Things don’t have to stay the same…
I met one of my closest friends when I interviewed her for a job, two and a half years ago. (Let’s just call her B, as her story isn’t mine to share). B got the job. Before she started, she asked me why I had such an interest in Mental Health. I shared that I had suffered with depression and anxiety, she shared her own experiences with mental illness. We bonded. And I can see now that before we even started working together, we had a more honest, authentic understanding of each other than most people will ever have.
That understanding has grown exponentially as we’ve supported each other through challenging work, life and personal experiences over the last few years. But we’ve shared them all with the same honesty and openness that created our friendship.
Mental Health in the Workplace
At the time, I was leading a mental health project in work. The company was introducing an amazing programme to actively support student residents with their mental health. I recognised that we couldn’t expect our people to deliver that support without giving them the necessary knowledge, tools, language and support to do so. We rolled out mental health first aid training, well-being initiatives and invited two well known mental illness charities to work in partnership with us.
But we had to find a way to start having conversations about mental health. Despite being so open about my mental illness with my immediate team, I had only recently shared my experiences with others on the executive team. I was asked if I would consider talking about my mental health on a video that would be shared at our annual staff conference event. I froze. I don’t do video. But I knew that this would be a powerful way to start conversations about mental health.
I didn’t realise just how powerful. The video was shown to almost 200 people in a darkened room, while I found an even darker spot to hide in the back of the room. That video opened so many conversations. In one evening, two older men spoke to me about their experiences of PTSD and eating disorders. Other people openly talked about self-harm and suicide attempts. It was as though, speaking openly about experience of mental illness had given others permission to share without fear of judgement.
It wasn’t one of my most enjoyable nights out! But it was liberating and really powerful for me personally. But still I kept some things back. In one-on-one conversations or in coaching, I would be very open. But more publicly, I kept parts back, just for me.
The impact on other people
But with my friend B, there is no filter. Never has been. And we’ve realised that’s been pretty powerful for other people. When I first met her now-husband, he had never, ever witnessed such a conversation. He was amazed at how we talked about mental health “as if you’re talking about a headache!” That threw the door wide open for him to start doing the same, which ultimately helped him in being much more proactive about his own mental healthcare and wellbeing.
Just last weekend, two lifelong friends visited me for a weekend and B came to meet them for the first time. Our story wouldn’t be complete without sharing how we’ve supported each other through major challenges over the past few years. I hope that we share the stories with a lot of humour, honesty, realism and compassion. But we share the stories warts and all.
When B left, my two friends commented on how open she had been (they know my story). They then spoke more openly than I have ever heard either be about their own mental health and challenges. It already sounded like they were adopting a more forward-thinking approach, both accepting that they didn’t have to settle for the current state and recognising that there were other options. These options wouldn’t be easy, they wouldn’t be certain to work, they might take time but both seemed to seriously consider that they didn’t have to ‘exist’ as they have been for another 20+ years.
Just one week later, they’ve both taken huge steps to make positive changes. One has already planned an extended career break to focus on herself and her family and work out what her future could look like if she considered part-time employment. The other has already been to counselling for the first time ever and has made an appointment with her GP to consider ceasing/changing medication (which isn’t working) and to work out if she might be perimenopausal.
Massive steps. Immediate action. Triggered by powerful conversations.
When I was leading the mental health project in work and filming the video, someone warmly joked that I was the “Face of the Mentals”. If finally having the courage to share my story, can help even one person feel brave enough to try to change their story, then I’m proud to be so.
I also realise through recent CBT that I emotionally detach when I talk about my periods of mental illness. It’s how I can get the words out without crumbling. But I’m working on that. Still I’m learning, still I’m growing.
Avoiding mental illness doesn’t help. You can’t run away from it, you carry it with you.
So lean in. Face in. Talk.