The mental health conference that felt more like a festival

Student-led conference on mental health nursing incorporated yoga, dance and social media

Student-led conference on mental health nursing incorporated yoga, dance and social media

  • Students in Scotland organised a conference on the future of mental health nursing 
  • The line-up included poetry, music, dance, yoga, mindfulness and speakers with direct experience of mental health issues
  • The event was an invaluable experience for the students who helped run it and there were many networking opportunities for the 500-plus attendees

Student organisers, lecturers and speakers at the Future of Mental Health Nursing Conference 2019. From left, Kirstie Fisken, Emily-May Barlow, Roberta Fulton, Zoe Morrison, Shannon Difolco, Laura McAdams, Tommy Whitelaw, Liam Mackie, and Linda Wood.

‘Mental health affects everyone, in every walk of life,’ says third-year nursing student Sean Prendergast of Abertay University in Dundee. Mr Prendergast was co-chair of a one-day conference in Scotland on 13 May, focusing on the future of mental health nursing. The fourth of its kind and the first to be held in Scotland, it attracted more than 500 people from across the UK.

The conference included yoga and
mindfulness sessions.

‘We wanted a varied programme because there are so many avenues you can go down to try to improve people’s mental health, including by expressing ourselves creatively.’

As a result, the students, supported by lecturers, devised an exciting line-up at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange that included poetry, music, dance, yoga, mindfulness, a welcome hut where people could chat, and speakers with direct experience of mental health issues.

'Festival atmosphere'

‘We put our own spin on it,’ says Mr Prendergast. ‘We wanted it to be full of interest and colour, so people would remember it. We were trying to create more of a festival atmosphere.’

Comedian Luisa Omeilan and
conference organiser Emily-May Barlow.

Among those delivering keynote sessions was comedian Luisa Omielan. Before her stage appearance, the BAFTA award winner spoke to one of the lecturers involved in organising the conference, Emily-May Barlow of Abertay University.

‘I really like Luisa so I went over to introduce myself and we ended up having an impromptu chat about mental health,’ explains Ms Barlow, who ran the social media side of the conference.

Frank conversations

‘She thought it would be a good idea to livestream it. For me, having this frank conversation where we talk about issues such as how mental health professionals look after their own mental health, was the cherry on the cake.’

Their 20-minute chat – which has now been viewed almost 7,000 times – also explores issues such as suicide prevention, teaching emotional intelligence and body image.

For Ms Barlow, who works as a mental health nurse for half her time, the conference exceeded her expectations. ‘The students were really assertive about what they wanted and were extremely professional,’ she says.

‘They were negotiating deals and talking to very senior people to attract speakers. By the end of it, it was like being in a team on The Apprentice. We knew it had the potential to be big, so we just went for it.’

The speakers who shared their stories

  • The day was opened by Scotland’s chief nurse Fiona McQueen who detailed current initiatives in mental health nursing in Scotland
  • Campaigner Tommy Whitelaw talked about his work to raise awareness of the impact of dementia on families, based on his own experiences of being a full-time carer for his late mother who had vascular dementia
  • Crime novelist Lin Anderson and James King of the Scottish Prison Service talked about the education of prisoners
  • Another popular session was on the charity, Playlist for Life, founded in 2013 by writer and broadcaster Sally Magnussen after the death of her mother, who had dementia. It encourages people to create their own personal playlist of meaningful music


Another unexpected bonus is friendship. ‘We’re a team of people with shared values and goals,’ says Ms Barlow. ‘We ended up learning from each other. As a relatively young lecturer, in the past I’ve distanced myself to appear more professional. But I feel that if I hadn’t brought a personal element to this, it wouldn’t have been as much of a success because we’ve all worked hard for each other.

‘Some of the best ideas have come from us socialising together,’ she adds. ‘When the students qualify next year, that societal barrier won’t exist anymore so it feels odd to keep them at arm’s length now.’


While the conference involved a great deal of work over a 14-month period, Ms Barlow believes it provided an invaluable experience for the students who helped run it, including networking opportunities.

‘Their names are out there and they have a huge portfolio,’ says Ms Barlow. ‘They are all ambitious and see the value in adding this to their CV. They have developed real skills and knowledge – not just ticked a box.’

Laura McAdam and Sean Prendergast.

For co-chair Laura McAdam, being heavily involved in organising the event boosted her confidence. ‘I remember writing my first email to an NHS manager,’ she says. ‘It took me about an hour-and-a-half, as I kept rewriting it. But by the end, I was just sending them without even thinking.’

Learning curve

With a background in management before she became a nursing student, she also learned to trust others’ abilities. ‘As a manager you tend to take on responsibility for everything, but I had to step away from that,’ says Ms McAdam, a second-year mental health nursing student at Stirling University.

‘You learn that others are better than you at doing some tasks, so you just need to let them run with it. It’s also taught me that my version of right isn’t necessarily shared by everybody else. It was a big learning curve.’

Encouraged to take part by her mentor, she believes there is still stigma around mental health, but the conference provided the perfect opportunity to challenge it. ‘We wanted to show it in a different light,’ says Ms McAdam. ‘Everyone’s ideas were amazing and we were so respectful of each other.’

'So much energy'

From the outset, the team was keen that it wouldn’t be like any other conference. ‘We almost wish we hadn’t used the word conference,’ says Ms McAdam. ‘A lot of it was about self-care and self-management, showing the different things that people did.’

Attendees were invited to write their thoughts on tablecloths or hang messages on designated trees. ‘There were lots of places to leave feedback and it was about what people thought collectively. There was so much energy in the room,’ she says.  

Looking ahead, she believes her contribution will help her career. ‘When I’m applying for jobs in two years’ time, hopefully people will remember me,’ says Ms McAdam. ‘It’s been important in terms of being able to speak to people when I’m on placements, building my confidence to have conversations about what I’d like to do.’

Addiction and mental health: 'I realised there was a way out'

David McCollom.

Among those speaking at the conference was David McCollom, who went into rehab 17 years ago. He now runs his own award-winning video production company, and filmed the conference.

‘I was brought up in a drug environment and fell into it,’ he says. ‘I was lost in heroin and crack, losing my leg through injecting and most of the use of my hands. I’d pushed everyone away and been in so many prisons. I was written off.’

Yet two workers at the local drugs team supported him throughout. ‘They never gave up on me, even though I missed appointments,’ says Mr McCollom. ‘I never felt they looked down on me.’

Rehab made the difference

Eventually, he reached a turning point. ‘One of them said, David you’re dying,’ he recalls. ‘I thought they were right. They dropped me off at rehab and that’s what made the difference.’

He began attending Narcotics Anonymous with its 12-step programme. ‘Along the way I’d had several rock bottoms but I was never introduced to anyone who had fought addiction,’ says Mr McCollom. 

‘I found my way then, realising that there was a way out.’ Every year he visits one of the team still working at the drug service. ‘She cries every time,’ he says. ‘She told me that I’ve made her job so worthwhile.’

After graduating from university 11 years ago, he set up his own company which makes films and teaches film-making skills to people with mental health and addiction problems. ‘Now I try to make an impact, challenging stigma in a creative way with short films that encourage people to open up and start talking,’ says Mr McCollom.


For the past 16 years, he has also been speaking at universities and conferences about his personal experiences. ‘I try and be honest and share what happened to me,’ he says. ‘Sometimes people will say – what do you know? But I was the worst junkie you could ever meet.’

As a consequence, he remains ever vigilant. ‘There are times when life is hard, and I think – could I get away with having a drink or taking drugs? But something inside keeps me from doing it. I’ve done so much work on myself that I have an automatic response now, which says it won’t get me anywhere. I get tempted, but that’s all it is, and going to a meeting keeps it at bay.’ 

Awareness-raising initiatives, which challenge the stigma of mental health and addiction, are shining a light on the issues, he believes. ‘When I was younger, no one ever spoke about anything. It was hidden,’ says Mr McCollom. ‘Now I’m an open book, loud and proud. My life has turned around 100%. I’ve had a bizarre life experience, but there is a happy ending.’

To find out more about Mr McCollom’s work, visit the dmcmedia website 

Lynne Pearce is a health journalist 


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