Dr Maqsood (Max) Ahmed was confirmed in December as the new chair of Support in Mind Scotland's board of directors.

At the age of 34, Max has become our youngest ever Chair, and he is looking forward to his new leadership role within the organisation, with some exciting developments ahead for the charity in 2019 and beyond.

We grabbed some time with medical research scientist Max to have a chat about his passion for mental health, his future hopes for Support in Mind Scotland, as well as his work and interests.

What first attracted you to join Support in Mind Scotland as a board member?

Max: Like most people at SiMS, I was affected by mental illness. I was 16, when in the year 2000, my mother was sectioned and taken into that care. At that time, I was young and fairly ignorant of mental health and mental illness so it was all a bit of a blur. She got better and got out of hospital and while her health fluctuated she was generally okay. I guess there was a misplaced confidence that she had been ‘cured’. She was fine for about 10 years then, in 2017, she had a fairly major relapse and we went through the whole process again of trying to get appropriate care for her, or even just trying to get a GP to see her and appreciate mental care.

There was no real continuity of care and so you end up seeing a different GP at each visit and explain again what the symptoms are. I had real trouble getting the issue taken seriously and to get her the level of care I thought she should be given. It was several months before she got a psychiatrist referral.

I became frustrated at how badly I felt the mental health provision was, and when I juxtaposed that with how my father had been treated for another illness (he died of cancer in 2002), there were striking differences. He was looked after well by the NHS, there was support, GPs were able to signpost us on where to get help – for example with benefits – transport to and from hospital for chemotherapy, everything. There was a very well established flow of information. None of that exists for mental health. We didn’t really know what to do when she has a psychotic episode. It was amazing how little information was provided. So what attracted me to Support in Mind was a sense of frustration, powerlessness. Now I am 34, I am older, I think I am wiser and more able to appreciate what is going on.

I thought rather than just sitting back and accepting it, I want go get more involved trying to change how the system is. One way I felt I could do that was by volunteering with Support in Mind Scotland, participating in the charity’s governance. I was already a member, so when I found there was an opportunity to join the board I got in touch and towards the end of 2017 I joined the board. Personal experience and a dissatisfaction with the present system drew me in.

What are your priorities as chair of Support in Mind Scotland?

Max: As chair, my priorities are split into two branches. One is the governance of Support in Mind where the immediate priority is to have a more effective board that has greater ownership over the strategic direction of  the charity.  I think there is a greater emphasis on mental illness and mental health in society and that’s resulted in more potential fundraising opportunities being available. It’s important that we are able to maximise those opportunities ensuring we have not only sufficient funds but a diverse source of funds so that we are not too reliant on any one single funding source.  Success here should ensure that we continue doing the excellent work we are currently doing and also have the option to expand into other suitable areas.  An effective Board providing good governance is key to this.

My second priority is the public profile of SiMS.  I want SiMS to be engaged in government or public policy consultations regularly and really be a leader in mental health issues in Scotland.  I think we are well placed to do this.   SiMS does excellent work but it’s not always recognised and I want to change that.  That involves developing the ‘brand’ and building better networks and links with politicians, think-tanks and other charitable organisations.

One key area where we can do a lot more is our online presence.  I’m delighted that we are revamping and relaunching our website and we’ve just recruited a new Digital Officer who should  help us to boost our social media presence.  This should also help us to engage better with younger people.  And of course, raising the profile of SiMS should also help with fundraising.  In fact, both of my priorities are intimately linked – you cant do one without the other.

What are the challenges that Support in Mind Scotland and mental health organisations in general face?

Max: Similar to many other charities, the biggest challenge we face is financial sustainability and safeguarding our funding levels so that we can continue delivering the services that we do.  Like most charities we are heavily reliant on statutory funding and in an age of austerity this is continually under threat.  Going forward, it’ll be important for us to develop additional revenue sources hopefully from multiple sources.

Another major challenge that we (and other mental health charities) face is that we generally work with very vulnerable people.  That brings significant challenges.  We have a duty of care towards those individuals and need to safeguard, for example, their personal information.  There’s a lot of new legislation around that area – GDPR for example – that we are coming to terms with.  

What current work and projects can we SIMS be most proud of?

Max: One of the most impressive campaigns that SiMS can rightly be proud of is the work we do in addressing the mental health needs of those in rural communities, drawing attention to the unique challenges that those people face.  I’m particularly proud of this initiative as it’s not something that is often discussed but SiMS have done a great job in getting wider recognition for this.  I know from my own experiences that both the number of services on offer and the public's attitude towards mental health can vary in more rural areas compared to those in large, urban cities such as Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Having been to the Parliamentary reception for the National Rural Mental Health Forum and seeing first hand some of the work done by SiMS, it is quite impressive and something rightly to be proud of.

What is your job and professional background?

Max: I’m a scientist.  I graduated with a degree in chemistry and went on to do a PhD at UCL in London.  After a short period spent working in the Netherlands, I am currently employed by the University of Edinburgh at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine.  

My work is aimed at understanding the signals and molecules that control how the neurons that make up the adult brain are formed from their precursors – neural stem cells – in the developing embryo.  This knowledge is important for two reasons.  It will enable a better understanding of diseases such as cancers, where tumour cells often co-opt similar mechanisms to develop and grow.   Second, the knowledge generated will allow, in the long-term, to develop regenerative therapies to treat degenerative diseases such Parkinson's disease that are the result of a major loss of neurons. So whilst my work isn’t directly related to psychiatry, I do have a general interest in how the brain works and its fascinating to think of the molecular and cellular changes that underpin some of our behaviours. 

Any other personal interests?

Max: After science and work I have three main interests. I’m a big football fan – I support Raith Rovers, my local club, and Liverpool. Music: I go to a lot of live music events and gigs; and travel. I travel a lot, been on a number of long haul trips, for example I took the train from here to Beijing, road tripped round South Africa, went backpacking around South East Asia. Discovering and interacting with different environments, cultures and people is something I find interesting and exciting.  Unfortunately I now have a full time job and various other commitments and can’t just disappear travelling for a few months at a time!

It sounds like people are important to you?

Don’t sound so surprised!  People always have this perception of scientists working alone in a lab somewhere.  The reality is that a large amount of my time is spent working with a diverse set of people ranging from other scientists from around the world or communicating what I’m doing to students, charities, policy makers or the general public.

In fact, one of the reasons I joined SiMS is that it is such a people focused organisation.  I think sometimes family members or carers of people effected by mental illness are often forgotten.  The people-orientated nature of SiMS and the fact that SiMS really supports carers and those indirectly affected is a big attraction.

How do you think mental health is perceived in the media and by the public?

It’s getting better.  The number of times mental health gets mentioned in the news suggests its becoming a mainstream topic that gets discussed by politicians.  We even have a specific Minister for mental health now (Clare Haughey).  I see glimpses of this in my day job, where working for the University of Edinburgh, I can see first-hand the efforts made to deal with stress and anxiety faced by students.  

Its great to see that mental health is more recognised but there’s plenty more to do.  I think there’s still a distinction between mental health and mental illness.  I think people’s perceptions of severe mental illness is different from an appreciation of mental health brought about from say stress, anxiety and money problems.  I think the way people with for example schizophrenia are portrayed leaves a lot to be desired with so there’s a long way to go before SiMS wont be needed anymore!


Thank you Max. We wish you well in your new role as chair of Support in Mind Scotland.