Guest Post: The Positive Effect of Music by Ruby Leigh-Smith

To understand the positive effects of music, we have to understand that music – the kind of music that defines who and what we are – is not usually found until we’re in our teens, or even later in life, because we are still growing into ourselves, defining and redefining who we will be.

Music is part of what defines us as we go through life, marking every stage.

That’s what I love so much about music. Everybody has an individual taste, and arguably, no two music fans playlists will be the same.

As soon as we discover our own music, we are free to become who we want to be. To me at least, music creates you, and moulds you.

When I was fourteen, I was going through some personal stuff, and I felt like nothing would ever be right in the world again. But it was actually my best friend at the time who got me into music properly. I owe her my love of it.

She told me about bands that would be classed by most people as ‘emo’, but to me, they were life saving – metaphorically, anyway.

From My Chemical Romance to Fall Out Boy, I managed to feel better than before when I listened to their music. I had found something that, to me at least, seemed exclusive.

I felt I was the only person in the world who listened to the music. It spoke to me, and loved it. Of course I wasn’t, but that didn’t matter to me in that moment when I discovered it.

As time went on, I found my second greatest love – concerts. Live music is something else entirely. The aura that is exuded at a concert lifts me up, and has continued to do since 2018 when I went to my first concert, Fall Out Boy at the O2 Arena in London.

Since then, I have been to over eighteen live shows, and one festival.

Over the years, a lot of research has been done into the positive effects of music.

A recent study found that 60% of children between the ages of 4 and 6 had increased vocabulary performance after taking just one month of weekly music lessons. A team of McGill scientists examined over 400 research papers, and they found that music decreases stress and anxiety and increases immune system functions.

This got me thinking about everything that music does that you might not even be aware of.

I have high functioning autism, so music often calms me down, and allows me to focus, or separate myself from the world when it all gets too much.

When you find artists or groups that you identify with so strongly that you can imagine they’re beside you in your darkest and lightest moments, then you have found friends for life.

You’re never alone as long as you have chords, rhythm, lyrics and a song that speaks to you.

Music is a form of escapism.

It has a positive impact on your brain, making you feel better when you feel that things couldn’t be worse, or lifting you up when you’re feeling a bit lost in the world.

Music has also been proven to help with studying. I used to change the lyrics to songs to fit with my school revision.

I changed Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ to ‘Fat Bottomed Physics’ and crammed GCSE physics equations in there – and let me tell you, humming that song under your breath in an exam room might look strange, but it works.

Many people find it beneficial listening to music at the same time as studying or reading.

Blocking out background noise with something that you listen to regularly can really help you concentrate on what you are reading or writing.

Additionally, and perhaps the most important point, is that music helps you find where you fit in. It helps you find people to identify with who listen to the same music as you or idolise the same musicians. Those friendships help you find new artists or genres of music that you might not have listened to before.

Making friends is hard for many people, but music makes it just that little bit easier to connect with those that understand you.

From making friends and helping you express yourself, to picking you up when you’re feeling down, music is like coming home to a hot cup of tea after a long day. It will leave you feeling so much happier when you’re feeling sad.

Music has done so much for me since the day I first listened to My Chemical Romance back in 2018. I’ve changed as a person because of it.

Over the last few years, I’ve started listening to other genres of music. I idolise the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership of The Beatles, and next year I will be seeing Queen + Adam Lambert in concert.

Music is a big part of my life. I have my own blog inspired by my love of music, and this have brought me a lot of opportunities.

I have even reviewed the books of people such as Sir Paul McCartney, and interviewed The Boomtown Rats bassist, Pete Briquette.

These names might not mean a lot to some, but these are people who have inspired so many musicians which we listen to today, like Kanye West (Kanye, Sir Paul McCartney and Rihanna released a song in 2015, link here).

Even musicians like Oasis, The Foo Fighters, and Bruce Springsteen have cited artists such as The Beatles as their inspirations. Without those who came before, we would not have artists like Cardi-B, Taylor Swift, or Porter Robinson. Music would not be what it is right now.

The positive effects of music are never ending.

It’s an expression of who we are and who we want to become, and I certainly wouldn’t be who I am without the soundtrack to my life.

Ruby Leigh-Smith is an aspiring journalist, writer, and a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller activist. She writes about music and books. You can read more of her work here: https://music-devotees6.webnode.com/

Living with OCD

I’m insecure about my hands.

It seems a strange thing to be insecure about, but it’s the only visible sign of my OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), a condition I’ve struggled with since middle school.

I’ve never spoken about it before, mainly because I was in denial for a long time. I was ashamed to admit I was struggling with it. But seeing as it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay, it makes sense to share.

Part of the reason I’ve never spoken about this is because I never thought my OCD was ‘that bad’. I would often shrug off comments from family or friends about how sore my hands looked.

At one point, I thought it was completely normal to wash your hands over 40 times a day. I was functioning, so therefore it was all fine. 

OCD is a highly misunderstood condition. It is estimated 12 out of every 1,000 people in the U.K. will be diagnosed with it. And it’s often incorrectly used to describe someone who likes to organise or keep their house extra tidy.

Comments like “I need things to be organised so I guess I’m a bit OCD” probably haven’t helped when it comes to those misconceptions, especially when it’s said online for everyone to see. 

If you have OCD, you’ll usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. The obsession is the thought, and the compulsion is the behaviour which often follows. 

The singer George Ezra recently spoke on a BBC podcast about being diagnosed with ‘Pure O’ which helped to raise awareness. It’s a type of OCD in which you struggle with the intrusive thoughts, but not the compulsive behaviours.

I remember first struggling with the obsessive thoughts when I was twelve-years-old.

My brain was like white noise on a broken television, constantly buzzing with irrational thoughts and theories. That’s one of the worst parts about OCD. You can’t really escape it.

Most of the time you know you’re being completely irrational, yet you still need to act on the compulsion, just in case it becomes a reality. 

I checked doors a certain amount of times to make sure they were definitely locked, or placed towels between clothes in the washing basket so they wouldn’t become contaminated.

I appeared to ‘grow out of it’ after a few years, but it’s come back under a different disguise during times of stress or uncertainty, sometimes noticeable and sometimes more covert.

However, over the last seven years it’s become all encompassing, tainting many memories or moments with a irrational thought or fear.

It showed up like a long lost relative at an awkward birthday party after I lost my younger brother Elliot in May 2013.

Looking back, it probably made sense. It was a way to maintain control during a point in my life I felt I didn’t have any control at all.

I felt like everything was no longer within my power. I couldn’t change what had just happened to my family, and the world seemed so fragile and unpredictable because of this. Metaphorically, I had lost control of the wheel and didn’t have a clue where I was going.

The compulsions have morphed over the years, but it’s main focus is the fear of contamination.

At first it was the thought of catching a disease from surfaces or public places, especially on public transport to and from work.

Then it became an obsession with touching chemicals or cleaning products. Could chemicals have contaminated my skin? Could they be sitting on my clothes? When I eat, could that chemical have got into my food poisoned me?

If I saw a stain on the street, I’d have to walk around it and get to the nearest toilet to wash my hands. This stain could have been left by a chemical, so I needed to disinfect myself immediately.

Despite the fact my hands were red raw, I’d still continue to scrub them like I was surgeon about to go into surgery. My hands were embarrassingly sore and cracked, but it was worth it to know I hadn’t harmed myself or anyone else I cared about.

I’ve wasted a lot of money over the years. I’d buy something in the shop but if I felt it had been contaminated, I’d have to replace it.

Clothes, bags and shoes were sent to the charity shop. Or worse, thrown away for no reason other than the fact they might have been touched by some unknown chemical or liquid. 

In 2018, I decided to get some counselling and asked for a referral with my GP. I was put on a dose of anti-depressants to help with my symptoms, and took these for a year before I started to feel better and less anxious.

The OCD, although not cured, was manageable. I didn’t feel the same level of panic at the idea someone might have touched bleach or cleaning fluid before shaking my hand or hugging me.

But then, COVID-19 hit.

Part of the treatment for OCD is accepting your thoughts are irrational, and therefore, don’t need to be acted on. Yet during the pandemic, those irrational fears were suddenly reality for many.

People with the condition went from being told washing your hands 50 times a day was unhealthy, to the Government encouraging us to regularly wash our hands to prevent the spread of a deadly and unknown virus.

The fear of bringing an unknown disease into your house and contaminating your family became a real prospect, and one you couldn’t just rationalise with a round of CBT and mindfulness.

The first few months of lockdown included daily de-contamination. The cupboards, kitchen surfaces, door handles, and TV remotes were regular dosed in Dettol spray (other anti-bacterial sprays are available), and my phone was so clean you could have literally eaten from it.

But after a while, the fear and worry began to fade. I won’t say it’s gone completely, I’m still a bit nervous on public transport and if someone gets too close to me in a queue I get a bit agitated like one of those grumpy chihuahuas when you put your hand in their face, but it doesn’t occupy my every thought like it did at the start of the year.

However, COVID did make me realise I couldn’t continue to allow OCD control over my life. It had become a toxic friend, feeding me lies and making me believe my compulsions were protecting me.

The fact is, a life with OCD isn’t really a life. 

It’s a prison in your own mind. It makes your life smaller and smaller until you feel you’re living in a sealed Tupperware box. You can see the outside world, but you’re not living in it, consumed by your own fear and irrational thoughts.

Slowly and surely, I’m now getting the help I need to tackle it. And feeling a lot better for it.

For a long time I’ve been ashamed of my OCD. I’d much rather tell someone I was feeling tired or just in a bad mood then admit I was battling with a constant stream of obsessive thoughts.

I’d rather cover my hands with gloves then let anyone see how sore they were by the constant hand washing I was putting them through.

It made sense to keep it to myself for as long as possible, but if talking about it helps one person who might be struggling, it’s worth it.

Thankfully, OCD has become a lot less of a taboo subject in the last few years.

I’ve seen lots of people sharing Tik Tok videos about their compulsive thoughts and how they’ve dealt with them. When you know you aren’t alone in how you feel, it makes it a lot easier to reach out and ask for professional support and help.

So if you’re struggling with OCD symptoms, please don’t wait so long to get help like I did. It can be debilitating if you aren’t getting help.

And don’t be ashamed to talk about it. You don’t know who else might be going through the same struggle right now 

Resources:

The UK’s Largest OCD Charity | OCD Action

OCD-UK | A national OCD charity, run by, and for people with lived experience of OCD

Self-care for OCD | Mind, the mental health charity – help for mental health problems | Mind, the mental health charity – help for mental health problems

‘The Last of Us’: How a video game helped me to cope with my grief

“To the edge of the universe and back. Endure and survive.”

It’s the words spoken by Ellie, one of the main protagonists from a survival video game called ‘The Last of Us’. It was the first video I played after my brother Elliot passed away in 2013, and in many ways, it helped me cope with my own grief.

It sounds absurd that a video game could do this, but hear me out.

Growing up, gaming became a form of communication between my brother and I. 

It was a language you could speak with very few words, a universal form of speech where the only barrier you would face was a computer-controlled enemy at the end of each level. 

Recently, I started thinking about what a big part video games had played in my childhood and the impact they’d had on the friendship between my brother and I. 

There are pivotal moments in our lives we can re-play like a projector in our minds when we hear a particular song or see a scene from a film. The same stands for video games. They sit like hardback books in the library of your memories.

I can still remember losing myself in the imaginary world of a computer-animated game whilst sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, my brother by my side. 

Like most siblings, my brother and I would argue.

We’d argue about what to watch on telly. We’d argue about who ate the last Belgium bun from the two-pack I’d saved to eat after school. We’d even argue about the colour of the sky if given the opportunity to do so. 

But one thing we always had in common was our love of video games.

We had been introduced to the wonders of the gaming world from a young age.

One of my earliest memories was how my grandad would let us play his Sega Mega Drive with it’s 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog game. We’d race that little blue hedgehog round in circles, collecting rings and fighting off  “Eggman” before our eyes grew square and we had to go home, the repetitive soundtrack ringing in our ears. 

When we were a bit older, my dad brought a PlayStation. I don’t think he had much knowledge of gaming, so a friend had lent him some of his games to try. It wasn’t long before my brother and I had booted my dad off his own console, claiming it as our own. 

My older cousin James showed us how to play Tomb Raider II with a boxy-looking Lara Croft running and diving around a pixelated landscape. We tried so hard to kill that tiger in the cave, but my brother and I would just end up back at Croft Mansion, laughing maniacally as we locked the butler in the freezer for the 100th time. 

As we grew older, our interests changed. And yet, our love for gaming was still strong.

Most of the time it was Elliot who would have the controller in his hands, but we’d work together to solve difficult levels or challenges, communicating with each other to complete the game.

Sometimes we’d talk about other stuff whilst we played. It became a prompt for us to speak about how our day had been or any worries we had about the world.

Most of my memories with Elliot included video games. I still remember the excitement on his face when I’d gift him the video game he’d wanted for ages, brought with money from my part-time job. 

After Elliot died, I lost interest in gaming. It didn’t feel right to play video games anymore. That was our ‘thing’, and he was no longer here.

The Xbox console we shared began to collect dust like a decrepit tomb, wasting away in the corner like it was forbidden to be touched or looked at. 

I tried hard not to think about it as the next two years went by in a blur, but I soon had a sudden urge to buy a PlayStation console.

I had a need to connect with those memories again and I wanted to embrace them without the overwhelming sadness I felt on an almost daily basis at that point. 

When I brought the PlayStation, it came with a pre-installed game called ‘The Last of Us’.

I’d seen a few posts about it online but I didn’t know a lot about it.

All I knew was it was set during a zombie apocalypse and it followed two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they navigated a post-apocalyptic world where humans were just as dangerous as their undead counterparts. 

At the time, it seemed like the distraction I needed. Who doesn’t enjoy a zombie game!?

However, it wasn’t long before I realised this video game was a lot more than what it seemed, and it had a much deeper message behind it. 

Like a book you lose yourself in from the first chapter, the game leads you through a narrative you can’t escape from. You are drawn in from the opening sequence.

Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead!

‘The Last of Us’ begins 20 years before the pandemic journey which follows. 

The main character Joel is bringing up his 12 year-old-daughter Sarah in Austin, Texas, and it’s not long before Joel has to flee from his home as the zombie outbreak begins.

In the first scene, we see Joel trying to escape across as he heads towards the highway. A soldier begins to shoot at him in an attempt to prevent them from crossing whilst potentially infected with the virus. Thankfully, the soldier is shot before he can kill our main protagonist, but as Joel looks down at his crying daughter, he realises she has been shot in the abdomen.

As Joel pleads for his daughter to stay with him, she slips away in his arms.

For the next 20 years, Joel barely speaks of his daughter as he struggles to come to terms with his loss. He carries the weight of his loss throughout the game, much like our journey with grief in the ‘real world’. 

In those first 15 minutes, I was torn. My heart felt like it has been ripped out. My own grief rose to the surface like a ripe tide trying to pull me under. That scene fucking hurt.

And yet, for the first time in two years, I felt my grief was reflected back at me.

I saw my feelings and emotions portrayed in the rawest and most honest way I had ever seen since my brother died. And so, I continued the game, and I’m so thankful I did.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say this game helped me process my loss. 

Throughout the game, you watch a unique friendship unfold between the two main characters. Joel sees his own daughter reflected in Ellie’s character. Both are victims of a cruel and unpredictable world.

Joel, now a smuggler in a world where survival is the only answer, has been tasked with accompanying a teenage girl, Ellie, across the United States and must hand her over to a revolutionary militia group called the ‘Fireflies’.

Throughout this journey, they lose friends. Many of them fall victim to an infection that turns everyone into cannibalistic mutants with a single bite. It hurts as you have grown close to them throughout the game, like characters in your favourite novels.

You feel the loss of these animated characters, as silly as it sounds. 

Like most video games, The Last of Us has a level of strategy. You have to use firearms and improvised weapons to take on enemies in cinematic landscapes. 

There were many times I had to put the controller down, walking away when it all got too much and my frustration got the better of me. The Hotel Lobby, I’m looking at you!

Unfortunately, gaming is not for everyone. Some people just don’t ‘get it’. And that’s okay.

However, I wish more than anything I could share the message this game conveys to anyone who if grieving, trapped in unimaginable circumstances and struggling to understand how they’ll survive their worst nightmare. 

In ‘The Last of Us’, Joel and Ellie find each other when they need it most.

Both of the protagonists are lost souls, learning to navigate and understand a world that has caused them unimaginable pain by taking away the people who meant the most to them. They develop a bond in their grief. Each one understands the other’s pain, yet so few words about their past experiences are spoken between them.

I don’t think I’d ever completed an entire game before I played The Last of Us.

I certainly haven’t cried as hard as I did at the scene in which Ellie and Joel see a herd of giraffes trudging across the deserted ruins of the city. Ellie reaches out to stroke the giraffes face before the two of them watch over the landscape, the herd disappearing into the horizon. Who knew a video game could destroy you like that?

Like many of the scenes in this video game, it’s a beautifully symbolic moment.

In the midst of all the pain and darkness the characters have endured, there is a moment of pure joy, a moment where the full weight of their grief is lessened.

When you feel all hope is lost, you can still find happiness.

‘The Last of Us’ gave me hope in a time I felt I had little strength to cope with the magnitude of my brother’s loss. And for this, I will always be eternally grateful to Naughty Dog and their best-selling game.

It’s a tale of resilience and connection, and it shows the power video games can have.

So next time I start banging on about how excited I am for ‘The Last of Us 2’ like a crazy gaming nerd, you’ll know why it means a lot to me and so many other players.

“No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” – Joel

‘Are you okay?’

When you’re grieving, people will often ask you the same question on a regular basis.

‘Are you okay?’

I get it. It’s a natural reflex, like saying bless you when someone sneezes or nodding politely when you’ve seen someone more than once on the same tour of the local Tesco.

It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about the way I often answered this question after my brother died. And probably still do today, six years on.

When I’m struggling, I never really answer this question honestly. It’s mainly out of shame because I think I should have my shit together all the time and I expect other people to think the same (which they often don’t).

But it’s difficult to open up to people sometimes. When people ask if you’re okay, you don’t know if that person is just asking out of politeness. Then I worry I’ll only realise this when I’ve poured my heart out in an epic ten chapter novel about how bloody sad it is I’ll never get to see my brother again yet society expects me to be okay with that.

Nobody wants to read that book though. That’s a really sad book. I’m not even sure they’d have a section for that in Waterstones.

Most of the time, I’m just not really sure what to tell you, so the answer is usually always: ‘yeah, I’m alright’.

It’s not that I don’t want to share myself with you. I’m sure you mean it when you say you’ll listen, but there’s still a lot of stigma around ‘struggling’ and opening up about your grief. Sometimes it’s easier to lie and say you’re coping. People react very differently and those reactions are not always helpful, even though they often mean well.

Last year I was struggling, but I kept it to myself. It’s very typical of me to keep running on a sprained ankle when I should have just taken a break from the race to restore my energy. But people who are grieving are often like birds with a broken wing, hiding our injuries to protect ourselves from predators. We won’t always let you see us struggling, just in case it’s seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

When I’m in those moods and struggling to form a sentence, I start writing all my thoughts down on an iPhone note. Some of the words I write make sense. Some of them don’t. It’s often a flurry of emotions and ideas spat out on the screen like I’m throwing paint at a canvas until it makes a shape or tells a story.

The other day, I started scrolling through those notes. Between an array of to-do lists and strange dreams I’d decided to write down in case they had some alternative meaning, I found a poem I’d written a few months back and forgotten about. It was all the answers I wanted to give when someone asked me if I was okay.

As I read it, I felt like I was reading through my teenage diary. The words were full of angst and raw emotion, like a drunken conversation on a night out, and even though I was slightly embarrassed by its brutal honesty, something compelled me to share it.

I posted it to a Facebook group for bereaved siblings. I didn’t think it was very compelling or insightful, but it showed a side of my grief I often hid, even from the friends who understood my pain. A friend from the group texted me to tell me he’d read the poem to his mother and wife. They told him they’d related to my words in their own grief.

I realised how close I’d been to discarding those words, just like the real and honest answer to the question: ‘are you okay?’

It feels right to share it, so here it is. A poem about how grief really feels, but how we often answer people, mainly due to the fear of judgment. It doesn’t speak for everyone in their journey with grief, but I hope it makes sense to some.

 

I feel the despair in the centre of my chest, like my ribs are coated in lead or my lungs are made of weights. But yes, I’m okay.

My brain in running at 100 miles per hour, words and scenarios running through my head like an old reel of film with no order or sequence. I’m overwhelmed. But yes, I’m okay.

My stomach is tight, a ball of elastic bands all twisted and stretched, ready to break. I’m a piece of porcelain, fragile and balancing on the edge, ready to fall. But yes, I’m okay.

I’m exhausted from the routine of having to put a fake smile on my face when my grief is suffocating me, pulling me under the water like a wave that just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I’m swimming against the tide. But yes, I’m okay.

I feel nothing some days and everything all at once. My auto-pilot is switched on but sometimes the switch trips and I’m thrown off course, like a train that’s come off it’s rails. But yes, I’m okay.

How do I explain in words that make sense to you that some days I feel like I’m drowing? Yet I’m pulling myself up to the surface. I keep afloat somehow. But yes, I’m okay.

Somedays I’m hurting. Somedays I’m a bit broken. Somedays I’m a bit lost.

But yes, I’m okay… I guess?

 

 

 

‘How do I become a journalist without a degree?’

I was fifteen when I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I bloody loved the news. I would wake up at 5:30 most mornings to watch it with my dad before school. I also had a fascination for documentaries. Louis Theroux was my icon and I longed to tell stories the way he did it, with empathy and curiosity for everyone he spoke to. It was my mum who taught me that everyone has a story. Since becoming a journalist, no truer word has been said. My passion is for story-telling and for people. 

I didn’t know if I was ever going to get here. I wasn’t traditionally academic in school and I don’t think many of my teachers thought I’d make anything of myself. I was the quiet and slightly strange girl at the back of the classroom who’d rather daydream whilst looking out of the window than read another chapter of ‘An Inspector Calls’.

The truth is, I didn’t really ‘fit in’. I wasn’t even one of those teenagers who’d say they were ‘misfits’ but were actually really cool and mysterious with their box-dyed hair and facial piercings. I was actually painfully uncool.

I wasn’t smart enough to hang out with the nerds and I wasn’t bad enough to hang out with the rebellious kids. I was a wallflower, and not of my own choosing. I’d learned it was better to keep quiet and be ‘undetectable’ as not to draw too much attention. Children can be cruel sometimes and I learned the hard way in middle school. 

I didn’t do well in my GCSEs. Unfortunately, my high school would often nurture highly gifted children. You know, the ones who were going to sail through their exams regardless of how many extra hours of tuition they received in after school club.

Children like me were encouraged less and so, we spent much of our school years wondering if we were actually any good at anything or if we had talents at all.

I scraped just enough passes to go to the sixth form, and although it was a bit more independent in comparison to school, it still felt like I was in the same system, my knowledge, and understanding of the world questioned in an exam hall, compared against hundreds of other young people who didn’t learn the same way I did. 

I was quite disruptive and argumentative during my first year of A levels. My teachers would often write home with words of warning, informing my parents that I had a bad attitude to learning or was too opinionated during classes. I was actually just finding my voice after years of feeling unconfident and awkward, blending into the background.

And surprise, I failed my A Levels. At that point, I’d written myself off as being awful at exams. Nobody has encouraged me to be better. I didn’t consider myself to be academic or ‘smart’. I just couldn’t do it, or so I thought.

Looking back, it was actually a blessing in disguise. I started searching for journalism courses in local colleges, still determined to get to where I wanted to be. I found a creative media course which offered journalism as a unit. For the first time in a long time, I was excited about education. This was probably the first time I remember a teacher seeing real potential in me (apart from my Maths teacher Mr. Coleman from middle school and my form tutor Mrs.Ewing who were both proper Gs). I felt like I’d finally found something I was really good at. I felt like I had a purpose. 

In those two years, I was inspired to learn about the industry and encouraged to achieve more than I’d thought myself capable of. I still remember the day my tutor turned to me and said; “Georgia, if anyone can do it, you can” (Big up Jonathan). I still think about that moment when I’m full of doubt and imposter syndrome creeps in like some shadowy menace hanging over my shoulder. I learned a lot from that place. I learned to film productions and take professional photos. I learned to write and script articles. I even became one of the editors for the college magazine. It wasn’t long before I was being encouraged to apply for universities and take the next step, an option I thought I’d never have when I looked at those A-Level exam results the previous year. 

Sadly, in my last few months of college, the worst thing happened. My younger brother Elliot died suddenly and unexpectedly. It tore my life apart in an instant. Everything took a back seat and I didn’t know if I’d survive the year, let alone go to university.

Although I’d passed my college course with the grades I needed to get into Salford, my chosen university, I wasn’t in the right mindset to live away from home. I could barely get on a bus without having a panic attack at this point.

In hindsight, I should have taken a year out but I felt a pressure to go, thinking it was what people expected of me. I had it in my head it was the only way I could become a journalist.

I pushed myself on to a course at a local university so I could still live at home and be near my family. The course hours were sporadic and the entire experience was lonely as most of the people on my course had met during freshers week or lived on campus, so had seen each other around. It felt like school all over again. I needed routine, support, and stability. I also needed to be around people, to talk to other human beings on a regular basis.

I dropped out of the course a few months later and I felt like such a failure. I’d been placing all my hopes for the future on this one opportunity, and it had come crashing down on my head like a tonne of bricks. I felt my vision for the future slip from my grasp and felt I had to let it go. I was never going to become a journalist without a degree.

The next year or so, I got some odd jobs doing social media marketing for small, local businesses, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long term. It was all about the money and the creativity was limited. During that time I decided I didn’t want to give up on becoming a journalist. I set up this small blog, writing a few articles on a weekly basis which focused on mental health, grief, and wellbeing. 

It wasn’t long before I was writing articles for Huffington Post and my blog posts were picked up by local newspapers and eventually, the local BBC radio station Three Counties. The lunchtime presenter, Nick Coffer, invited me for an interview on his show to talk about my writing as well as my experience with grief. Whilst I was there, he encouraged me to sign up for work experience. Nick could see I was knowledgable and passionate about the local community, so he put me in touch with the news editor who told me how to apply online. 

I spent two weeks at the radio station in 2016, getting to know the newsroom and the different teams on the shows and I loved it from the moment I stepped in the door. I knew this was where I belonged.

After my two weeks had come to an end, I was told I should sign up to the freelance pool as a Broadcast Assistant as it was nearing the summer holidays and lots of the staff needed cover. I freelanced for a few months, working as a BA on the afternoon and mid-morning shows.

Whilst I was there, the BBC’s Digital Journalist Apprenticeship was advertised. It meant I could get my journalism qualification and train with the BBC. I submitted my application knowing hundreds of people would be applying for the same opportunity, but I wanted it so badly I was willing to work my ass off to get there. I became a dog with a bone I wasn’t going to let go. I was going to do it all off my own back, no matter what.

I remember the day I got one of the seven places available. After the phone call, I asked myself ‘is this really happening? Am I really going to get a job working for the BBC?’. It was a real ‘pinch me’ moment and it seemed a long way from the memory of thinking I’d have to say goodbye to the career I’d always hoped for. I’d somehow overcome the obstacles.

I trained up for 22 months in local radio, studying for my NCTJ exams (the ones I thought I could never do) and got a gold standard certificate at the end of my course. During that time I made hours of digital and radio content, learning from some of the best journalists in the industry who taught me so much and supported me through my studies. My confidence grew. I went from someone who couldn’t leave the house to traveling around the country and interviewing strangers on the street about their lucky pants.

Since then, I’ve worked for Radio 4’s Today programme, getting a daily podcast commissioned as well as reporting and producing episodes for the award-nominated Beyond Today. I’m currently a producer on a BBC News podcast for youth audiences, and I work in London, a statement I never thought I’d say a few years ago.

I’m from a working-class background. I went to a mainstream comprehensive school. I wasn’t privately educated and none of my family were either. I didn’t know if journalism was for people like me, but it is. The industry needs people like us, people who can speak for working-class communities and shine a light on issues which are sometimes overlooked. It needs people who come from deprived areas or places with a bad press because we have the ability to change perceptions, to gain people’s trust and tell their stories. We grew up in those communities. 

So, if you’re reading this and you want to become a journalist, don’t give up because you think it ‘isn’t for you’. Don’t ever think you don’t deserve to be here or it’s too late to try. As long as you’re passionate and determined to get there, you’ll succeed. 

Don’t get me wrong, some days I still doubt myself and wonder if I’m good enough, but doesn’t everyone? I just have to remind myself how far I’ve come.

Just remember, you’ve got this!

Is social media affecting young people’s mental health?

A recent report by The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Youth Health Movement has revealed the social media sites which are having the most negative impact on young people’s mental health.

Like brushing your teeth or eating your lunch, social media has quickly become a part of our day to day routine.

Many of us can’t go an hour without checking our Facebook feed or snapping a picture for Instagram. This has never been more true for the younger generation in our society.

There are 400 million daily active users on Instagram, 1.15 billion on Facebook and Snapchat has now hit 200 million users with the majority aged between 18 to 29.

The report entitled #StatusofMind looks at the positive and negative effects social media has on young people’s health and wellbeing.

It is based on a survey of almost 1,500 teenagers and young people aged 14 to 24 from all across the UK. The report shows how each social media platform scored in 14 factors relating to young people’s health and wellbeing.

The factors included issues such as anxiety, depression, sleep, self-identity, bullying and body image.

Based on these ratings the survey found that Youtube was the most positive social media platform whilst Instagram was rated as the most negative.

1.) Youtube

2.) Twitter

3.) Facebook

4.) Snapchat

5.) Instagram

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, said: “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.”

She said her charity wants to promote and encourage positive aspects of networking platforms and avoid a situation that leads to social media psychosis which may blight the lives of young people.

On average, 11–18 year-olds spend over 11 hours per day exposed to electronic media (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010).

Hannah Baron is a senior clinical psychologist with the charity Chums who offer mental health and emotional wellbeing services to children, young people, adults and families across Luton and Bedfordshire.

Hannah says: “The development of social media is very much in its own stage of adolescence and given this we do not have a vast array of research from which to draw upon. Despite this, there is growing awareness that although there are opportunities, there are also numerous risks from social media to adolescent mental health and development.

“As we have known for a long time, adolescence is a stage of many changes with a focus on identity formation, social connection and independence. Some studies have pointed to a detrimental impact on self-esteem and confidence with constant comparisons being available for the teenager to access.”

She says that despite these claims there is much more that needs to be done to fully explore the impact that social media can have on the developing brain and we need to remain mindful of supporting adolescents with their use of social media and helping them to safely navigate the networking world.

 Will this research change the way you see social media?

The Inbetweeners of Mental Health

The ‘inbetweeners’ of mental health. They’re young people in the transition stage between childhood and adult mental health services. It is the point in which an existing or newly referred patient (over the age of 16 or 18) is transferred to adult services.

The UK’s leading charity in improving young people’s mental health services, YoungMinds, is currently campaigning to improve transition care from child and adolescent mental health services to adult services, preventing young people from getting ‘lost in the system’.

And there are many who are being left in the dark when it comes to receiving the support they need from mental health services.

Did you know that when young people reach the age of 16 or 17, they are no longer eligible for support from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service)?

But more worrying is that they are often much too young or do not meet the strict criteria to be referred to AMHS (Adult Mental Health Services) as they may be classed as ‘not ill enough’.

So where does that leave the ‘inbetweeners’?

It puts them in a position where, ultimately, they are not able to access any of the services that could help them on their way to recovery. This is a dangerous position to be in for any young person suffering from mental illness.

So why do these issues occur exactly? And what could be done to change them?

First of all, the criteria for support through AMHS is very different to that of CAMHS. AMHS point of entry for treatment is a lot more difficult to meet than CAMHS in regards to the severity of the individual’s mental health. For example, AMHS will often only intervene when a young person has reached a crisis point or are deemed as a danger to themselves or others while those under 16 will often be referred to CAMHS before their illness advances to such stages.

As mentioned in my previous blog, this is where early intervention is key and can not only save a young person’s life but would prevent a young person from having to access more advanced mental health services (such as inpatient facilities) at a later age. If these services and resources are offered to a young person as soon as issues surface, they are able to better equip themselves with the techniques or methods they need to prevent a relapse in their mental health in the future.

This current gap in young people’s mental health care is very worrying and an issue many may not be aware of unless they themselves have tried to gain access. Young people who are no longer able to access CAMHS are waiting long periods of time to reach the correct age for AMSH services, which can’t start until the individual reaches 18.

This huge gap and subsequently, further delays in referral can mean many young people ‘give up’ on transitioning to adult services and therefore never get the treatment they need, having a huge effect on their future mental wellbeing with potentially dangerous consequences. Young people are in essence ’disappearing’ from these services and falling off the radar.

There is also the added funding stress on the NHS, with services in particular areas receiving less funding in mental health services than others, meaning fewer funds for each patient and therefore a lower referral rate. There is a variation from county to county as to what age is classed as eligible for transfer to adult services also. For example, a 16-year-old may transfer to AMHS if they are no longer within full-time education. If they are still in education, they will often not be transferred until they are 18 years of age, showing a contradiction between counties within the NHS.

These young people are being passed from pillar to post. A lack of communication is also present between the two services. Neither CAMHS nor AMHS appears to be making the effort to work in line with each other. This leads to information not being passed between the two mental health services and therefore, many young people will have to undergo another assessment before entering treatment. Understandably, this can also be quite traumatic for a young person.

These services need to provide continuity and routine for already venerable young people.

Between the ages of 16 to 18, young people with mental health are probably at their most venerable. They are often making important decisions about their education. Should they stay for further education or apply for an apprenticeship?

They will often have to make more intense life decisions about relationships and friendships as well.

So why, at their most venerable, are they being turned away from the support they need more than ever?

It’s a frustrating and worrying time for both young people and parents when they are left in this limbo period, often feeling as though their concerns are not being heard or ‘don’t matter’.

The Government invested £54 million in improving young people’s mental health services between 2011 and 2015. Yet young people are still not getting access to the services they need.

Have you or your child experienced the gap in services? How do you think the NHS could improve on this?

Leave me a comment!

Resources: 

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/children-and-young-people/

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jul/29/chilld-and-adolescent-mental-health-service-failing-children

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/about-us/what-are-we-doing/children-and-young-people

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/

Georgia 

Mental health and young people: Is there a lack of support?

CentreForum, the independent think-tank, published a report which revealed that nearly a quarter of children and teenagers on average are turned away by mental health services after being referred by their GP’s, teachers, or others.

CentreForum found that this was due to services having ‘high thresholds’ for access to their services, revealed after analysis of the service’s eligibility criteria.

In the report, CentreForum stated that these high thresholds for treatment eligibility prevent one of the most effective forms of mental health treatment for young people- early intervention.

It was also found that young people were waiting for prolonged periods of time to access treatment with the average of the longest waiting times being almost 10 months between the first GP/school referral and the beginning of their treatment. This, along with a lack of funding for mental health services in certain areas of the UK shows a worrying escalation in the support offered to young people suffering from mental illness.

This report has been released in the same week that a UK bereavement charity pushed for a full investigation by the Government into the way deaths of young people in mental health units are recorded. An inquest suggested that nine young people had died within inpatient mental health facilities since 2010.

This only solidifies that there is a considerable lack of support for young people suffering from mental illness.

Early intervention is key.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses suffered by children and teenagers will often be present at a young age. Certain behavior such as a change in sleeping patterns, irritability, loss of interest in certain activities, and withdrawal from socialisation can often be clear indications of a young person who is carrying the black dog. Some people may question whether this is just the behaviour of a typical teenager. But this behaviour will often extend to prolonged periods of time with little to no change in mood.

This will often affect a young person’s school or college life, resulting in low grades, bad behaviour, or low attendance. These warning signs should be a clear indication that further investigation is needed.

Intervening as soon as a problem is spotted can allow schools to offer the right support and advice for the affected young person as soon as possible. All too often, a young person who has suffered from mental illness will have gone throughout their school life with little to no mental wellbeing support. I know of quite a few young adults who suffer from depression or anxiety and have done from a young age, yet never had anyone listen to their issues or offer support which could have allowed them to receive the treatment they needed much earlier.

Is it a lack of funding? Or a higher demand?

The reality is that figures show funding levels for NHS mental health care in England have dropped by 2 percent in recent years. This lack of funding leads to long waiting lists and less accessibility to the services, which are desperately needed to prevent the potential suicide and self-harm of young people. It also puts a strain on charities that rely solely on donations to provide young people support such as Samaritans and Child Line.

There is also a higher demand for these services due to the rise in mental illness in young people. Statistics by YoungMinds.org.uk show that young people between the ages of 15 to 16 with depression doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s, showing there is a constant increase in the number of young people being diagnosed with mental health issues. This could be due to a lack of knowledge in previous years or maybe just the way our society has changed its views on mental health. Regardless of what has caused this higher demand for services, these resources need to be available to prevent an increase in suicide levels in adulthood as well as self-harm in young people, which is believed to affect 13 percent of children and teenagers between the ages of 11 to 16.

We shouldn’t have to lose a young person due to a lack of support and funding for life-saving services.

If you have been affected by the topics discussed in this post, please contact the following organisations for support:

Mind 

Young Minds 

Parents or teachers in Bedfordshire.

Georgia OX

 

Guest Post: Kelly from ‘This is Only my Opinion’ on Surviving Grief

‘I don’t know how you do it?’

This is a phrase I hear quite often. I suppose it’s because I don’t keep Louis, Corey and Elliot a sordid secret. I speak their names as I would my living children and this then triggers curiosity and subtle questioning about what happened to these three little boys I speak so highly of.

‘I don’t know how you do it?’ makes it sound like something I’ve strived to achieve an accolade for when this path was not a choice I would willingly take. It’s the cards I’ve been dealt. Surviving the journey of stillbirth and neonatal death has been one hell of a ride!

When someone dies you pretty much expect to be upset. You expect to cry, and you expect to feel sad. But what is difficult to compute and unexpected is that sometimes these emotions don’t happen or display themselves the way we predict them to and then you start wondering ‘what’s wrong with me?’and the answer is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

The days after Elliot’s death and the run-up to his funeral, I did nothing but cry. I cried so many god damn tears I am sure my tears had tears. But then something happened and I just stopped. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry at all for weeks after and I would look at myself and get angry, willing myself to cry because my heart ached and I wasn’t ready to stop crying. When I am crying the world knows I am breaking, people can see my anguish and they can see from the tears that I’m crying, that I am still grieving.

The parts of grief that you don’t foresee and often don’t anticipate when your child dies is the anger, guilt, blame, bitterness, hatred, the failure, self-persecution and the time.

Grief needs to be treated with respect, and grief requires patience from the person grieving but equally from those around you. It is in times of great hardship that friendships and relationships are challenged to the brink. Those that fall short ‘unfriend’ from Facebook, ‘evict’ from your insta, and ‘abolish’ from your twitter. You need to make life easy for yourself because you have been thrown one of the ultimate tests and the deadwood will only drag you down. Don’t be scared of what they might say when they’ve realised you aren’t popping up in their news feed because believe me, they won’t say a thing because people really don’t like to confront a grieving mother, and that’s because they never know what face they’ll be greeted with. They might get ‘sobbing and bawling uncontrollably face’, or ‘knock your fecking teeth out’ face!

When my twins died in the neonatal unit, I felt the most extreme level of failure, my body had failed them. I had failed them.

They died because my body rejected them in their prematurity, blaming myself stifled any grief I felt. I was angry and bitter. This surge of anger and bitterness was ‘silently’ directed at any other woman that had children, was carrying children and if the children happened to be twins, my anger and bitterness would be elevated to levels where anxiety would take over and my breathing would be erratic. My stomach would hurt, and I would begin to panic and sweat and start looking for the nearest brown paper bag that I could breathe into to stop me passing out into a heap in the middle of the frozen isle.

I dealt with losing my twin boys by getting pregnant as quickly as possible. There are no hard fast rules about when to have another baby after loss. You just have to trust your body and do what is best for you. Hindsight tells me now that maybe it was a little too soon because upon reflection I can now see that all I did was metaphorically cover my grief with a plaster, and a plaster doesn’t stay stuck forever.

The plaster came unstuck when in 2012 I found out Elliot had grown his wings at 38 weeks gestation. My world crashed into 1000 pieces. Elliot had exposed an old wound and their names were Louis and Corey. Not only was I grieving for my stillborn son but for my premature twins that had passed 7 years before. I had no idea what was ahead of me, but I knew I had to be strong for my other children and for my husband. But by being strong and maintaining a stoic stance I masked my own grief.

It took months of people telling me I needed some help, that I might benefit from counselling. Sadly I am one of those people that find it very hard to listen to other people telling me what to do, this trait has followed me since school to my detriment.

Everything had finally snowballed and I was treading water and slowly drowning in a sea of grief.

I had denied myself grief; I had hidden my emotions and suppressed my feelings because I wanted to be strong for everyone else.

I hated myself and I loathed every part of my person, I did not feel worthy to have my husband or my living children. I thought they would be happier without me. I believed that I was a tainted and if people got close to me bad things would happen. Only now I am accepting of my grief and I understand and respect that grief is part of me now. I also realise how utterly absurd it was to think my children would be better off without me, they are my kids and I am their mum, and as nutty, crazy and broken I am they love me, and I love them, warts and all and that includes my ever so slightly grumpy, kind, sometimes funny husband! There is no replacement for ME to them. (Even if Rachel Weisz came along singing nursery rhymes by day and wearing a ‘sexy nurse maids’ outfit by night ….I HOPE!)

My husband is such an important part of my story and every time we lost and buried a child I felt completely and utterly responsible for his pain and my failure to yet provide him with another son and this manifested itself in blame. I would blame him for loving me, blame him for marrying me and blame him for choosing me to have children with, because if none of that happened, he wouldn’t have a life filled with grief and disappointment because his wife failed to do the most natural thing in the world. If he didn’t choose me maybe I would have been liberated from this feeling of failure and self-loathing too.  His grief displayed itself the polar opposite to mine and his continual effort to tell me he loved me and needed me, and that he doesn’t blame me just suffocated me.

We were like two magnets trying to be together but repelling against each other’s energy.

My grief engulfed me and it affected my marriage, my children, my family and my life. I almost lost everything!

So my message for surviving grief after a loss is to not fight against it. Let it do its job, be led by grief and feel the emotions as they come because resistance is futile and detrimental to the survival of bereavement.

I have accessed a great deal of counselling to get where I am today and one of the most helpful things I ever did as part of my therapy was writing. It’s helped me in so many ways. One day I wrote a letter to my guilt because guilt was draining my soul. This letter encompasses everything I felt.

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