Following a mental health breakdown 2014, Leah Milner has been on the road to recovery and has established herself as a passionate mental health advocate. During this time Leah got involved with the New Life through Sport project in Hackney, a sports rehabilitation programme that links physical health and psychological wellbeing to support recovery from mental illness or addiction.
Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, improving physical fitness can be a valuable stepping stone on the road to recovery. The programme, run by ELFT matches clients from mental health and/or addiction services in Hackney with student sports coaches from the University of East London for a structured 12 week fitness programme. Service users then receive a 12 month free fitness pass to the Copper Box arena gym at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
In her words, Leah Milner:
I'm a freelance journalist and formerly a reporter on a national newspaper. In January 2014 I suffered a severe manic episode and became psychotic. I was sectioned under mental health act and spent a fortnight in a secure psychiatric ward. It was a terrifying and disorientating time as the world around me distorted and I realised that my understanding of reality was no longer the same as that of those around me. After gradually coming down from the high and bringing the real world back into focus, I descended into a deep depression which lasted for months. At this point I was 32 years old and it was the first time that I had experienced either a manic high or a severe, clinical depression so it was bewildering to be diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder.
I was extremely lucky to be referred to the Jules Thorn Recovery Centre in St Pancras hospital where I was able to attend daily group therapy sessions, which included art, yoga, pottery, gardening, music and dance. I was also received cognitive behavioural therapy with a psychologist. It took until the August of that year, attending the centre most days, before I had returned to anything like my normal self. There was a lot of careful adjustment to get the right balance of medication. That summer I decided not to return to my former job, but instead to become a freelancer so that I could have greater control over my working hours and give myself time to get better slowly. Bit by bit I forged a new career working for myself and each month I inched further out of the dark depths of depression and into my new routine. While the medication helped me to gain control over my mood, I lost control of my weight. Initially, putting on a few extra pounds was a good thing as I had dropped several dress sizes during my depressive because anxiety and lack of appetite meant I couldn't eat properly. However, I soon went past my ideal weight and just kept going. It got to the point where it was undermining my self-esteem, which I had worked so hard to build up.
Due to a change of address, my mental health care was moved from Camden to Hackney in 2015 with East London NHS Foundation Trust. Soon after my new care co-ordinator told me about an initiative called New Life Through Sport. Through the scheme I could get free gym membership for a year as well as 12 sessions with a personal trainer. The trainers are volunteers who are studying sports science at the University of East London and give up their time to help people recovering from mental illness or drug addiction enjoy the benefits of exercise. I jumped at the opportunity to get free personal training as I was eager to shed the kilos I'd gained and knew that keeping fit would boost my mood. I was apprehensive before my induction session, but it quickly became apparent that my trainer, Dean, understood how intimidating gyms can be and was only going to make me work at my own pace. Chatting to Dean, he suggested I look into doing a physical challenge for charity to give me something to aim for and around the same time some friends of mine told me they were attempting a 100km walk. I decided to join them.
So one Saturday in June, myself and five friends set off on the Grand Union Challenge: our bid to walk 100km in 24 hours from Paddington to Bletchley along the Grand Union Canal. Our team of six were raising money for Plan UK, Crisis, Macmillan, the Canal and River Trust and Mind between us. Collectively we raised more than £6,000 for our charities and personally I've now reached a total of over £3,000 for Mind, which is an amazing show of generosity from my friends and family.
I kept thinking of the massive support behind me when going through the toughest bits of the challenge when the pain from my blisters was at its worst and it kept me plodding on to the end. Unfortunately, two of our team members had to drop out at 50km because of their injuries but the remaining four of us made it to the end in 24 hours 30 mins. We burnt around 8,000 calories each and covered more than 200,000 steps (we reached the maximum that my digital pedometer could count just before the halfway point. It was by far the hardest thing I've ever done, mainly because of blisters the size of flattened golf balls on each foot. It was a wonderful sense of achievement once it was complete and fundraising has been a great platform that has allowed me to talk about my mental illness and gain strength by hearing the stories of so many others who have confided in me since I opened up about my own struggle.
Programme Coordinator, Lisa Krockel said
“It is inspirational to see what Leah has achieved with a little bit of help from NLTS and to see the significant positive changes in clients’ self-esteem, confidence and well-being. The importance of exercise in improving a person’s physical and mental health can be powerful in their journey of recovery and we are striving to offer a personalised programme out to as many clients as possible.”
Medical Director, Dr Kevin Cleary said,
“Exercise can really improve our mood and help us to cope better with stress and anxiety. Joining the gym or attending an exercise class is also a great way to meet new people and combat isolation. Taking steps to improve our physical health can be hugely beneficial for our mental wellbeing, it’s also an important part of the recovery process.”
For more information about the project or to get involved, contact Lisa Krockel, New Life through Sport Co-ordinator on 0208 9853757 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org