Recent work: Cervical screening for survivors of sexual violence

Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust

During the summer I had the privilege of working with charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. I was commissioned by Jo’s Trust to write two new resources for their website, looking at cervical screening support for survivors of sexual violence. While smear tests offer the best possible protection against cervical cancer, they’re also understandably traumatic for women with a history of violence and abuse.

The first of these new resources was therefore aimed at survivors themselves, offering practical tips and advice on how to cope with the screening appointment if you choose to attend. The second, longer resource looked at how healthcare professionals can better support these patients both practically and emotionally, with sympathy and understanding of the issues at stake.

These resources launched online at the end of August, to coincide with the publication of a survey on survivors’ experiences and attitudes towards cervical screening. I wrote about the survey results for both Patient and Refinery29, looking at survivors’ experiences, practical tips on preparing for a smear test, and signposting to the Jo’s Trust resources.

The Trauma Of Going For Your Smear Test As A Survivor Of Sexual Violence – for Refinery29:

The Trauma Of Going For Your Smear Test As A Survivor Of Sexual ViolenceWhen Julia was 12 years old, her mother, who was in her early 30s, died of ovarian cancer. The following year, Julia was raped.

Now 35, she is terrified of developing gynaecological cancer like her mum. But as a survivor of sexual violence, she’s also terrified that going for a smear test – the best protection against cervical cancer – will force her to relive the trauma of rape.

She’s not the only one. Research published today by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, in partnership with Rape Crisis and My Body Back Project, found that nearly half of survivors don’t attend cervical screening tests as a direct result of their experience. Another quarter of the 131 survivors they surveyed said they’ve put off going for their test for the same reason, while only 15% regularly attend when they’re invited.

The potential ramifications are huge. One in five women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence in her lifetime. If almost three-quarters of those women delay or avoid their smear test, it’s fair to assume they’re at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. And many of them are painfully aware of this.

“I’m a radiographer working in a busy oncology hospital, and I’ve seen what happens when people don’t go to screening tests or ignore their symptoms,” says 40-year-old Kate, who was raped in 2013, just after having her smear test.

When her next screening invitation came, three years later, Kate says: “I felt sick. I genuinely believe cervical screening saves lives, and I wasn’t prepared to let [my attacker] jeopardise my health; that felt like another way for him to win. It was too important to not go, but I knew I would find it difficult in a way I never had before.”

Continue reading at Refinery29…

Preparing for your smear test as a survivor of sexual violence – for Patient:

“I remember a viral tweet a few years ago that said: ‘If you don’t go for your smear test, you’re stupid. It takes minutes and it can save your life’,” recalls 41-year-old Sam*. “Everyone was retweeting it but it was so overly reductive that, as a survivor of sexual violence, it was difficult to read. I mean, sure, it does take minutes, and it’s usually fine, but I knew it wasn’t ever that simple.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is one of the deadliest but most preventable types of cancer for women. The NHS cervical screening programme – which can detect abnormal, pre-cancerous cells – saves around 5,000 lives every year. But knowing all this doesn’t make the experience of going for your smear test any less traumatic or distressing for women like Sam.

In the UK, one in five women aged 16-59 have experienced some form of sexual violence – and many of these women avoid going for their smear test as a result. A report published by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust reveals that almost half of the survivors they surveyed had chosen not to attend cervical screening because of their history. Another quarter had put off their smear for the same reason – and that reason goes far beyond embarrassment or stupidity.

If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, the cervical screening procedure is understandably reminiscent of your past trauma: the position and penetration; the exposure and vulnerability; the lack of control; and often even the language used, like “open your legs”, or “it’ll be quicker if you relax”. But, despite the difficulties, remember that you are just as worthy of good, preventative healthcare as anybody else.

While going for a smear will probably never be a pleasant experience, there are things that both you and your healthcare professionals can do to make the screening process as painless and stress-free as humanly possible.

Continue reading at Patient…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. Check out my resources page for details of organisations who might be able to help.

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.

Recent writing: HPV, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and childbirth

My work on sexual and reproductive health in August covered everything from heavy vaginal bleeding to painful (and even traumatic) vaginal childbirth, as well as looking at the lesser known (and surprisingly common) sexually transmitted virus HPV. 2018 marks the ten year anniversary of free HPV vaccines for girls over the age of 12 on the NHS. In July it was announced that these vaccines will be extended to boys of the same age from next year. But, despite growing awareness, do many of us really know what HPV actually is? I wrote a need-to-know guide for Patient, exploring how HPV is transmitted, who it affects, and what it does.

Also for Patient, I spoke to The Eve Appeal’s gynae nurse Tracie Miles about possible causes of heavy periods and abnormal vaginal bleeding – from benign fibroids to gynaecological cancer. And I wrote for Grazia Daily about two recent reports on women’s treatment options during childbirth.

‘It Was A Shadow Hanging Over My Whole Pregnancy’: We Need To Talk About The C-Section Postcode Lottery – for Grazia:

Giving birth by caesarean section has long been seen as the “too posh to push” option for expectant mums. Either dismissed as “the easy way out” (which it isn’t; it’s major surgery!), or criticised for not being the “natural” or “maternal” way of bringing your child into the world, the C-section generally gets a pretty bad rap.

But for some women and their babies it is the best option – either in the form of an emergency caesarean following labour complications, or as a birth plan in its own right. Sadly, women pursuing the latter continue to face stigma and obstacles at what’s already a challenging and emotionally charged time.

Research published on Tuesday by maternal human rights charity Birthrights found that: “the majority of NHS Trusts in the UK make the process of requesting a caesarean lengthy, difficult or inconsistent, adding anxiety and distress to women at a vulnerable time.”

According to the charity’s director, Rebecca Schiller, maternal request caesareans are the number one reason women contact the Birthrights advice service. Their reasons for wanting a C-section are varied, but most couldn’t be further removed from the “too posh to push” stereotype.

Continue reading at Grazia…

What causes heavy periods and abnormal vaginal bleeding? – for Patient:

Whether you’re 13 or 53, abnormal or unexpected gynaecological bleeding can be a massive source of stress, worry and confusion. But, while it could be an early sign of uterine or cervical cancer, it may also be a sign of something far more benign. The difficulty is knowing how to tell the difference!

We speak to specialist gynae nurse Tracie Miles, from charity The Eve Appeal, to find out what your bleeding might be a symptom of, and when you should be concerned.

Firstly, Miles says, it’s important to understand what ‘abnormal bleeding’ might look like.

“Bleeding is not just necessarily that Snow White moment of fresh red blood on a white panty liner,” she says. “It could be a sort of sludgy brown staining, like the kind you might get towards the end of your period, or it can be a mucus with a bit of a pink tinge. Be aware of any kind of abnormal discharge or bleeding, and any changes to your ‘normal’ monthly cycle.”

As for the potential causes, this varies depending on your life stage – whether you’re menstrual(ie still having regular periods), perimenopausal, or postmenopausal.

Continue reading at Patient…

What Do Different Pain Relief Options In Childbirth Actually Feel Like? – for Grazia:

Pain relief during childbirth is an emotive topic – from whether you have it at all to the type of pain relief you go for. And now a recent study has challenged the routine use of pethidine – a drug that’s been widely used to relieve labour pains since the 1950s.

With so many different debates raging on the subject, how the hell are you meant to know which choice is best for you – especially when you’re trying to get an entire person out of a space far smaller than the average head? We’ve got the (non judgmental) lowdown on the most common options available.

Continue reading at Grazia…

What you need to know about HPV – for Patient:

In 2008 the NHS introduced free vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV) for girls over the age of 12 years. Ten years on, it was announced in July that this vaccination programme will be extended to cover boys. But what exactly is HPV, who is it most likely to affect, and why is it a threat to public health?

HPV is a common virus that affects the skin and moist membranes around your body. In fact, it’s so common that 80% of people will contract HPV at some point in their lives.

“There are about 200 different types of HPV and, for the majority of them, they won’t do you any harm at all. There are no symptoms, and the body’s immune system will usually clear the virus without the need for any treatment,” explains Kate Sanger from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

So far, so good… The problem arises, however, with certain strains of HPV that are considered ‘high risk’. These forms of HPV can cause genital warts and are responsible for around 5% of cancers worldwide, including virtually all cases of cervical cancer. Until recently therefore, vaccinating girls to prevent cervical cancer has been a clinical priority. But HPV can also lead to other forms of cancer – including anal cancer, penile cancervulval and vaginal cancer, and cancers of the head and neck, like throat and mouth cancer.

Continue reading at Patient…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you need help or advice with, please check out my resources page for details of organisations who might be able to help.

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.

Recent writing: leaving London, PTSD, and sex addiction

It’s been almost 12 months since we left London for suburban life in Letchworth Garden City. Despite the small downsides (looking at you, Govia Thameslink Railway!) I haven’t looked back for a second. In fact, it’s arguably up there with one of the best things I’ve ever done – particularly for my mental health, which has come on in leaps and bounds since we moved. So when The Independent were looking for someone to write about the latest stats on thousands of people moving out of the capital each year, I had plenty to say on the subject!

I’ve also been doing a lot of writing for Patient.info recently – including, in August, a feature on the psychology of sex and love addiction, and one exploring the misconceptions and realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

London is over. Like thousands of young people, I’m so glad I left – for The Independent’s Indy Voices:

LondonWhen I moved to London at 22, fresh out of university, it felt like the most exciting place in the world to live. The hustle and bustle, the nightlife, the cultural scene and, as a trainee journalist, the job opportunities. Fast forward five years and, 10 months ago, I was moving out for a new life in the Hertfordshire suburbs.

By 2017, I felt alienated by the soulless capitalism of life in the city. My anxiety was at its peak, and the crush of the tube made me claustrophobic.

Scarred by a year of rush hours on the central line, I found myself only applying for jobs where I could travel slightly later, and on quieter lines, before deciding that freelancing from home was actually the way forward.

As more and more friends left their high-pressure London jobs for a calmer and more affordable work-life balance elsewhere – or, like me, to go become self-employed – it became apparent that the London was no longer the centre of the employment universe. Not only were there job opportunities elsewhere, but the working cultures and cost of living were far less intense.

While friends in London would repeatedly blow me off to work late, those outside the capital seemed to have exactly the kind of work-life balance that had driven me into self-employment in the first place. Unemployment in the capital might be down, but it’s only because we’re choosing to leave for greener pastures at a rate of 100,000 a year. New roles are sitting empty because there are fewer and fewer people to fill them. The crisis in housing affordability is making the capital less attractive to those in their late-twenties and thirties, who could previously be found knuckling down to city life at key points in their careers. For millennials, however, our expectations are changing.

Continue reading at The Independent…

What it’s like to be a recovering sex addict – for Patient:

As of July, compulsive sexual behaviour is now officially recognised as a medical condition by the World Health Organization (WHO). More commonly generalised as ‘sex addiction’, the disorder is a complex one, difficult to define and to diagnose. While the idea of being addicted to sex is both mocked and sensationalised in media and popular culture, the condition can in fact be debilitating for sufferers – and the shame and stigma only make matters worse.

“Men always used to just be a distraction,” says recovering sex and love addict Alice*, 32. “I used sex, love and romance to medicate uncomfortable feelings like guilt, stress, or fear – and that constant, obsessive search for male comfort took over my life. If I didn’t have a sexual partner, I felt like I was staring into a black abyss.

Continue reading at Patient…

Things people with PTSD wish you knew – for Patient:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects roughly one in ten people but, like many mental health issues, is widely misunderstood and surrounded by misconceptions. PTSD UK describes the condition as “essentially a memory filing error caused by a traumatic event”.

It’s a surprisingly common way for the mind to respond to situations of intense panic and fear, but it can have a debilitating impact on the lives of those affected. We spoke to people living with the condition about the things they wish others understood about PTSD.

Continue reading at Patient…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. Check out my resources page for details of organisations who might be able to help.

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.

Recent writing: women’s pain – from endometriosis to vaginal mesh

Women’s pain is not taken seriously. It’s something I see over and over again in my work on sexual and reproductive health – and, equally, when I’m writing about mental health as well.

I had three pieces on sexual health published in June and July, and two of these focused on the issue of women being disbelieved, dismissed, and left suffering in agony by healthcare professionals. Which isn’t necessarily to criticise the hardworking and under-resourced healthcare professionals working on the frontline of NHS services, but it’s clear that there is still far too little knowledge, understanding, and research when it comes to so-called “women’s issues”.

There is now an increasing amount of awareness about the issue, which is great. In the weeks since these pieces were published, the controversial vaginal mesh surgery was suspended in England, and NICE published their first standards guidance on the diagnosis and management of endometriosis. But there’s still a lot of work to be done before women’s gynaecological pain is taken as seriously as (for example) male sexual dysfunction.

Should vaginal mesh surgery be banned? – for Patient:

When Kath Sansom first went to her GP, worried about incontinence, she was a fit and active mother of two teenage daughters who, like many women of a certain age, had started to experience embarrassing leaks during exercise.

“I was referred to a consultant, and the vaginal mesh operation was very much sold to me as a quick and simple fix. I was told I’d be a day case, out in 20 minutes, home in time for tea, and back at my desk in a week,” she explains. In reality though, Sansom says she came out in so much pain she could hardly walk – and she’s not the only one.

In January this year, 58-year-old Lucinda Methuen-Campbell from Wales killed herself, having suffered in “agony” following a pelvic mesh operation two years earlier. Before her death, Methuen-Campbell told her former partner that: “There didn’t seem to be any way out of the pain.”

Complications linked to the mesh implants have become a global scandal in recent years, with hundreds of British women taking legal action against both the NHS and mesh manufacturers after being left in constant pain and discomfort. Tens of thousands more in the USA have sued manufacturers, with payouts totalling billions of dollars.

Continue reading at Patient…

“Doctors told me my period pains were nothing. Then I collapsed.” – for Stylist:

For 10 years, Robyn battled extreme pain, but was continuously dismissed by doctors when she went to them for help. She was finally diagnosed with endometriosis – but five surgeries later, it was clear the damage had already been done. Here, she asks why women’s health issues aren’t being taken seriously enough.

This week the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Orilissa, the first new pill developed in 10 years to treat endometriosis. It’s a small step in the right direction for the 200 million women worldwide who suffer from the debilitating condition, but progress still feels glacially slow, as 29-year-old historian Robyn tells Sarah Graham.

A decade is a very long time when you’re living with endometriosis. Doctors treated me like an attention-seeking hypochondriac for 10 years before I was finally diagnosed, and I’ve had to fight for specialist treatment. The fact that Orilissa is the first drug to be approved in the past 10 years just proves how under prioritised the condition is. But could the move indicate that we are finally near the end of womankind’s long wait to be taken seriously when it comes to our health?

What happens to your body when you come off the pill? – for Patient:

The contraceptive pill has long been hailed as a feminist revolution in sexual health. First licensed during the 1960s, ‘the pill’ has been giving women control over their reproductive systems for nearly six decades. But, in recent years, there’s been a growing movement of women turning their backs on this method of birth control. So, with many of us having been on the pill since our teens, what actually happens to your body if you do decide to come off?

Recently, after almost a decade, I stopped taking the pill. Not because I plan on getting pregnant (sorry, mum!) but because I, like a growing number of fellow millennials, had started wondering what life would be like without my daily dose of synthetic hormones.

After investigating the pros and cons of both hormonal and ‘natural’ contraception, I decided to take the plunge and give contraceptive app Natural Cycles a whirl, in (extremely cautious) combination with condoms. I took my final pill, got all my details set up in the app, began dutifully taking and recording my temperature each morning, and waited for the app’s algorithm to start alerting me to my ‘green’ (non-fertile) days.

Having been on the pill for almost my entire adult life though, I quickly realised I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would I instantly revert back to a hormonal teenager? Or would I instead be transformed into some kind of empowered earth mother, in tune with my natural cycle? And how long would it actually take for my periods – and my fertility – to go back to ‘normal’?

IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. Check out my resources page for details of organisations who might be able to help.

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.

Recent writing: A more mindful recovery

For June’s issue of Planet Mindful magazine – Time Inc’s new mindfulness publication, launched January 2018 – I wrote two features, both exploring different aspects of how mindfulness has been an important part of my recovery from last year’s car accident.

Mindfulness is well and truly having its moment in the sun right now – no longer the preserve of hippies and Buddhist monks, mindfulness has grown increasingly mainstream over the last few years, backed up by scientific research proving its effectiveness.

As someone who’s fairly well immersed in the field of mental health and wellbeing, I’ve always really liked the idea of mindfulness – of existing in the moment, of compassionate acceptance of your circumstances, of taking time out of your day to simply ‘be’. But I’ve always really struggled with it in practice. Over the last 18 months I’ve made some small steps towards harnessing its power to aid in my recovery, and it’s those tentative, wobbly baby steps that I explored for Planet Mindful.

The first of the two features was about my love-hate relationship with running, the difficulty I had with returning to training after multiple fractures, and how mindfulness helped me rediscover my stride.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with running. After 20 years spent avoiding any form of exercise at all costs, I first laced up my trainers as a bet when I was a student. After several months spent forcing my petite, puny legs up and down the Leamington Spa stretch of the Grand Union Canal tow path, and a 5K race around Hyde Park, I’d pretty much decided that running wasn’t really for me. Frustrated by my weakness, lack of speed or stamina, and all-round slow progress, I concluded that I just wasn’t built for athleticism.

Several years later, after two weeks spent doing as little as possible on an all-inclusive honeymoon, my husband and I decided we needed to do something to shift those newly-wed extra pounds. My trainers were dusted off again and, taking full advantage of our proximity to the beautiful Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, we got into a fairly relaxed routine of jogging together two or three times a week.

Life at the time was complicated. Besides settling into married life, I’d just quit a job that was making me physically and mentally unwell. I’d been on antidepressants for just over 12 months, and I was on the cusp of making the simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating decision to go freelance. Running, I then discovered, was an amazing release – an outlet for my anxieties and frustrations; a potent mood booster; and, as I (very) slowly but surely began to see improvements, a great way of building up my confidence.

Together we started running first 5Ks, then 10Ks and, while I was still one of the slowest in the pack, just the achievement of making it all the way round felt amazing. But then the whole world gave way underneath my feet. In a split second, an accident left me totally devastated, with two fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist, and grappling with the intense depression, stress and anxiety of PTSD. Running was well and truly off the table: it was 24 hours before I could even sit up; four days before I could walk; and much longer before I could leave the house without a heady cocktail of diazepam, fluoxetine, and codeine.

It also referred to two books on running and mindfulness that inspired me throughout my R.E.D. January journey. The first written by a runner who’s into mindfulness; the second by a psychotherapist who’s into running. I’d really highly recommend reading both perspectives, to help shift your focus and learn to run in a way that benefits both your body and mind:

  • Mindful Running: How Meditative Running can Improve Performance and Make you a Happier, More Fulfilled Person by Mackenzie L. Havey
  • Run for Your Life: Mindful Running for a Happy Life by William Pullen

In my second feature I wrote about my experience of craniosacral therapy – described by therapist Rosie Owen as “psychotherapy for your body”.

Craniosacral therapy is an incredibly gentle body therapy, rooted in the work of osteopath William Garner Sutherland. In the early 1900s, Dr Sutherland “observed that the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes our brains and nervous systems has its own pulse, and is essential to maintaining our health,” explains Beatrice Doubble from the Craniosacral Therapy Association (CSTA).

Today it’s used to release stored tension, stresses and traumas from the body. I’ve always carried stress in my neck and shoulders – and working at a laptop all day doesn’t help – but those issues have taken on a new dimension since fracturing vertebrae in my neck and lower back last year. Having already focused a lot of my energies on dealing with the emotional trauma of my accident, I was intrigued by what craniosacral therapy could offer my tense and achy spine.

During my first session with accredited craniosacral therapist Rosie Owen, in her peaceful, intimate studio near London Bridge, she likened the treatment to “psychotherapy for the body”. After giving Rosie a history of my injuries, medications, aches and pains, I slipped my shoes off and lay myself face up on her massage table, fully clothed, and covered with a cosy blanket. Starting at my feet, then my lower back, and then my head, she placed her hands on my body with the lightest, gentlest of touches – barely there, like being softly caressed with a feather – chatting to me all the while about what sensations were going on in my body.

It’s difficult to describe how the effects of craniosacral therapy really feel. For me, the first session felt like a very deep relaxation combined with an intensely mindful awareness of all my body’s physical sensations. It’s not uncommon for clients to fall asleep, Rosie tells me, and to be honest I was surprised that I didn’t doze off. As Rosie slowly worked around my body, I experienced a pleasant, subtle tingling sensation up my legs and spine – as far as my ever-rigid neck, at least!

In the couple of weeks between my first and second session, I felt hyperaware of every little twinge and niggle in my body. Nothing felt noticeably improved as such, but I certainly noticed what was going on a lot more that I had before. I went into my second session with a mind and body that felt more open and receptive to the therapy, and I noticed the difference in depth that Rosie and I achieved together. We talked about the feelings – frustration, anger, resentment – that I felt I was holding in the tensest parts of my spine, and Rosie asked me to visualise this pain as a shape or symbol while she worked, shrinking it or moving it around the body as I saw fit.

Continue reading both articles in the June edition of Planet Mindful, published by Time Inc., available in W.H. Smith, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.


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.

Recent writing on women’s health – and an award!

MHP Award Ceremony

Over the last few weeks I’ve covered pretty much all my specialist health topics: the brain, the mind, the uterus, the vagina, and the cervix, with articles on women’s experiences of trauma, planning a pregnancy when you have epilepsy, cervical cancer screening in the LGBT community, and – simultaneously fascinating and horrifying – vaginal ageing.

I was also thrilled and honoured to win an award, in the brand new Health Writer category, at the MHP 30 to Watch young journalist award ceremony.

With health award judge Jo Willey, at the MHP 30 to Watch award ceremonyIt was completely surreal to see an example of my work hung on the wall like an artwork in a gallery, and for my writing to be recognised alongside so many incredibly talented journalists – many of them far more visibly ‘successful’ than I see myself!

Anyway, here I am looking chuffed with Health category judge Jo Willey, former Health Editor of The Daily Express.

Thank you to Jo and MHP, and congratulations to the other 29 award winners.

Recent writing

We need to talk about how PTSD affects women too – for The Femedic:

“I lived in constant fear, but could never articulate what I was afraid of. My memories, the pain attached to the past, my current loneliness and fears for the future were so tightly entwined it seemed impossible to unravel. I didn’t trust anyone, and I pushed everyone around me away.”

Andrea* is one of an estimated 310% of people who will be affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lifetime. The condition involves recurrent distressing memories, flashbacks and nightmares of a traumatic experience, and was first diagnosed in soldiers returning from war.

During World War One it was known as ‘shell shock’ and, although psychiatrists’ understanding of the condition has come a long way since then, the association with the armed forces means that many people continue to think of PTSD as a largely male condition, inflicted on servicemen by the horrors of war.

But Andrea has never fought in armed conflict, and the only war zone she’s survived was inside her own home. Indeed, the prevalence of PTSD is estimated to be roughly equal across genders, while women aged 16-25 are the highest risk group, with a prevalence of 12.6 per cent.

Continue reading at The Femedic…

Is it safe to take epilepsy medication during pregnancy? – for Patient:

Hannah* was first prescribed sodium valproate to control her epilepsy when she was 13 years old. “At the time, I wasn’t told about any of the risks and then I fell pregnant at 16,” she says. “The pregnancy miscarried at four months, due to severe abnormalities with the baby, which were caused by my medication.”

More than 20 years later, UK drug regulator the MHRA last month announced a ban on prescribing sodium valproate to women and girls of childbearing age, unless they sign a form to say they understand the risks.

How life events and ageing can change your vagina – for Patient:

When it comes to ageing, few body parts go through quite so much over the course of an average lifetime as the humble vagina. Changes to collagen production and hormone levels bring about natural changes from puberty through to the menopause, which can, of course, be exacerbated by sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and even certain cancer treatments.

So what kind of changes can you expect, and what can you do to keep your vagina healthy throughout your life?

Do lesbian and bisexual women still need smear tests? – for Patient:

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under, with around 3,000 women diagnosed each year in the UK. Despite this, just 72 per cent of eligible women in England attend cervical screening (or smear) tests, which can help to detect abnormal cells early, and prevent around 75 per centof cervical cancers from developing.

In the LGBT+ community however, the figures are much lower still. According to Lawrie Roberts, Macmillan LGBT and Cancer Programme Co-ordinator at the LGBT Foundation, around half (51 per cent) of eligible women who have sex with women have never attended a smear test.

Continue reading at Patient…


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.

Recent writing: Womb trouble, breastfeeding, sexual assault, and bereavement by suicide

It’s been a while since my last work update – I’ve spent a lot of the last few months with my head down, immersed in a slightly all-consuming project that I’m excited to be able to share with you soon.

In the meantime though, I’ve also been quietly cracking on with work on my usual subjects of women’s health, mental health, and sexual/reproductive health. I’ve written on several tough but vital subjects for online health magazine Patient, spoken on an International Women’s Day panel about period poverty, and been featured in the Daily Mail‘s You magazine as part of their goal-getters guide to acing it.

Articles

How Endometriosis Symptoms Affect The Lives Of Those Who Suffer With The Condition Every Day – for The Debrief:

Endometriosis is a gynaecological disease that affects one in ten women of reproductive age. That’s 1.5 million in the UK, and a staggering 176 million worldwide – yet relatively little is known about it. What we know from those women is that endometriosis pain affects them every single day. On average, women wait seven and a half years from first experiencing the symptoms of endometriosis to actually, finally getting an endometriosis diagnosis.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

Are fertility apps a reliable form of contraception? – for Patient:

Hormonal contraception has had a bad press in recent years, with studies linking it to breast cancer and mental health side effects such as depression and anxiety. All that, combined with the rise of so-called ‘fem tech’, and the burgeoning trend for all things natural – from organic beauty products to ‘clean’ and plant-based diets – has led to an increased interest in more natural family planning options. But do any of them really work?

Continue reading at Patient…

How to support someone bereaved by suicide – for Patient:

Amy* was just 21 years old when her close childhood friend Lydia* took her own life two years ago. “I went through so many different feelings and emotions – complete grief and sadness, mixed with anger and guilt,” she explains.

“Obviously you feel that grief, loss and sadness when you lose anybody, but it was worse as she was so young, with her whole life ahead of her. I was constantly asking myself ‘what if …?’ and I was angry that she’d made this choice, and left her family and friends in this situation,” she adds.

“It felt wrong to be angry, but it was an overwhelming feeling, and it was reassuring to know others felt like this too. Rightly or wrongly though, I also felt angry towards her family and her university friends because they all knew what was going on and how vulnerable she was, yet she was left by herself. I wish I had known and could have done something,” Amy says.

Continue reading at Patient…

What to do after rape or sexual assault – for Patient:

Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted every year in England and Wales, and roughly 11 an hour are raped – the majority of them women.

Recent activism, like #MeToo and the Time’s Up campaign, has shone a light on the prevalence of sexual violence globally. But, if you’ve suffered this kind of attack, dealing with the aftermath can still be an incredibly lonely and frightening time.

Continue reading at Patient…

How to overcome breastfeeding stigma – for Patient:

Breastfeeding can be an emotionally fraught subject. Many new mums feel unable to feed in public because of embarrassment, according to surveys. While others, pressured by ‘breast is best’ advice, feel shame if they cannot provide nourishment for their child in this way.

“The first time I took my newborn son out to a café, he cried to be fed, and I walked home to feed him,” says mum-of-two, Eleanor. “I was so scared of latching this tiny baby on in public. I hadn’t really seen anyone do it before, and it’s hard with a newborn as they need a bit of help,” she adds. “Right after birth, your boobs are huge, so it’s hard to do discreetly!”

Eleanor is far from alone in her experience. A recent survey by The Baby Show found that nearly 9 out of 10 new mums feel unable to breastfeed in public because of embarrassment and stigma.

Continue reading at Patient…

My words elsewhere

The goal-getter’s guide to aceing it – You magazine

For Daily Mail’s You magazine, I spoke to journalist Helen Booth about how having an accountability buddy helps me set and achieve goals for my freelance business.

However, you don’t necessarily need to have a pre-assigned mentor or a paid-for coach to discover your own sense of accountability. Enlisting an ‘accountability partner’ could be the answer – which could be as simple as teaming up with a friend. Sarah Graham, a freelance writer, found success by pairing up with a friend who was at a similar stage in her career. ‘It started off as an informal arrangement where we’d have a weekly Skype call to talk about our goals,’ says Sarah. ‘But now we also have an “accountability day” each week. We’ll check in around 9am and agree, for example, to complete a certain task by 11am. Then we’ll check back at the deadline and update each other, and set a new goal for the next couple of hours. It’s my most productive day of the week.’

Read more.

Events

I’ve also attended some fascinating and inspiring events since my last update – including The Femedic’s panel discussion on how austerity affects women’s health; a talk by Helen Pankhurst on her new book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now; a private view of the Museum of London’s Votes for Women exhibition, which is on all year; and a press reception on women’s health, hosted by the Women’s Health Clinic.

In March I was also very privileged to speak on a panel about period poverty, as part of Doughty St. Chambers’ International Women’s Day celebrations.

These kind of events always remind me why I’m a writer, not a speaker, but it was a real honour to speak about my work alongside such eloquent and impressive speakers – Stella Creasy MP, PeriodPositive activist Chella Quint, and barristers Angela Patrick and Katie O’Byrne.


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.

Recent writing: support for transgender children, student mental health, and accessible housing

In January I wrote about a number of challenging but important subjects. For Patient, I looked at how parents can best support their transgender child. For The Student Room, I explored what mental health support students can (or should be able to!) expect at university. And, for Inside Housing, I investigated how a lack of accessible housing leaves so many disabled millennials stuck living with their parents. They’re all such vital issues, which I hope I’ve treated with the care and sensitivity they deserve.

Many thanks to everyone who spoke to me for these features – particularly Susie at Mermaids UK; Joe (not his real name) at Growing Up Transgender; Nina, Shona and Fi for sharing their experiences of the struggle to find accessible housing; as well as the disabled millennials who spoke to me off the record and helped to inform my research. I hope that each of these pieces, in some small way, helps young people to access the support they need.

How to support your transgender child – for Patient:

“Some years ago, at a young age, our daughter Sophie* first told us they were a girl. This was quite a shock at the time, as we’d thought they were born male. It turned out we were mistaken,” says Joe*, who tweets as @DadTrans and blogs at Growing Up Transgender with his partner @FierceMum.

“Our acceptance of her identity did not happen overnight. At first we didn’t take it seriously. We tried to tell her she could be whatever type of boy she wanted to be, wear what she wanted, play with what she wanted. This was totally missing the point, and simply made her even sadder,” he adds.

“Eventually, it got to a point where we had a very depressed child, who felt rejected by her parents. We realised that we were letting her down.”

Recent years have seen a steadily growing awareness of issues around gender identity and trans people like Sophie. Sadly though, gender diverse children and young people have also become an increasingly popular topic of controversy and tabloid hand wringing – particularly around the use of hormone blockers to treat trans children.

As a parent, all that noise can just add to the worry and confusion you’re probably feeling if your child has recently told you they’re questioning their gender identity. You’ll no doubt want to support them in the best way possible, but it’s also totally normal and understandable to have questions and concerns about the impact it will have on their life.

Continue reading at Patient…

What mental health support can you expect at university? – for The Student Room:

For all the excitement and fantastic opportunities on offer, going to university can be a hugely stressful time. If you already struggle with your mental health, it’s understandable that you might be worried about how you’ll cope with student life. But don’t let that put you off.

One in four students in the UK suffer from some kind of mental health problem, and 95% of universities have seen an increased demand for counselling in the last five years. While this can mean that mental health services are overstretched, whichever uni you choose should have support available to get you through those more challenging moments.

Continue reading at The Student Room…

Access denied: the disabled millennials who can’t find adapted affordable housing – for Inside Housing:

“I’m living with my dad at 32, and he’d really like his flat back,” says Nina Grant (pictured). We’re sat in the far corner of artisan coffee shop Harris & Hoole in Southgate, north London, a short bus journey away from Mx Grant’s father’s home.

Mx Grant (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) has an effervescent personality, which shines through in everything from their expressive speech to their quirky plaid trousers and bright red Dr Martens. But the seemingly endless process of finding somewhere to live has clearly taken its toll.

“I understand that, in the economy we’re in now, being a graduate doesn’t guarantee you’re going to have a career straight off, but I think I just assumed everything would fall into place,” they say.

Mx Grant’s situation is far from unique. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in November show that more than a quarter of 20 to 34-year-olds in the UK are still living in their parents’ home.

Housing charity Shelter has warned that, without radical action to tackle the UK’s housing shortage, the figures could pass 50% within a generation. But for Mx Grant, there’s an added layer of difficulty: being disabled.

Continue reading at Inside Housing…


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.

Recent writing: Christmas and New Year

Unsurprisingly, the weeks around Christmas and the New Year were a busy time for writing about health. Throughout December and January I’ve written a lot about alcohol, food, diet, fitness, body image, and how to stave off the post-holiday blues.

The festive period now feels like a distant memory, and January seems to be going on forever! But somehow I’ve only just caught up with myself enough to share some of that recent work…

Drink Spiking: Why Horror Story Drug Devil’s Breath Is The Least Of Our Worries – for The Debrief:

Two weeks into December and the festive party season is now well and truly upon us. I can barely go 48 hours at a time without someone twisting my arm into a mulled wine and mince pie, a gratuitous glass of bubbly ‘just because it’s Christmas,’ or a festive spiced gin. It’s the most wonderful time of the year – but, for me at least, it also always comes with just a twinge of anxiety.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

Alcohol and health: The mythbusting article – for LV=:

Is there a way to cure a hangover? Can some alcoholic drinks help improve our heart health? In what order should we drink wine, water and beer? We tell ourselves many things to feel better about our alcohol intake, but what truth is there in them? We asked the experts to find out.

Continue reading at LV=…

How to stop binge eating – for Patient:

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But if you struggle with your weight, eating, and body image, the weeks around Christmas and the New Year can be an absolute minefield.

Continue reading at Patient…

Surviving the New Year body image minefield – for Betty Collective:

If you struggle with body image and eating issues (and honestly, who doesn’t, from time to time?) January can be really rough. After a month of festive parties, cosy evenings in with Christmas movies and hot chocolate, and stuffing our faces at almost every opportunity, suddenly it’s all over and the dreary reality of the New Year hits.

Continue reading at Betty Collective…

How to embrace fitness after 50 – for Patient:

You already know it’s worth making exercise a priority. But, if you’re over 50 and haven’t laced up your trainers since secondary school PE class, it can be a real struggle to get going. We spoke to the experts about the health benefits of taking up exercise after 50, and how to make sure your shiny new gym membership doesn’t go to waste.

10 ways to avoid the post-holiday blues – for LV=:

After the joys of late December, January can feel a bit gloomy. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. We spoke to experts about how you can tackle the January blues, and get your year off to a flying start.

Continue reading at LV=…

Is online counselling actually any good? – for Betty Collective:

There’s an app for everything these days, even your mental health. You’re probably already tracking your fitness, sleep, and periods, so why not also track your moods? And, when it comes to more formal mental health support, online counselling services are just a click away – whether you’re not sure where else to turn right now, or need something to bridge the gap while you’re on an NHS waiting list for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

Continue reading at Betty Collective…


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.