3 minutes with ... Nicola Willcocks

Integrating her physio background with a deeper awareness of mental health issues has proved a boon for Sheffield-based Nicola Willcocks.


What attracted you to the mental health field?

I recognised that every day I was treating patients with a combination of physical and mental health problems and that I was only treating part of the problem. I found that mental health problems could often be a barrier to helping patients move forward with managing their physical health problems.

What do you do?

I am a physiotherapist for PhysioWorks, the community physiotherapy service. This role involves managing a clinical caseload of people with a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and also working in the integrated pain team managing more complex chronic conditions.

In September 2013 I started a one-year secondment working for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, (IAPT). This was part of a project to improve the awareness of mental health in physical health professions. I trained as a psychological wellbeing practitioner (PWP) at the University of Sheffield and was as a trainee in the Sheffield IAPT service.

Other physiotherapists involved in the project including an extended role practitioner from our PhysioWorks service, a service lead physiotherapist and physiotherapy assistant from weight management and a physiotherapist from the community stroke team.

Returning to our original roles we have been integrating our new skills in mental health into physiotherapy practice. We continue to meet regularly to discuss how best to use our new skills in practice, how to raise awareness of the project and how to capture our learning.

What is IAPT?

IAPT is an NHS programme of talking therapy treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. IAPT supports frontline mental health services in treating depression and anxiety disorders.

The service started in 2008 and has been expanding and developing since in line with the government strategy  No health without mental health.

IAPT services vary nationally. In Sheffield the IAPT service consists of PWPs, counsellors and cognitive behavioural therapists. Services are offered face to face, via telephone or computer, or in workshop settings.

What are the rewards?

We are early on in the process of integrating our learning into physiotherapy practice but I have found a big difference in how I communicate with patients and receive positive feedback from patients regarding this.

My skills in managing more complex patients with mental health and physical health problems have greatly improved. It has been very rewarding working with patients through their mental health and physical health problems to help them overcome barriers to change.

I have also enjoyed sharing my new knowledge with the PhysioWorks service through in-service training sessions.

Should others follow your lead?

Definitely! I was lucky to be part of the second cohort of this project developing physical health practitioners in mental health. The learning and experience has been extremely helpful to my work as a physiotherapist.

This is part of a five-year project researching whether training physical health professionals in mental health improves patient outcomes. Although we are early on in collecting the evidence I have found that my physiotherapy practice has improved as a result of this experience. I look forward to continuing my learning in both fields to help benefit my patients.

Where do you see this work leading?

IAPT has been a great opportunity to improve my knowledge and experience in mental health.
I will continue to build on these new skills by combining my work as a PWP and a physiotherapist. This will be through clinical practice and experience, supervision, involvement in the project and further courses.

Capturing the learning is vital. I will continue to work with the members of the project to build on this. The importance of training physical health practitioners in mental health skills has been identified as a national priority (the 2013 Department of Health Closing the gap report).

I hope that more is done to improve the links between mental health and physical health services by providing more dual trained practitioners.

Nicola Willcocks, physiotherapist and psychological wellbeing practitioner, IAPT, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS trust.

Frontline staff

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