help for her mental health problems she was 14 and the psychologist asked if she had any definite plans to kill herself. “I said no, I didn’t, and that’s the last I remember hearing from anybody there,” she says. “Since then, I’ve found it pretty much impossible to get any support whatsoever.”

Fourteen years later, Tess has been in private therapy for two years. Meanwhile, the NHS stats published just last month show an increase in the number of women experiencing mental health problems across England – with one in five women reporting symptoms, and a horrifying one quarter of 16-24 year-old women self-harming.

Tess now understands that her mental health problems were triggered by experiences of childhood neglect and abuse but says that, as a teen, “nobody had any time. It was like if you speak to a teenage girl who’s really unhappy, you just go ‘yeah ok, teenage girls are unhappy, have some Citalopram, off you go.’ Looking back, I find it shocking that no one asks about what’s going on at home.”

Even after reporting her experiences of sexual abuse, Tess was met with dismissiveness because the perpetrator was female. “I just got told ‘that doesn’t count’ or ‘don’t be so silly’. It took me such a long time to understand that [the abuse] really affected my mental health, because every time I tried to report it everyone said ‘shush’,” she explains.

Experiences like Tess’s are exactly what prompted women’s charity Agenda to launch its Women in Mind campaign, calling for women’s specific needs – and particularly experiences of violence and abuse – to be prioritised and taken seriously in mental healthcare policy, strategy and delivery.

“We’re focused on women at risk, by which we mean women who have the most complex needs,” explains Agenda’s director Katharine Sacks-Jones. “What we hear consistently is that mental health is a huge issue for women who’ve had often very traumatic lives, and that there’s a real lack of support out there.” For survivors of abuse, Tess explains, “You’re already questioning yourself a lot anyway, so I found that disbelief very difficult. It actively blocked me getting any help.”

Continue reading at Refinery29 UK…

 

World Mental Health Day: What are the dangers of high-functioning depression and anxiety?

mental-healthAlso for World Mental Health Day I spoke to IBTimes journalist Lydia Smith about my own experiences of living with high functioning anxiety and depression, and both the privileges and challenges that brings.

A lot of my working life at the moment involves writing about mental health, and speaking to other people about their experiences, so it felt important to take the opportunity to be more open about my own mental health struggles.

I was really touched by the number of people who got in touch after reading it to say they could relate, or that they recognised something of themselves in what I’d said. Please don’t leave it as long as I did to ask for help.

“A friend of mine once described it as ‘coping privilege’ which I quite like as a way of looking at it, because I’m lucky in lots of ways that it’s obviously nowhere near as debilitating as mental illness can be for some people,” Graham says.

“That said, it does make everyday life more of a struggle – everything from forcing myself to get out of bed and into the shower, to leaving the house on time or taking the tube (which triggers my anxiety) when I don’t have time to take the bus – all of that is a constant day-to-day battle with my own mind, and I do sometimes wish I could just give in to it and stop ‘functioning’ quite so well.”

On the surface, high-functioning depression or anxiety appears to be easier to deal with, but this is not the case. There are dangers associated with keeping feelings bottled up, such as failing to seek help when it is desperately needed.

“I’ve said in the past that people think that high functioning depression is better than low functioning depression, but the problem with high functioning depression is that a person is not getting access to help,” Landau says. “Many of the women I see are perfectionistic and therefore have difficulty asking for help.”

Sarah says she didn’t seek help for years, because of the prevailing stereotype of what depression and anxiety should look like.

You can read Lydia’s article in full at IBTimes.

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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.