Almost two decades ago, Shelley Perry was struggling with an eating disorder whilst undertaking her medical studies at St. Martin's University in Lancaster. Convinced that her problems were not merely physical, mental, or social, but a more complex combination of the three, she astutely approached her GP and enquired about a more holistic treatment model.
Ably supported on a medical level by her GP, on a social level by her church, and on a mental level through cognitive behavioural therapy, Shelley was convinced that such a profound biopsychosocial treatment model was far more effective. And to this day she is proving so with her work as Clinical Director at Breathe Therapies.
Started in 2009 off the back of Shelley's work with S.E.E.D. (Support and Education for Eating Disorders), which she established in 2007, Breathe Therapies is a Preston-based not-for-profit mental health service which offers early intervention and treatment for anyone in the North West experiencing eating disorders, obesity, and mental health or well-being issues.
"I'd set S.E.E.D. up and quite quickly people were saying there were no treatment services available, and because of my background as a specialist mental health practitioner and an experienced mental health nurse, I thought 'I could fill a gap'," explained Shelley, who's from Burnley and who previously worked as a nurse in the NHS at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and Royal Preston Hospital.
"It really took off, so I quickly started recruiting so we could work as a multi-disciplinary team engaging with GPs, the wider community, and individuals' families," she added. "It evolved to where it is now, where we have four pathways: eating disorders, mental health, obesity, and well-being."
Breathe takes a more holistic approach to clinical treatment, working with local GPs and employing a broad range of independent practitioners who are experts across the mental health and well-being spectrum, including specialists in addiction, post-traumatic stress, life-coaching, eating disorders, family therapy, young people psychology, clinical psychology, and nutrition.
"Our clinicians can help people no matter what part of their journey they're on, from struggling with addiction, stress, or relationship problems to dealing with severe obesity and all the physiological and psychological issues that come with that," said Shelley, 46. "It's not about treating one disorder, it's about looking at that individual's needs and treating them as a whole person.
"There's nowhere else in Lancashire that has a team of experts like we have at Breathe and it's a real collaborative effort," she added. "It's so empowering to be part of a team that's always learning from one another."
With the Christmas period particularly hard for those living with mental health issues or eating disorders - some 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone, two million of whom are aged 75+ - Shelley is urging people to look out for potentially-isolated loved ones. "People with mental health or eating disorders can really struggle this time of year, but they're not on their own," she said. "We have support groups and treatment services available and we're open all the way through Christmas."
Being there to help really is what defines Shelley's work.
"It's been hard slog, but I set Breathe up out of genuine interest, as a mental health nurse, in making a difference," she said. "I'm not an entrepreneur and as a single parent widow with nothing, I've grown everything on a shoestring. But it's grown organically.
"I've worked my socks off, but the thing that's kept me going when I'm exhausted is those calls, those letters, those emails saying 'thank you for saving my daughter's life', the baby pictures from ex-clients who are now parents, the wedding invites," she added. "It makes everything so real on a human level. That makes all the difference."
"Honestly, it's been a privilege to help people. It's amazing."
For more information, go to www.breathetherapies.co.uk/ or call 0800 088 3151