For a few more weeks Hannah-Louise Toomey is going to be a public governor for Oxford Health and a masters’ student at Oxford Brookes University. But early in September she will join the Trust as a fully qualified occupational therapist. She will then have made the quite extraordinary journey from a service user to a governor to a member of staff – all within Oxford Health.
Right now she is completing her final student placement with older adults at The Fulbrook Centre. Then Hannah-Louise will be joining the Trust as an employee, working with the child and adolescent inpatient mental health services at the Highfield Unit, Warneford.
“I’m so excited!” she says. “I received an exciting job offer from London, but the Highfield job is the one I always wanted.”
“As a governor, I am of course invested in Oxford Health and its future. I also very much believe in the Trust values and the opportunities it offers for personal and professional growth. The Trust’s future plans, particularly for Highfield, are very exciting. It’s an incredible time to be joining the Trust,” she says.
“Additionally, I want to give something back to all those who have supported me through my own recovery journey. My first encounter with Oxford Health was as a service user myself. My support team gave me hope, and they helped me find recovery from a battle with an eating disorder. I was like a broken bird when I first encountered Oxford Health. Without them, I really wouldn’t be in the position that I am now in, and I certainly wouldn’t be on this career path. Being treated by an occupational therapist is what inspired me to become one.”
Experience inspired governor role
Her own experience and passion for improving access to mental health services inspired Hannah-Louise to stand to become a governor for Oxford Health. She was elected on her first go in May 2019. She says:
“I was probably quite an irritating service user. I used to give feedback to clinicians and email the board about ideas for service improvements. But I never felt my voice was being heard. I realised that it wasn’t about needing to ‘speak louder’, it was about finding the appropriate platform to have my voice heard. So, I decided to put myself out there. I wanted my voice to be heard, not just for myself but for other people, too.”
Once a governor, Hannah-Louise found that her lived experience resonated with others within the Oxford community.
“I’ve had emails from people who’ve read the Trust interviews with me. They might have a son or a daughter who is unwell and they say, ‘you are a public governor, you are young, you’ve been a service user, you may be able to relate to this’. One mother said their daughter had been inspired to get help because of me. I have always said, if sharing aspects of my journey can help just one person, then I have succeeded in some of what I set out to do.”
“That’s really why I do this; to give people that connection. I’m proud of them for finding the courage to reach-out to me, and then to go on to ask for specialist support. I understand how tough taking that first step can be, but I believe that with support, everybody can make it.”
Reflecting on her role as a governor more broadly, Hannah-Louise says:
“A governor’s role is to listen to our constituencies, really hear what communities are telling us they want and need, then carry their voice to the right audience where ‘seeds of change’ can be planted. I was brought up to never present a problem without a solution and this has proven valuable during my time as governor. Where I have flagged gaps in service provision, I have always presented solutions. It’s an exciting and challenging role, but one I feel proud to have served for just over two years.”
“One of my aims as a governor was to reduce the gap in service provision between the advantaged and disadvantaged areas of Oxford. To do this, I had to build a connection with the disadvantaged areas of Oxford and really try to understand why these gaps exist and why some communities feel excluded from healthcare services.
“Visiting these communities and establishing a trusting relationship, whereby we can work together in improving service provision has taken a long time. It is one thing going into these communities and saying “look, here is everything that we already have up and running and can offer you”, and another saying “we are here to listen to you, what services can we bring to your community and how can we work together in improving service provision?
It has taken time, and I honestly have fallen at many hurdles, but I now have their trust, and working in collaboration with disadvantaged areas of Oxford has been an achievement that is close to my heart, it always will be and I will never give-up on attempting to close that gap.”
Support from family, friends, university, and fellow governors
Hannah-Louise embarked on her master’s degree at the same time as she started her governor duties, which she was actively involved in. She has been chairing the Membership Involvement Group, spoken at Trust events, attended community events, spoken at BLM marches and much more. How did she fit it all in?
“I knew that it would take time to find the right balance, and at times I really had to sit down and think ‘how on earth am going to do all of this?!’. Talking to my parents helped a lot. My father was in the Royal Navy, so if I ever needed help in organising my timetable, I would ask him. He is a great sounding board and then my mom would be the one who made sure I was fitting in time for a social life too. Between this, as well as close friends, supportive university lecturers and a wonderful group of governors – it was all possible!”
“My routine is incredibly important to my physical and mental wellbeing. I get up at 4.15am – people think I’m bonkers, but I love the peace that the early morning offers. I go out on the river in my kayak (best lockdown purchase!), or I go for a swim. I email my family and plan my weekends with friends. I listen to BBC Radio 4 whilst completing mundane tasks like my housework and ironing and then sort out my all-important meals for the day. If there’s a governor meeting approaching, then before going to work I will read one attachment of the circulated governor papers. That’s what I would highlight to people who want to become a governor; find a routine that works for you, be realistic and most of all, find time for balance and embrace the opportunities that roles such as that of governor offers.
Once Hannah-Louise joins Oxford Health as an employee, she will have to step down as a public governor. But she is hoping stand again as a staff governor when the opportunity arises.
If you have been inspired by Hannah-Louise’s journey, become a member of Oxford Health. Sign up here.
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Published: 6 July 2021