How Active Life enabled Michael to rebuild his life

Stu Hooper and Sam Taylor from Cygnet Hospital Taunton's Active Life Team
Stu Hooper and Sam Taylor from Cygnet Hospital Taunton’s Active Life Team
Michael* was CEO of a national charity when he was admitted to Cygnet Hospital Taunton after suffering his second stress-related breakdown.

Here he explains how an Active Life Programme at the hospital helped his mental health and get him back home to family life, with the prospect of a phased return to work over the next few months.

He states: “I understand that life is a balance of the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual, and that life is best lived forwards, looking ahead with hope, not backwards. The only thing we have to act on is the present. And the only thing we can change is the future, not the past.”

Michael was an inpatient at the Cygnet Health Care-run service on Orchard Portman which supports men suffering with acute episodes of mental ill health.

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place 13 – 19 May and this year focuses on the theme ‘Movement: Moving more for our mental health’. All wards at Cygnet Hospital Taunton, as well as neighbouring Cygnet Hospital Kewstoke, offer an Active Life programme to increase patient understanding of the intrinsic benefits of exercise for supporting sustained mental health recovery.

Active Life offers patients the chance to engage in activities and sport including golf, swimming, cycling and football on a one-to-one basis, within a group or out in the community.

Michael, who was admitted to the hospital in April after suffering his second stress-related breakdown, explained the impact the programme had on his mental health.

He said: “It took me a little while to realise that the environment around me was a caring environment, rather than something to be afraid of. So I started to open up to the psychologist and started to take advantage of the occupational therapy opportunities that were on offer.

“The psychological and emotional benefits of Active Life were massive for me. I engaged with swimming sessions, golf and gardening and they have all been really helpful.

“It gets you out into the fresh air. It gets you away from the four walls of the ward. Sometimes when you are in hospital you need that repetitive routine and you need structure. But ultimately that isn’t getting your heart rate up, it’s not getting oxygen into your lungs, it’s not necessarily enabling you to break free from the dark thoughts inside your head.

“The knowledge that you are in an institution can wreak havoc and you can end up sitting alone with your own thoughts going round and round. It’s not always the most productive thing to be doing.

“So just having another focus gets you out of your own head, out of your own internalisation of what’s going on and into a better space where you’re having to communicate with other people.

“It’s a good test of where you’ve got to with your resilience. It’s not simply an add-on here. The team see it as an integral part of helping people recover from a mental health episode of one kind or another.”

Stu Hooper is the Active Life Lead at Cygnet Hospital Taunton. All patients once they are admitted get introduced to Stu, the Active Life programme and the opportunities which exist.

He explained: “As much as it is about getting patients involved in physical exercise, it’s about engaging them with the social side too.

“Of course we’d like patients to lose weight if they need to, but we know that for many, weight gain is a side effect of their essential medication. So for us, it’s not about seeing those tangible, physical results. Instead, it’s about making sure they feel fit and we release those endorphins. We want to give them skills, understanding and knowledge of how to be the healthiest versions of themselves.

“When they are at the right stage of their treatment, we take them off site, away from the hospital, and it reminds them of their ‘normal’ life, beyond the hospital walls.”

The Active Life team also make contact with the relevant Non-Governing Body for additional funding if required and support patients to access sport in their local community once they are discharged by linking them up with the relevant sports club and a contact.

Stu added: “Sometimes when you first introduce yourself, you might get a blank. You might be turned away. However I encourage my staff to understand that it’s not a ‘no’ it’s just a ‘not now’.

“It’s about breaking down barriers and finding that little gap where I can embrace that person and get them to open up.

“It builds up their confidence and skills and lessens their anxieties. The mental health benefits of being physically fit are huge.

“Patients that get involved with Active Life don’t abscond, they comply with their medication, they don’t become violent or aggressive. We know it works.

“It’s hugely satisfying to unlock a patient’s interest and passion and enabling them to embrace it again after a setback.”

Describing the impact of his mental health setback, Michael added: “You feel guilty, you feel condemned, you feel like let everybody down. You truly feel like your life is falling apart. You feel like you’re unlikely to get it back again in the same form it was before. It’s a slow recovery process but if you open yourself up to the love and support available at places like Cygnet Hospital Taunton and engage with programmes like Active Life, you can truly start to function again.

“When you are at your lowest ebb, the most important thing is to restore the mind as quickly as possible so that you are in control of your actions and your thoughts. Your emotions and feelings don’t feel like your own and everything feels off balance.

“Keeping physically fit though is something which you can control. That doesn’t need to be affected by the crisis you are in. And that sense of ownership over your body and how active it is works wonders for recovery. You get that sense of balance back again and can start to rebuild your resilience, your personality and your ability to connect with others and in the community.

“I don’t feel ashamed of my mental health. I think many people that go through mental health crises and issues have a greater empathy with the world. They understand people better and actually make room for the brokenness rather than ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t happen.”

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

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