As a Mental Health First Aider the role is to signpost the different types of mental health support available. Whether that be through professionals, or through other supports including family, friends, proactive wellbeing and self help.

IAPT, or Improving Access To Psychological Therapies is one of the options we have in our country through the NHS to seek the help we need. It is a self-referral which means we can bypass the need to visit a GP and self-refer. This could be a huge barrier overcome for many given the challenges some people face when trying to book a GP appointment.

Simply Google ‘IAPT NHS’ and you will find an online form with a free form box to describe your symptoms and a questionnaire. It really doesn’t take long to complete. Once you have submitted the referral online you will receive a call to book a telephone assessment. This can all be arranged and completed within days. So no lengthy waiting times.

If it is deemed that psychological support such as CBT or counselling could be beneficial for you, you then have the option to complete weekly in person or via an online programme depending on the support you need. I will share my personal experience later in this blog. But first I want to touch on the term ‘mental health.’

What is mental health?

Our mental health covers a full spectrum. The term does not refer solely to mental ill health. It is the good, the bad and everything in between. It is about our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviours. All of these things are part of being human. And just as our physical selves can become unwell, our minds may not always function optimally either.

When we look at mental illness there are so many different conditions. Levels of severity. And we may also go through periods where we struggle, but without having a diagnosable condition. Sometimes what we experience is a perfectly natural response to something that has happened, other times it can seem like it has come out of nowhere. It may be down to brain chemistry, hormones or genetics. No matter which aspect you look at, it is all a part of being human.

No stigma

There really should be no stigma. The more people talk openly and honestly about their experiences, increases the likelihood of the individual receiveing support, and the less alone those who are struggling will feel.

Because let’s face it, the likelihood is every one of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lifetimes.

Discouraging headlines

In today’s world we are continually exposed to headlines such as “demand for mental health support soars” “dejevted and desperate” (in reference to mental health patients) “wait times leave people on the brink”

I believe it is these unhelpful headlines which play a part in the belief of the general populations that there is no support available for people who are struggling.

These headlines can also prevent people accessing early intervention because they reinforces the belief there isn’t support available for those really struggling, therefore could encourage people with early symptoms that they shouldn’t be seeking help.

And this is why it is even more important we work hard to talk about and share some resources which are available. As very often people don’t know many sources of support are even available or that they exist.

Early Intervention

I absolutely acknowledge that in some circumstances the support is inadequate and I know personally of people who have had not great experiences. I also appreciate that some people will need some very specific support or they are experiencing very severe symptoms. This blog is not aimed to be a catch all positive solution.

This blog is to highlight the importance of early intervention. The importance of empowering people to feel able to seek help early. And to highlight some of the amazing services and support we do have. And here is my personal experience.

Personal Experience

For a while I had been experiencing some very physical symptoms of anxiety. Palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pains and tingling. As well as feeling on edge. Unable to relax- at all. And quite snappy as a result. Doing what I do, training people to spot the signs, I knew they were there. Yet I didn’t FEEL anxious. I didn’t feel worried. I wasn’t overthinking. Even knowing what I know and the importance of early intervention I still experienced these thoughts “it will go once I’ve got passed this busy week” “I don’t need help”there are others out there much worse than me” “I’m still managing to look after myself, my family and work it’s not that bad” It wasn’t easy I’ll be honest to practice what I preach.

Ease of Access

The IAPT self referral was easy to access. Much easier than going through the process of booking a GP appointment. (I also know had I gone down that route there would have been too many opportunities for me to talk myself out of it too!)

Quick Support

I was really pleasantly surprised at how quick the process was. An online form which didn’t take long to complete, I did this one weekend. By Monday morning I had received a phone call to book an initial assessment over the phone.

The phone assessment was great (and booked within a couple of days- I could have had a next day appointment had I not already had a diary commitment) because it allowed me to expand on some of my responses in the online questionnaire and sense check how I had categorised some things. I also found I had under reported the impact some of my symptoms were having so it was really useful to chat this through. The appointment can take up to 45 minutes.

It was deemed that CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) could be helpful for me and I was given the option of 121 support with a therapist, or to complete online via a programme. Purely because of the flexibility an online programme allowed I took that option.

So far so good

I am not far through completion of the programme but I can already see the positive impact it is having and the awareness I have as well as finding ways to manage my symptoms.

With the online programme you also have a supporter- a real person who checks in on your progress. Really great that the accountability is built in. They can see your responses if you choose to share that information with them.

I opted for online as due to the nature of my work I would struggle to commit to a weekly appointment. For me the online option provided me with the flexibility.

Even with the online option you are assigned a supporter who you can share your work with as you work through the programme. You can also leave messages for your supporter for when they check in with your progress each week. So while it is self-led, you are not fully alone which really helps with the accountability and progress through the programme.

Some of the things which are covered within the programme

There are lots of helpful practical tools and resources as well as education and information. The mood journal is great at helping you look at patterns over time and also identify what triggered the mood. Taking the time out to pause and take notice is also really beneficial. It forms a break away from auto pilot, which is where I believe that struggles can really escalate, often without us realising.

The practical tools which can be used daily to help you manage your symptoms are also really helpful. Breathing is a topic which is covered and I like how it explains why it works, not just how to do it.

Don’t wait for things to get really bad

Even doing what I do and encouraging others to seek help early, in practice it took me longer than I would have thought to seek the help I needed. I still had those little voices saying “it’s not real” “it’ll pass” “you don’t need professional help.” AND if I am really honest writing this blog has been much scarier than I thought too. No matter what your views and beliefs are now, it just shows those narratives from past experiences are so ingrained within us. Those messages that stick “it’s a sign of weakness” “you can’t cope.” I have been really surprised  at how strong these were for me. Stigma does exist, which may be in the form of self stigma.

It was important to put my vulnerable self out there because if I can help just one person feel inspired (not sure that is the right word) to access early support, it will be worth it.

Already, just a few weeks in I am feeling so much better. I am learning new techniques and taking time to pause and reflect on what works. I am starting to understand what my triggers are which will be helpful for me to manage in the future, not just to help me feel better right now.

The sooner we can encourage people to access support the better.

Overview

In summary here are some of the pros and cons of IAPT

PROS

  • Really really quick access to help
  • Helps you to pause, think and reflect
  • Nip it in the bud
  • Tools and resources to use beyond the programme
  • Understand yourself better and practical ways to deal with anxiety
  • Non-judgemental support (particularly helpful if you are worried that you shouldn’t be utilising the support because there are others worse than you)

CONS

  • Even knowing very well the signs of anxiety, I put off seeking help “it’s not that bad” “other people need help more than me” “it’s not really anxiety” “it’ll go when this busy couple of weeks is over”
  • It needs full commitment
  • You need to believe that it will work
  • Allocate time to work through the programme which takes discipline

 

My inbox is always open for anyone who would like to chat more about this form of support, or would like to know more about my experience. I am always happy to help. Just drop me an email and we can arrange a chat.

For those of you who I have already trained as MHFAs or Champions, hopefully this will have given you some more in-depth insight into IAPT and help you feel confident in signposting others there too.

Jen Rawlinson

Director, Flourish in Mind Ltd