Meinou Simmons, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist in Oxfordshire and training programme director for child and adolescent psychiatry in Thames Valley Oxfordshire, and author of A Guide to the Mental Health of Children and Young People: Q and A for Parents, Caregivers and Teachers, answers questions about the highs and lows of her working life.
What did you want to be when you were at school/growing up?
I knew I wanted to be a doctor from my early teenage years. As well as thinking it would be a fascinating career, I can’t pretend I wasn’t inspired by TV medical dramas like ER!
Can you describe your job in 1 sentence?
I work with children, young people who have complex mental health needs using a multi-system holistic approach to help them improve their mental health and ability to function in different settings (home, education and work).
What 3 factors make you skip into work?
I like the feeling that I’m making a positive difference to the lives of vulnerable children, young people and their families, working in a fantastic, supportive multidisciplinary team, and helping others learn and develop and, in turn, learning and developing from others.
Why would you recommend your career to a young person?
Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is a great option for those of us who enjoy the energy of children and young people and the varied nature of working with all types of families.
Helping children function again after they have suffered with mental health difficulties is hugely rewarding as you can really change the course of their lives.
It’s so varied because you work with all kinds of issues and other professional groups in teams and across services, so you are always learning: no two days are ever the same.
What has been your biggest career disappointment or challenge and why, and how did you overcome it?
After finishing my psychiatry training in the UK, I was ready to try a new challenge and moved to the Netherlands with my young family. I’m half Dutch but had never lived abroad before.
After completing some high-level Dutch language courses, I found a consultant role in the Netherlands, but I had completely underestimated the difference of the systems and the independent nature of working there.
After a few sessions, I discovered my Dutch language skills and knowledge of local systems weren’t yet good enough to work independently and was advised by my manager to apply to move into a training role instead. Shortly after we moved back to the UK for family reasons.
However, this experience knocked my confidence for a while, but becoming a consultant in Oxford in a supported group of CAMHS doctors helped me to regain my sense of self-worth.
I don’t regret having moved over there though as I learnt a huge amount about which areas work better in each country, and built some lasting friendships.
What was your best career move?
I recently moved to CAMHS Outreach from Oxford City CAMHS. CAMHS Outreach is great – we are a small dynamic team and work creatively with children and young people who are very stuck with severe mental health difficulties.
We are currently expanding and redesigning our service model which is exciting. As clinical lead in the team, I’m working closely with managers to help drive forward change to make our team more responsive and formulation focused.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever got from a patient or work colleague?
While I was training a mentor told me not to “sweat the small stuff” – she was probably fed up with me moaning about things not working how they should! She told me it’s best to save my energy for big problems I can influence, rather than getting frustrated about niggles I can’t change. This advice has served me well.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Prioritising living well and being able to switch off from work helps make you a better doctor and person. You are often more productive in both home and work camps if you get the work/life balance better.
What do you do to relax/de-stress?
I love running (especially off-road) and it really helps me to de-stress. I also enjoy reading, writing and exploring in nature with my family.
What are the main 3 factors that make you frustrated at work?
1. CAMHS is unfortunately one of the most under-funded and understaffed parts of the NHS, hence we are only meeting the needs of a fraction of the families who need our support, and young people have to be very severely unwell to get help.
2. Lack of resources in our partner agencies, including social care and education, makes it harder to work supportively with children and young people struggling with their mental health.
3. Seemingly continuous IT systems’ problems and failures at work: we have had some very long systems outages that have caused a lot of disruption.
What qualities do you think you need to do your job well?
Optimism in driving forwards positive change, emotional resilience and good coping skills, good communication skills (both verbal and written), and being a team player and working well with other agencies.
Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare – and why?
It would be a dream to have the extra time to travel and develop my other interests that I don’t have time for – I ran marathons and travelled a lot before I became a parent, but that’s not so realistic now with small children and work!
I think I would miss work though and would like to continue to contribute to youth mental health in some way, either through training and teaching, researching or volunteering.
What do you hope will be your legacy to your profession and colleagues?
As well as my clinical work, mental health education is my passion! I recently wrote a book ‘A Guide to the Mental Health of Parents, Caregivers and Teachers’ published by Cambridge University Press in association with the Royal College of Psychiatrists which I hope gives people a good starting point to understand which factors can influence mental health as well as covering common mental health difficulties and disorders.
What 3 words would your colleagues use to describe you?
Dedicated, enthusiastic, supportive.
How do you balance work and family life?
It’s a constant juggle and there’s no easy answer – there’s always the guilt that something isn’t quite enough. However, a silver lining of the pandemic has been increased remote working which has completely transformed my multi-agency work (which involves a lot of meetings) and means I can base myself from home if I’m not in clinic or doing a home visit. That makes balancing work and family life much more manageable than when I was in clinic all day.
Are you an extrovert or introvert and why?
According to a psychology quiz, I came out as an ambivert, which means sometimes introvert and sometimes extrovert. This does fit well with me as I do get a lot of energy from being around other people but can also value my time alone, for example if I’m immersed in reading or writing.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My dad and my aunt. My dad died whilst I was still at medical school, and my aunt (my dad’s sister) died a few years later, but they both inspired me hugely in my early life and career.
My dad was a real hands-on dad and would do anything for my sisters and me. He encouraged me to do medicine and had a real can-do attitude.
I think my love for psychiatry was inspired by my aunt who was a social worker. She was really interested in supporting others and had a really sharp psychological insight. She had a double lung transplant but never let that limit her and worked tirelessly for the Transplant Support Network.
What is your pet hate?
Laziness! I’m a true “activist” and like to get things done so seeing things left undone due to laziness is irritating.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Chocolate, I love it! … I’ve read that dark chocolate also has health benefits.
Meinou Simmons – “May” to her friends and colleagues – is a consultant in child and adolescent psychiatrist and training programme director for child and adolescent psychiatry in Oxfordshire.
After graduating in medicine from the University of Cambridge in 2004, she undertook postgraduate psychiatry training in the East of England alongside an MA in Medical Education.
After spending 18 months living abroad in the Netherlands, she moved to Oxford in 2015 to take up her first consultant post, working for the Oxford City CAMHS Team for several years before moving into Oxfordshire CAMHS Outreach Team.
Dr Simmons has a longstanding special interest in medical education, and following publication of her book – A Guide to the Mental Health of Children and Young People: Q and A for Parents, Caregivers and Teachers – is developing an interest in public education. She is also the mother of three children.