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Birmingham and Solihull Mental health NHS Foundation Trust
Better Together

Five Minutes With... Dr Katherine Allen

Published: 24/11/2022

This week we are catching up with Dr Katherine Allen, Lead for Recovery and Service User, Carer and Family Experience.

In this latest Five Minutes With feature, Katherine talks about her role at BSMHFT and what inspired her to work in the mental health sector. Katherine also discusses Disability History Month. Having a disability herself, Katherine talks about the common misconceptions surrounding disability and explains how we can all play our part to support each other both in and out of the workplace.

Hi Katherine, please can you tell us a little bit about your role at BSMHFT? 

I am Lead for Recovery and Service User, Carer and Family Experience. I oversee a range of areas including Recovery College, which delivers courses that are co-produced and co-delivered with our service users and carers to support them and 

Dr Katherine Allen
others in their journey towards mental wellbeing. Recovery College is also a great opportunity for BSMHFT colleagues to learn as equals alongside our service users and carers. I also work on our Experts by Experience Programme, which is our approach to ensuring that all our service users, their families and carers can exercise their rights to be involved in developing and improving the services that they receive. Finally, I oversee our Family and Carer Strategy that sets out our commitment to informing, involving and supporting our service users’ families and carers.
Katherine Allen quote
Katherine Allen marathon
Katherine Allen weights

What inspired you to choose your profession and what made you decide to specialise in your field?

I started my career at the age of 18 as a care assistant in a care home for people with dementia whilst I was also a music student. After finishing my music degree, I worked as a support worker for people with learning disabilities and then at a mental health care home for Mind in Birmingham before training as a music therapist. I worked in special education for years, but I really missed working within an adult mental health setting, so I moved into managing mental health supported housing. Following a Master of Arts in applied mental health, in 2006 I was accepted by Voluntary Service Overseas to work for a mental health charity in Sri Lanka for a year which completely turned my career path around.

Being in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that had devastated a country already ravaged by war, terrorism and poverty, I learned first-hand how important it was to engage with communities properly to find solutions to complex problems. In the aftermath of the tsunami, it seemed to me that often Western support came in with money to help rebuild Sri Lankan communities, but they failed to properly engage with people who were meant to benefit in decision making and didn’t fully account for people’s circumstances, expertise and needs. I would say that year was my biggest inspiration and led me to doing an MSc in health and social care research and then a PHD using participatory action research. I worked for Rethink and Dudley Mind before joining the NHS in 2010. My time in Sri Lanka still impacts on my role today. 

This month is Disability History Month, can you explain what this month means to you and why?

This month is not just about showing that you have a disability, but that you can be successful and flourish. I was born in 1972 with spina bifida and a visual impairment. I was extremely lucky to have an operation that corrected the former and averted the worst-case scenarios presented at the time. My visual impairment could only be marginally improved with glasses and then contact lenses from the age of seven. In the 70s and 80s there were very, very few reasonable adjustments and I was nearly sent to a special needs school. My parents fought hard for that not to happen and for me to go to a mainstream school. It's only the last couple of years that I've spoken more openly about being visually impaired because I felt I had to hide it to be accepted, for people not to have low expectations of me and to avoid the school bullies. The phrase when I was growing up of ‘men never make passes at girls who wear glasses’ made me feel particularly unworthy. I am delighted to see how things have changed and that glasses now look so good!  

With one in five people in the UK having a disability, what advice would you give to people to ensure they are supporting others with a disability both in and out of work?

It all comes down to asking people questions, finding out people’s perspective and what they need in order to achieve, rather than making assumptions. It’s nice to celebrate what people with disabilities can do but celebrate them for their achievements in their own right, not because they have a disability. I really don’t like “didn’t they do well…” (meaning didn’t they do well for someone with a disability). Never assume what people can or can’t do. 

What is your proudest achievement to date?

Watching people who use our mental health services get to the point where they stand on a stage at mental health conferences alongside esteemed academics to talk about their involvement with research. I think that is the ultimate in knowledge democracy. I always get a bit emotional reflecting on it.

How do you look after your own health and wellbeing?​​​​​​​

I am keen on physical activity, I do a lot of open water swimming, I’ve run a couple of marathons too. Most days I attend a fitness class after work where I can fully log off for the evening, it’s important to take time out for yourself.

Tell us something that not many people would know about you?

I weightlift, and my personal best for a deadlift is 100 kilos.

​​​​​​​Describe yourself in three words

Loves a laugh.