One of the many rewarding moments from the Leading Wellbeing Conference in Rotherham last week came immediately after I had spoken to the delegates about mental health. My 10-minute address was listed on the running order for the day as "Human Stories", and it was an opportunity to talk about the fact that we all have mental health - sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good - but we all have it.
I thought it was important to make sure everyone knew where I was coming from, so I made it clear that I live with mental illness, and have done for over 20 years. At the end of my talk we broke for lunch, at which point I was joined by a woman from the conference who wanted to talk to me about her ongoing struggles with mental illness; a conversation prompted by the fact that I had just openly discussed my own mental health in front of a room full of people.
It’s not the first time this has happened. When I worked as a teacher, while delivering a staff training session on mental health awareness I started session by talking about my own experiences of mental illness. Time and again in the weeks that followed I would be in my office when a member of staff called in to talk to me about their own mental illness or that of a loved one – ranging from newly qualified teachers to two members of the senior leadership team. They had not talked about this to others, but now they felt that they had someone to open up to.
I’m not a counsellor, and I am certainly not an expert (to be honest, I never really had myself down as a good listener either!) but what these experiences have taught me is that people want to talk about their mental health, and don’t feel as if they can. One of the most common emotions that people with mental illness report is isolation; the feeling that they are alone in their struggle and no one will understand. But the fact of the matter is that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental illness – so we are definitely not alone, many people will and do understand, and many more are prepared to listen and support us.
I was fortunate that I had a couple of opportunities to speak to groups of people, but you don’t need to give a lecture or a TED Talk; we can all make a little difference. It just needs each one of us to be a bit more open to conversations about mental health. Try it – you might be surprised who you end up having a conversation with.