Graduate Stories: How my career combines physical activity and mental health

Carol NEM

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

I was always into sports particularly track and field, PE was probably the only lesson at school I didn't mess around in. I enjoyed the team aspect as well as coaching and motivating people. At Leyton Sixth Form College in East London I did my A level’s in Physical  Education as well as Biology and English Literature and Language. I had the opportunity to represent my college at the 2007 London Youth games in weightlifting- gaining a silver medal! Just before I started university, I worked at a weight loss camp in the Lake District for teenagers where I discovered how much I loved the outdoors and nutrition. I also played Rugby at University of Salford and volunteered in various sports and community roles. Now I work as a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner for a physical and mental health organisation.

You did really well on the programme. Are there any tips that you could give prospective students?

Writing essays at university level for me felt like a big jump from college, I don’t think I quite mastered it and I wish I made more use of the essay writing workshops on offer or got another student to review my work or even did word of the day to expand my vocabulary. My next tip is to volunteer; get involved in the community in any way you can. Without my community links I do not think I would have enjoyed university life and it would have been too disconnected to how I would have been able to use my qualification and been less prepared for future employment.

What did you find the most challenging aspect(s) of being at University and how did you overcome the problems you faced?

Financial difficulties and mental health. For the financial aspect I fortunately was able to get a part time job through the university and with the help of another student. Being opened with my family about finances also helped. If you can find a side hustle- great. For my mental health and wellbeing my outlet was sports, physical activity and using talking therapies within the university. I also found that being open with family and friends for help reduced certain situations spiralling out of control. This was another reason why I decided my placement on a mental health ward.

What did you enjoy the most on the programme?

The group work, learning about nutrition, especially in the lab setting which I was surprised about as it got very technical. It was useful to also have speakers come in from external organisations.

You completed a placement in your final year. Can you tell us about this experience?

That was really fun and enjoyable. I ran a chair-based exercise session on a mental health ward in Bolton. The ward was incredible welcoming and supportive in facilitating the sessions. I think this was because the aims of the sessions was communicated well and I had some flexibility with university in working around the activity coordinator to deliver the sessions. However, some of the difficulties of maintaining the sessions and encouraging new behaviour with the patients gave me a good insight to real life work. By working in a new area of Greater Manchester some of the health inequalities profiles that had been discussed at lectures in university came to life.

Can you tell us about what you have been doing since graduation?

I graduated in 2011 and I was fortunate to be supported by a local community interest company – Social Adventures to run my own food and fitness project. I did this with a friend who also graduated off the same course as me. From there I progressed to be a Wellbeing Coach using Motivational Interviewing to support residents in Salford on a variety of behaviour changes difficulties. I have worked in various roles within community development, physical activity and mental health. The two most notable ones were working on the second phase on the pilot project ‘This Girl Can’ in Bury (called ‘I Will If You Will’). I was an Assistant Relationship Officer which consisted of me supporting stakeholders to promote the campaign, working with local organisations to create a physical activity provision for women and girls, enabling organisation to meet their targets and directing groups to write bids. It also involved recruiting and supporting numerous volunteers.

My previous role was a Sports and Physical Activity Coordinator for Rochdale and District Mind, this was humbling as I was able to co-produce women’s only swimming lessons for a group of asylum seekers and refugees who had high anxiety around water due to past experience as well as run swimming lessons for older South Asian men who also had never learnt to swim. This inspired me to gain my swimming instructor qualification. I hope to be able to put into use particularly for adults.

Congratulations on securing your role as a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at Vita Health Group in Physical Health Services. Can you tell us a little more about that? What does the role involve?

Thank you. It’s great to work for an organisation that combines physical and mental health. Being a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) is very full on. I complete many mental health assessments with adults who are primarily experiencing mild to moderate anxiety and depression. However, it can include assessing for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Phobia’s and any past trauma that may be affecting them today. It’s my role with the support of supervision to make sound clinical decisions about where in the ‘Stepped Care’ model will be most appropriate for the patient. Assessments can range from 30 minutes to 90 minutes depending on level of risk is involved, the use of an interpreter or the complexity or distress present at assessment.

I also deliver Low Intensity Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) based treatments via telephone, video, online and webinars. I provide information for evidence-based techniques to patients to challenge their unhelpful thinking, behaviours and change how they interpret their physical sensations. I guide patients while they use these techniques and help set realistic goals and review it with them along the way. This can include supporting a student overcome panic attacks so that are able to engage in the studies, a GP with a specific phobia of small spaces so that they feel that they can take their children out or an unemployed individual overcome feelings of low mood and motivation so that there is an improvement in their relationships and daily routine.

My particular area of interest is the pathways for perinatal, long-term conditions and Ethnic Minorities (I’m aware that the terms for BAME is under question so I’m not sure what the best term is to use now!)

What are your long-term ambitions? Do you have any plans or ideas?

I would still like to stay within physical activity and mental health particularly with adults. I would like to progress within my PWP role to a Senior one where I get the opportunity to be involved in service developments and training for the PWP team. Long-term I may want to set something up again which would include the use of outdoors to promote mental wellbeing and physical activity or return to a Project Manager/Coordinator role for various Public Health Initiatives. Out of all the roles I have had, I enjoy the ones that included community mapping, identifying gaps, putting behaviour change theories into practice and collaborating with organisations and the community to develop specific provisions. I still enjoy the 1:1’s and group work, I would still like that to feature in my list of responsibilities but definitely on a smaller scale. I think one of the skills that I want to develop more is report writing. I do sometimes play with the idea of leading a group exercise again, I hope that also makes a comeback in my list of responsibilities; particularly with teaching swimming. But who knows? Ask me again in three years!