COMPASSIONATE MENTAL HEALTH 2024: My Journey to Clarity and Connection


Article by attendee Abbi Hoxleigh, MCIPR

With pen and notepad in hand, I wrote one sentence… nothing more. Yet, this understated beginning belied the profound journey I was about to embark upon. Attending the Compassionate Mental Health 2024 conference from March 11th to 14th in Coed Hills, South Wales, transformed my expectations into a deeply moving experience, prompting a decision to return to my roots in Gwent.

Tucked away in a sustainable off-grid community, my stay in the Dragon Wagon yurt kicked off what was to be a pretty unique journey. Travelling with my client, friend, ex-Bard of Northampton and spoken word poet Kezzabelle Ambler, our deep chats on the way were just a warm-up for the rollercoaster of emotions and enlightening experiences that lay ahead. We were all giggles when we got there, totally clueless about the intense and transformative adventures that were waiting for us.

Coed Hills became a confluence of minds and spirits, united by a shared pursuit of a regenerative approach to mental health. This gathering wasn’t just a conference; it was a communal exploration involving individuals from all walks of life—those with personal stories of mental health journeys, frontline workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and advocates for third-sector innovation. The diversity of participants fostered a rich tapestry of dialogue, challenging conventional psychiatric paradigms and advocating for methods that emphasise individual autonomy, reduced medication reliance, and a holistic view of mental wellness.

The narratives shared were powerful and poignant, with attendees and speakers from across the globe recounting their experiences within the mental health system. These stories, brimming with pain, resilience, and sometimes a haunting sense of what might have been, resonated deeply, evoking a visceral emotional response. My own (C)PTSD journey with its suppressed anxiety found release in the serene surroundings of Coed Hills, where we passed its workshops, woodlands, and wellness spaces offering solace and liberation.

The segment of the event that featured Lisa Morrison, an esteemed experience consultant and mental health campaigner, was infused with raw authenticity and deep insight. Her narrative wasn’t just her own; it mirrored the complexities of my mental health journey, echoing the challenges and triumphs I’ve faced. Her ability to articulate the nuances of mental health struggles—and the resilience it takes to navigate them—struck a chord deep within me, unleashing a cascade of emotions that I hadn’t anticipated.

Rhys Thomas also left a lasting impact that still reverberates in me. Once a professional rugby player for teams like Newport RFC and Wales, had his life overturned by a severe heart attack at 29, leading to a challenging new reality with a heart-assist device. This profound change spiralled him into mental health struggles and alcohol addiction. His recovery journey transformed him into an inspirational speaker, using his story of resilience and identity rediscovery to mentor others facing life-altering adversities.

Meeting some of the team from the upcoming Kyrie Therapeutic Farm in County Kildare, has inspired me to take a visit to Ireland to see the project at some point. The farm, set to launch in Ireland by 2026, is designed to assist individuals with significant mental health challenges. It aims to combine a close-knit community atmosphere with therapeutic and holistic approaches, all situated in a tranquil, farm-based environment conducive to connecting with nature. 

Equally compelling is “On the Adamant,” a documentary we saw at the event by Nicolas Philibert, known for “Être et Avoir.” His latest project spotlights a distinctive barge moored on the Seine in Paris, serving as a supportive space for those confronting mental health issues. This floating centre offers art therapy, communal cooking, and group discussions, providing a unique sanctuary amidst the city’s dynamism, fostering stability and hope for its visitors.

My experience of attending Compassionate Mental Health echoes their ethos, which is articulated in the sentiments by Bessel van der Kolk in his seminal work nd features on their website. “The Body Keeps the Score”: the essence of mental health is feeling safe among others. Compassionate Mental Health 2024 was a testament to this principle, creating an environment where vulnerability was met with understanding, and personal stories were honoured as catalysts for communal healing and inspiration.

The event’s vision, articulated by founder Brigid Bowen, transcends the binary of conventional psychiatric debate. It’s not about opposing psychiatry but advocating for a paradigm shift towards understanding mental health through lenses of compassion, community, and holistic care. The gatherings and training sessions they’ve conducted since 2016 embody a commitment to showcasing diverse, empathetic approaches to mental health care, emphasising the transformative potential of community and connectedness.

My personal reflections post-event are filled with moments of profound clarity and peace, a testament to the transformative power of such gatherings. The simplicity of sitting alone, embraced by the natural beauty of Coed Hills, was a meditation on freedom and self-assurance. The communal meals, the shared stories, and the palpable sense of belonging reinforced my conviction in the power of finding one’s tribe—those who resonate with one’s deepest values and aspirations.

The event, aptly named “Turning Towards Clarity,” was a pivotal moment in my life, offering not just insights but a roadmap to personal tranquillity and a reaffirmed purpose. It reminded me that in the realm of mental health, the most profound healing often arises from connection, understanding, and the courage to confront and embrace our vulnerabilities.

To all the speakers, organisers, and attendees, thank you for an experience that will undoubtedly shape my professional and personal journey ahead. The lessons learned and the connections made have reinforced my commitment to advocating for change, inspired by the courage and wisdom shared throughout this incredible event.

As I plan my return to my South Wales and my friends, I am inspired by the transformative experiences I carry with me the lessons of Compassionate Mental Health 2024. It’s a beacon of hope and a call to action, urging us to forge pathways of understanding, care, and profound connection in our approach to mental wellness.

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