Saturday 19 June 2021

Agency in Youth Mental Health (6): “You’re not crazy, you just need to be shown compassion”

This post is the sixth in a series of posts on a project on agency and youth mental health funded by a MRC/AHRC/ESRC Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind: Engagement Award and led by Rose McCabe at City University. Today a member of Young People's Advisory Group writes her reflections about the project and what it means to her. 

The author is Catherine Fadashe, who is currently a third-year student at Birkbeck University studying English Literature and Italian. Her interests within mental health focuses on how to de-stigmatize culturally-influenced perceptions of mental health within Africa.

In 2019, I delivered a TEDx talk speaking on my mental health journey since my suicide attempt when I was 18. Talking about something so personal on a public platform, and being so open and honest about the topic, gave me a huge sense of liberation. So when I came across the opportunity to be on the Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG) for the McPin Agency project, I jumped at it because it was my chance to turn lemons into a lesson that others suffering can learn from. 

The Agency in Mental Health project is important because it looks at whether the appropriate care and agency is given to young people when they seek out treatment for their mental health. This particularly interested me because I wanted to know if my negative experiences with therapy were abnormal or if they reflected the average experience of most young people. Unfortunately, I quickly realised it was the latter. 

One of the things that has been beneficial in highlighting these issues are the videos we have watched during our meetings which were reflections of some of our personal experiences in the group. Within the videos it showed interactions between mental health practitioners and young people who have been referred to for an assessment or/and ongoing therapy.

What I discovered whilst watching the videos was how grossly outdated the training that is given to mental health professionals is. The approach of many of the practitioners shown was mechanical and prescriptive with little to no compassion shown. As well as evaluating videos, one of the most significant aspects of our role on the YPAG panel is making contributions to the project proposal by suggesting what and how reform can be made in the treatment of mental health patients. Afterall, the long-term goal is that through the research done on the project it can enable better training for mental health practitioners in being able to give sufficient care and agency to young people.

Growing up in a Nigerian household meant that I had to learn to sweep my struggles under the rug. Mental health was not something that was ever discussed in our home. So when things came to a head and I went for my first ever therapy session after my attempt, I found the experience underwhelming. After much reflection, I realised that being from a culture where mental health is stigmatised created barriers in my communication with my therapist due to cultural differences. This caused delays in treatment which inevitably worsened my mental state.

I think one word which accurately sums up the difference between a good experience with a therapist and a bad one is empathy. In our lowest, loneliest and most desperate moments we wanted someone to make us feel like they cared. Like they were seeing us. They were hearing us - loud and clear. Not just blindly diagnosed by a doctor who signs off on a bunch of prescriptions to recalibrate our brain or to activate that little nub inside our heads that is so deeply starved of serotonin.

Put simply, we wanted validation. Validation that we were good enough.

Positive reinforcement goes a long way. Simple things such as saying, “You’re intelligent. You’re valuable. You’re beautiful” can make a world of difference to someone who never hears that. Or even to lower the volume on the negative voices that they hear in their head.

Before there can be valuable and sustainable progress in improving the agency that young people feel over their mental health treatment there needs to be a more robust infrastructure within the health service that can handle the complexities of dealing with such patients. For example, a homeless young person who has been referred for therapy may not feel motivated to attend their sessions as they may not deem it a top priority. Therapy and medications will not fix their predicament. In this case, housing associations and homeless charities would also need to be involved. 

Due to the pandemic and the lockdown that ensued in 2020, the YPAG members have not been able to meet in person. Nevertheless, thanks to the team members at McPin and academics leading the research we have all been able to gel well together during the Zoom meetings. Also, due to all the advisors having relevant lived experience of the topics discussed, we understand the importance of creating a safe space to listen to each other.

I am so glad and grateful to have been able to participate in such a significant project. And I look forward to being a part of more of McPin’s projects to contribute to better care for people struggling with their mental health.

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