#TimeToTalk Day 2018

I’ve submitted a piece to the people who run the #TimeToTalk blog, in the hope that they might find it helpful to support #TimeToTalk Day, which is tomorrow. They receive many more submissions than they can actually use so I doubt that my post will be one of them – rather than waste it I thought I’d share it here, to raise awareness of the day. If you’d like to find out more their website is here, and there are loads of resources available for you. I was particularly taken with this one:

This is what I wrote:

I was diagnosed with depression in late 2011. After months of treatment, both with medication and counselling, I finally returned to work more than nine months later. Perhaps ironically, I worked for a large NHS Trust which provided mental health services – though I didn’t live in the Trust’s catchment area – and whilst I had had a fair amount of involvement with service users in my twenty years there, most of the people I worked with hadn’t.

When I first returned, initial reactions were mostly of the ‘I haven’t seen you for a while’ variety. It was clear to me that only a few people knew why I had been off work, and I decided early on that the best way to tackle this was to be open and honest with anyone who asked about it. Not that I shouted it from the rooftops, but I wanted people to know and understand why I had been away, what it meant for me, and what it might mean for them. Some seemed apprehensive – I think they feared I might ‘have a turn’ or do something strange! The difficulty with any mental health problem is that other people can’t see it, in the same way they can see a broken leg, for example. This adds some kind of aura, a mystique, and can instil in some a fear of the unknown and unseen. I didn’t want to start some kind of crusade, but I believed it important to share my experience with anyone who asked. After all, to all intents I was the same person they had known for years, so why should they now treat me differently? Some might have had an expectation that I had changed in some way, and I wanted to reassure them that whilst the illness was a part of me I was still that same ‘me.’ People who have suffered a mental illness deserve to be respected as themselves: the illness isn’t a badge they must wear or, worse, a stigma to be borne as some sign of weakness.

I retired a little over a year later, and having already started my own blog I was aware how important it is for fellow sufferers to know that they are not alone, that others have shared something similar. But that isn’t the same for those who have been lucky enough not to suffer. I probably had around fifty conversations with co-workers in that last year at work, and made a point of telling them a few key things:

1. There is no shame in having been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness.
2. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
3. It is far more prevalent than people imagine, and it was quite likely that other people we worked with had similar problems.
4. Whilst some may not, many will welcome an initial approach of the ‘is everything ok?’ type. It does help to talk, and an informal chat can often be all that is needed to help someone.
5. Don’t be judgemental – people need to be heard, not given well-meaning ‘diagnoses’ by friends who aren’t qualified to judge.
6. Having been diagnosed doesn’t change who you are, and shouldn’t change how others see you.

I’d like to think that, in my own little way, I did something to help understanding and awareness. The important part of this was that it was on a one to one basis: I’m a great believer in the need for efforts to be made to widen the general population’s knowledge on mental health, and this low key approach is a good way to do that. Just imagine how many could be enlightened if we all had just one chat!

This Thursday, 1 February, is #TimeToTalk Day. The day is all about opening a conversation: this may be with someone who may need support; it could be to help raise general awareness of mental health issues; or it may be to help people be more sensitive and caring towards each other. I hope you join in – no special skills or resources are required, just be yourself and talk to someone. You may be pleasantly surprised at what happens.

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I’m Fine

A couple of weeks ago the Mental Health Foundation launched a campaign called ‘I’m Fine.’ Posters are appearing in key sites in London, particularly on public transport. This was prompted by their research findings that on average we will say that little phrase 14 times a week, though only 19% of us actually mean it. To accompany their campaign they have produced this short video:

A stereotypical view of our reserved British nature would suggest that we say this to avoid opening up, and because we don’t really think that the person who has just asked how we are actually wants or expects an honest answer: 59% said that they expected the answer to be a lie. And if they got the truth, would they know how to deal with it anyway? 44% of the survey sample said they had received an answer they weren’t expecting to the question, and were surprised at being taken out of the comfort zone of ‘regular’ social intercourse.

We are famed for our reserve, but this isn’t just a British thing: if you listen closely there are a couple of distinctly American accents in the video. The point behind the MHF’s campaign isn’t that we lie to each other out of shyness, or a belief that we don’t really think that others want to know how we feel. In many cases, this unwillingness to open up is hiding a mental health problem about which we feel unable to talk. There is still a stigma around talking about mental health and the campaign is aiming to help remove that. There has been much research that has shown how we bottle up our thoughts and feelings rather than seek help, and this survey reinforces that – and also the usual perception that men are worse than women when it comes to talking about mental health issues.

To find out more about the campaign you can go here. Please do, as the site contains a wealth of useful information and tips on how to support someone in need of help – or on how to seek help for yourself if you need it. At this time of year it is very easy to get wrapped up in all the paraphernalia and excitement of Christmas without realising that there may be people we know and care about who aren’t feeling the joy. So, if you ask someone how they are, make sure that you mean it – and be prepared for an answer that may be more than a simple ‘I’m fine.’ I know from my own experience how easy it can be to kid others with that reply – and in doing so I was kidding myself. It doesn’t just have to be a casual greeting – and deserves to be much more than this. It’s worth doing that little bit extra to ensure that they – and you – really are ‘fine.’ As the survey showed, 4 times in 5 that answer isn’t really true.

No Stigma For Halloween, Please

When I was a kid Halloween wasn’t an event we marked in any way. Here in the UK we were busy making our guys for the forthcoming Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, and hadn’t yet imported the commercialisation of Halloween from the US. So I’m sorry to say, American friends, that your celebration for tonight rather passes me by! That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to you, but it does seem to me to be a little artificial for it to be ‘celebrated’ here. Of course, I have some treats ready in case I have some little visitors this evening, but this will be my 9th Halloween at my current address and I’ve yet to see any trick or treaters!

As retailers fall over themselves to make money from Halloween the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I recently reblogged a post I wrote three years ago about Asda – and to a lesser extent, Tesco – selling costumes that mocked mental illness. The message that these were giving children, that it was somehow acceptable to make fun of people with mental health problems, was appalling, and the retailers had to give in to the outcry and withdraw the products from sale. But, as I mentioned in a more recent post on the stigmatisation of mental health issues, you could still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist fancy dress retailers. The two I found, with very little effort, were Partypackage Ltd and Wonderlandparty, but no doubt there are others. This is a shameful way to make money, but I guess that as these companies are much smaller than the likes of Asda and Tesco they have managed to slip under the radar. That doesn’t make them any less guilty, in my eyes.

I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most outside the US would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is they are celebrating. But as these little posters from the admirable Time To Change organisation remind us, these celebrations have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness.

 

So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having this evening, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.

Happy Halloween!