‘I felt comfortable in a place that understood mental health’

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The government has set a target of getting one million more people with disabilities, including with mental ill health, into work by 2027. A unique NHS job taster programme is leading the way.

Ash, 32, has depression, anxiety and an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but he’s great at his job and passionate about his new career in administration at Kent & Medway NHS Partnership Trust. Safety Management talked to Ash and the occupational therapist who helped him through a turbulent time in his life.

“I was diagnosed in my late 20s with bipolar, autism and unstable personality disorder with traits of OCD. But all my life I’ve suffered with anxiety. School was difficult, social situations were difficult. You find your coping mechanisms, but it’s only until you have a bit of a wobble, then you think ‘no, I really need some help.’

“My last job was with a massive retail company. It was all about figures and never about the people it employed. You try and talk to someone, to say ‘you know I’m finding this difficult, I can’t catch up’, and the answer is basically, ‘you need to’.

“The more I got worried about it, the more I got behind with my work, and then the more the pressure was put on me, it was just a spiral": Ash, 32

“I went to the doctors and was signed off work, but work were still asking me ‘can you come in, can you do this?’ but I wasn’t in a good place.

“It was around this time that my care co-ordinator referred me to group therapy. I was very anxious about going, so the first few sessions were really difficult, but then you could see everyone was nervous too. This was just what I needed. When you’re not well you retreat into yourself, so to actually get me out of the house and socialise with other people, discussing how I felt, that really helped. The course leaders were fantastic, they just encouraged you to talk about things, they never pressured you. Through the group, I was put in touch with the vocational rehabilitation service at KMPT.

“I was given 12 weeks’ work as part of the job taster programme in an administration role within the mental health team.

“I felt comfortable knowing that I was in a place that understood mental health. I think that’s what I found really helpful, so I never had to hide my condition.

“After the 12 weeks was up I didn’t want to go, but I managed to get an interview for a part time admin support role which I’ll be starting soon. I’m in a good place now. I never thought that I’d do admin work, I always thought I wouldn’t be able to sit still, wouldn’t be able to concentrate, but it’s really good.

“I think it’s really important for companies to be clued up on mental health. A lot of the time when you mention to people about mental health you can literally see the panic in their eyes, they’re thinking ‘I don’t know what to do with this’. It is discussed and talked about a lot more now, but it’s still a bit of a taboo subject.

I think, if companies look for signs people are struggling it would really help if plans were in place to help make someone feel that little bit more comfortable. I was really surprised that at such a big organisation I worked for there was nothing, it was just literally ‘you’re struggling, okay, fine, go off work, done. There was no question of how can we help you, is there anything we can put into place?

“I’ve got to a point now where I’m happy to say yes, I have mental ill health. I am lucky enough to have come out  the other side, but I do think it should be discussed more.

“I’ve been to the Houses of Parliament to speak to MPs about the job taster programme. KMPT is the only trust that offers it so, they’re trying to roll it out across the NHS as it’s had such a high success rate. It would be nice for it to go further than that because obviously there’s only so much the NHS can offer with regards to jobs, so for it to roll out to other organisations would be fantastic.”

Jeanette Freeman, Specialist practitioner at Kent and Medway NHS Social Care Partnership Trust

We are incredibly passionate about our service and how participating in meaningful and healthy work is key in enhancing someone’s mental health recovery.

As an occupational therapist by profession, I have worked for the Vocational Rehabilitation Team within KMPT as a specialist and lead for six years. Our service forms part of the core services provided by the trust and is designed to meet the employment needs of individuals with secondary mental health problems including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Historically, people with mental ill health may have remained in unpaid voluntary work, unable to gain paid employment by either lack of confidence, stigma or employers not having the support to help maintain someone’s wellbeing. 

We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to be paid to work and the Vocational Rehabilitation team are part of a team helping to make that happen in Kent and Medway.  Our unique service adopts the evidenced based Individualised Placement with Support approach and is hugely successful in enabling people to return to paid work within the competitive job market. In fact, in the last year we have supported more than 200 people to return to paid work. 

Jeanette (far left) and Ash (second from right) with others from the NHS job taster programme

 Our Job Taster Programme enables our clients to undertake a period of twelve weeks’ work experience within our trust.  They get the opportunity to taste what it’s like returning to work and be in a normal working environment, whilst being supported by the team and their colleagues around them. It is a hugely successful programme and the majority of participants go on to secure paid work. Ash is a fantastic example. 

Ash wanted to gain experience and skills within an administrative role and was an ideal candidate for the Job Taster Programme where he thrived and like many of our clients, was consequently transferred from secondary mental health services to his GP. 

Having worked within this specialist role for over six years, it is clear how healthy work enhances someone’s mental health. We know that work is a fundamental aspect of a person’s life and unemployment can have a catastrophic effect on an individual with mental ill health. Along with the financial strain of unemployment, people often lose their social work connections, can become isolated and experience a loss of identity and purpose in life.

A key function of occupational therapy (OT) is to support individuals to participate in work. We truly believe that OT should be at the frontline of vocational and employment services within communities, helping people to return to work.

What do I wish employers would do as a first course action? Create an environment in the work place that allows employees the freedom to talk about their mental health problems from the point of recruitment is absolutely crucial. 

This may include forming a network of Mental Health Champions, staff with lived mental health experience, to provide support and guidance to colleagues at the right time and in the right place with the aim of reducing mental health decline. 

Those with lived experience are the experts.  Across KMPT, we actively recruit people who have experienced mental ill health first hand to the role of Peer Support Workers, an incredible valuable role that provides vital support to our patients. As a result, KMPT is leading in the employment of those with lived experience. Something we are incredibly proud of.

More about Kent and Medway NHS Social Care Partnership Trust's job taster programme here

Getting my life back: occupational therapy promoting mental health and wellbeing, a Royal College of Occupational Therapists report here 


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