This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. How aware of that were you?
On Monday morning I walked through a bright sunny Tavistock Square, blue skies above, birds singing, a slight chill in the air, and suddenly everywhere people in sunglasses and the occasional brave pair of shorts. As I sit here writing this on Friday morning I am already aware of how this grey London day affects my state of mind, the clouds a pall on both the daylight and my mood. But on Monday the sun was out and I had a smile on my face. I was on my way to Mary Ward House, an immaculate Grade I listed Victorian building in Tavistock Place, Bloomsbury. Today I looked up the history of the building and the charitable work that Mary Ward did, and it is quite something to read - from its construction in 1898 as a Settlement with a mission to break down the barriers to education that class and poverty represented, extending to incorporate the first day school for physically disabled people all the way back in 1899. Its original aim to provide a space for ‘education, social intercourse and debate’ was perfect for the intention of the event I was visiting.
Monday saw the MHA week 2019 kick off with Peakon’s ‘Your Mental Health Action Plan’ event for HR professionals. I was there to hear the great speakers and meet people interested in talking about Storytelling and the role it can play in advocacy. I knew that there would be some people telling their stories. Geoff MacDonald is a great champion of the cause of Mental Health in the workplace with his Minds@Work initiative, and he powerfully uses his story of his own mental ill-health to #smashthestigma. He has told me his story face to face but I was interested to see the dynamic when he tells a whole room. His message is simple and clear - talking about it saved him, and only talking openly about this issue will allow us to change attitudes and behaviours and support people. Rob Stephenson was also impressive and courageous in taking us into a few key story moments in his mental health journey. Over the past year I supported Rob in telling his story, with his desire to use it to connect with people and break through the prejudice. He has now built his own initiative, InsideOut, which is a space for senior business leaders to take a stand and tell their stories to become part of this movement to change attitudes and end the stigma. What Rob so brilliantly demonstrates is that all of us - 1:1 - are on a continuum with our own mental health, just as we are with our physical health. And it is never just static - day to day we manage both types of our health, and day to day we will feel differently. Rob names this for himself.
As I sat there on Monday listening to both Geoff and Rob, and then Steve Hoblyn, Petra Velzeboer and David Beeney, all telling their story of their own experience to great effect, I was moved. They weren’t purporting to represent anyone but themselves, they were speaking their own truth and telling us how it has shaped them. And as I listened to them I was able to own my own story.
Two months ago I empathised with Geoff talking about having his first panic attack and thinking he was having a heart attack; I empathised with Rob telling a story of retreating under his duvet and not being able to come out. I empathised, but now in the last two months I have experienced both those feelings. One Monday morning in April I woke up and couldn't get out of bed until Wednesday. I sat up with my heart going like the clappers, and my breathing coming fast and sharp. Thanks to both of their stories being told, firstly I understood I wasn’t having a heart attack. And secondly I knew I wasn’t alone. Because of this, since that week I have told many people the story of what happened to me.
A year ago I wouldn’t have done this. Things really can change…
Join Narativ's next Storytelling and Listening workshop on June 20th 2019 in London.
17th May 2019