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Mental Health Research Champs show others that there's hope; Mark Smith meets four people who took part in a research project for the National Centre for Mental Health, helping the understanding of mental conditions. They talk here about their experiences.

The National Centre for Mental Health (NCMH) is helping Wales become a world leader in understanding the triggers and causes of mental health problems. More than 5,000 volunteers with a variety of conditions have now taken part in its research since the centre was founded in April 2011.

Now an inspirational group of people have come forward as 'Research Champions' for NCMH, to talk openly about their experiences of mental health in a bid to reduce stigma and encourage others to take part in research.

Jenny Thomas, research psychology assistant at the centre, said: "We are so grateful to everyone who has taken part in this research, otherwise we wouldn't have made such great progress in understanding certain conditions.

"We see a whole variety of people coming through the centre, from young children to older adults - it demonstrates how a mental health problem can happen to anyone at any time.

"Taking part is totally confidential, but some people choose to come forward and tell their stories. These Research Champions are knocking down walls and reducing stigma and we're so grateful to them."

The National Centre for Mental Health, which is a partnership between Cardiff, Swansea and Bangor University, aims to improve diagnosis and treatment by engaging with the public.

Researchers often travel across Wales to talk to people with experience of mental health in their own homes.

As well as looking at the social and environmental side of a person's experiences with mental ill health, researchers also delve into the genetic side of things, taking biological samples to improve how genes affect our chances of developing mental illness.

Communications officer Lee Eynon said: "Our Research Champions show that normal people have mental health problems. A lot of people don't see the person, they see the problem.

"By opening up about their real-life experiences, our Research Champions are showing other people - in similar positions - that they're not alone.

"But while our champions do wonderful work we are equally grateful to the thousands of volunteers who anonymously contribute to our research."

Four of the research champions gathered at Cardiff University's Hadyn Ellis building on November 24 to talk about how being a part of the NCMH has improved their lives - and help build up a "bank" of knowledge around a particular illness.

MAIR ELLIOTT Teenager Mair has battled with eating disorders, anxiety, depression and autism spectrum disorder for a large chunk of her adolescent years.

The keen horse rider started using child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) when she was 15 and spent several evenings in accident and emergency after harming herself.

The 19-year-old student believes the standard of care for mental health lags severely behind physical health in Wales.

But she feels becoming a Research Champion, and also speaking in front of the camera for S4C and the BBC about her conditions, has been a gift.

The Pembrokeshire teenager said: "Some people have hearts or lungs that don't work properly, but for me it's my brain that doesn't work properly - and that's okay.

"I had always known I was different but I never knew why. When I was depressed, it was like a light switching off in my head. It was like a hollow, heavy feeling.

After receiving a talking treatment called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy she has stopped self-harming and is now on the road to recovery - but she knows she will never be cured.

"I'm always going to be autistic. I quite like being autistic, but people don't understand that. I will still have bad days, but I learn from what I've been through."

Mair first heard about NCMH from her mother, and their pair decided to become volunteers together.

"I wanted to volunteer because, as someone who loves science, I knew that the only way forward in discovering the causes and the risk factors behind mental illness and developing better treatments is through scientific research.

"If I hadn't had these mental health problems I wouldn't have been given this position of responsibility. In a way it has made me a better person."

HUW THOMAS Rugby-loving dad-of-three Huw, like many in today's high pressure business world, was put under intense work stress which eventually lead to anxiety and depression.

He said: "I can only describe my depression as like a concrete duvet. Finding the motivation to leave the house or even write an email became a terrible struggle.

"Depression is to sadness what a broken leg is to a stubbed toe - it's on another level, and it can completely lay you low."

With the right support from both his doctors and his family, Huw got back on his feet. He has learnt to better manage his work-life balance and with the help of the NCMH he is now firmly back in the saddle as a business director.

Huw also volunteers as a MIND mentor supporting others with their mental health wellbeing.

He is a firm believer in 'mindfulness' and the calming power of meditation.

He is also keen to spread the message that mental wellbeing and striking a healthy work-life balance should be embraced, and wants to help remove the stigma attached to mental health issues.

He added: "I took part in research with NCMH because from my experience., I simply understood its importance and wanted to help in any small way I could. And my experience has been very positive."

The researchers are easy to talk to, they have a real understanding in their eyes, and the interviews are really quite painless.

"To me the work that is done here is helping us to understand what we are - the brain and all its consciousness. So in my book I do not think that there is anything more important. You could say it's a no-brainer."

JULIE MURRAY Mum Julie said her battle with depression and anxiety got to such intense levels that she forgot how to walk.

The 44-year-old from Roath, Cardiff, first began to suffer mental health problems when she was in her 20s after spending a year at art school and studying for a degree in religious studies.

A few years later, following the birth of her son, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But her problems began to subside when she took part in the NCMH's Bipolar Education Programme Cymru - a 10-week psychoeducation course for people in Wales with bipolar disorder.

"It made me look at my lifestyle and look at the triggers of my disorder," she said.

"I was lucky enough to be in the very first cohort, and this is where I learned about NCMH and their research."

She believes there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to bipolar disorder which can affect sufferers in different ways.

Speaking of her intense anxiety, she added: "Sometimes I could not get out of bed. The idea of just getting into the shower was unbelievable.

"One time I even forgot how to walk."

But Julie says the work of the NCMH is making great strides in providing that "bank" of knowledge needed to understand conditions.

"I really appreciated the work the NCMH is doing. Its dedication is phenomenal." Rather than letting her bipolar consume her life, Julie has become actively involved in the mental health community and does voluntary work with Bipolar UK.

She is chair of their Wales Advisory Panel and mentors people diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is also a member of Hafal's Expert Leadership Panel and a Time to Change Wales champion.

LAURA DERNIE Mum-of-two Laura said she felt like the "colour and brightness had drained out of the world" when she suffered crippling post-natal depression.

Despite loving her two children to bits, her lowest point came when her son Jack was born.

She said: "I was absolutely besotted with the perfect little boy in my arms, and I knew that I loved him so much, but I just couldn't feel a thing."

Despite getting the treatment she needed and having her gall bladder removed, the avid Swansea City fan suffered a second bout of depression following the birth of her second child Poppy.

"This time, a difficult birth left me with post-traumatic stress too," she added.

"I remember obsessively washing the same piece of cutlery at least 15 times one day, and then just bursting into tears. Hearing my little boy ask 'Why is mummy crying?' was absolutely heartbreaking."

Laura, 32, who believes depression is hereditary, says she has become very close to the researchers at the NCMH.

She now campaigns for various charities.

"You cannot cut out your mental health problems like you can with a cancer," she said.

"My mental health problem will always be a part of who I am, but I've learned to manage it."

I really appreciated the work the NCMH is doing. Its dedication is phenomenal.Taking part is totally confidential, but some people choose to come forward and tell their stories. These Research Champions are knocking down walls and reducing stigma and we're so grateful to them."We see a whole variety of people coming through the centre, from young children to older adults - it demonstrates how a mental health problem can happen to anyone at any time.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 9, 2015
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