Today I did something I’ve never done before: I stopped complete strangers enjoying a day out, to talk to them about mental health.
I was one of a number of volunteers who had signed up with Time to Change to have “social contact” with the public. The theory is that attitudes and responses to people with mental health difficulties can be improved when people have had a chance to meet face-to-face with someone who is open about their own experience of mental distress. Time to Change has put this theory into action, taking its Roadshow around the country to bring teams of volunteers (most of whom are current or former service users) to major outdoor events and local shopping centres.
Some of those who, like me, had signed up to volunteer at the O2 London Mela – the UK’s biggest celebration of South Asian culture – gathered at West London Mental Health Trust Headquarters last week for a training session. We all admitted to being nervous; how on earth do you walk up to someone you’ve never seen before and start a conversation about mental health? Our facilitators assured us that nerves were natural, but that once volunteers got into the swing of things they usually ended up really enjoying themselves. Role-playing in groups was really helpful, giving us the chance to practice opening gambits on each other, and by the end of the training I was feeling more confident and looking forward to the Roadshow. As my partner drove me to Gunnersbury Park today, it was a different story. Thinking of what I was about to do, my stomach was in knots, and I almost asked to turn around go home. If I’d done that, I would have missed one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
My first few attempts at conversations didn’t go so well; maybe my lack of confidence showed, or maybe I just picked the wrong people. Once I got into the swing of things, however, I began to have some incredibly interesting and touching conversations. Some people said they knew nothing about mental health, but a surprising number disclosed to me their own experience of mental distress, or told me about a relative that had a mental health condition. At the heart of many of the conversations was the thorny issue of how someone can disclose a mental health problem when stigma and discrimination against service users persist. These conversations are the ones in which I learned the most about myself, and I am still thinking about them hours later. Thinking and talking about it, I realised that I use a number of strategies when broaching the subject:
Humour – “I have bipolar disorder,” I sometimes say, “like Catherine Zeta-Jones? You know, because Catherine and I, living the celebrity lifestyle… it takes its toll, darling.”
Briskly matter-of-fact – “Why have I been off work? Oh, I have bipolar disorder. Anyway, about tomorrow’s meeting….”
Round the houses – “So, um, anyway, you know that I had some time off for depression…. yeah, so I went to see a new psychiatrist – he was really nice, by the way, really understanding and he definitely took time to listen to me – and so he thought that maybe depression wasn’t the right diagnosis after all…. So now what he’s thinking is that maybe I should have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. And once he said that, it totally made sense… so that’s where we’re coming from now.”
All of these tactics – making light, glossing over, and bombarding the listener with words – are defence mechanisms. While I like to think that I’m completely upfront about my own mental health difficulties, part of me always worries about the reaction I’ll get. Campaigns like Time to Change are vital, because if we can combat mental health stigma, eventually it will become no more frightening to disclose a mental health condition than it would be to discuss any other hidden disability.
But today, I didn’t use any of these tactics. I described them, discussed them, laughed about them, but I didn’t need to use them. Where it seemed relevant, I told people that I was service user and/or that I have bipolar. I gave basic information, and answered questions when anyone had them. No-one was hostile; nobody tried to walk away. Most people ended our conversation wishing me well, exhorting me to “keep up the good work!” or congratulating me for having the courage to volunteer in this way. Maybe I need to give my friends, relatives and colleagues more credit, and be as open and honest as I was with the visitors to the London Mela.
I think 1 of the biggest issues with having a mental health “problem” is being able to admit it and talk about it…..sounds like you’ve got a lot of great experience out of this day. I’d definitely agree that you should build on that by opening up to those close to you – you had so much courage to do what you did today, I really admire you for that!
I am open about it, but like I say, I sometimes go round the houses, or don’t give people the chance to ask questions… work is the worst! Need to give it some thought before I go back! x
Well done Charlotte! It was very brave to do that, and I am sure you will have helped a lot of peop-le who don’t have the courage to talk about their mental health issues.
Talking about it can be really hard but once you are able to do so…One of the things that I miss about where I used to live is that I had a great bunch of workmates who all had mental health issues and we could talk to each other. (Teachers are over-represented in this area.) Since moving I had been feeling isolated until I started hitting the internet. Your blog and twitter have contributed to my feeling connected again.
There’s a good chance that some of the people you spoke to at this event will be able to put aside their own feelings of isolation that the stigma of mental illness causes.
I admire your immense courage. I would love to be able to do something like that, but my self confidence just isn’t big enough for that. I’m open and upfront about my bipolar, but I haven’t had any openly negative reactions to that yet so doing something like you did would fill me with the fear.
very well done Charlotte that must have taken great guts on your part
and I’m pleased for you that it went well
Thanks, honey! It was easy – in retrospect! Not so easy when I first got there! x
I’m very impressed! it’s an unbelievably tough thing to talk about, especially to strangers. I have to talk about my daughter’s illness quite often – because she’s not living with me but in hospital, so I quite often have to explain this to teachers, neighbours and doctors. It was difficult at first to work out what to say, and I do see people’s jaws drop when I tell them she has a mental illness, but I’ve been trying to tough it out. I do get some amazing information from people who have never told anyone else that there is (for example) schizophrenia in their family. It’s going to be really hard for her as she grows up, so I’m hoping Time to Change will make a big difference before she gets there!
Brilliant. This is an incredibly important campaign on so many levels, but the simple issue of being able to talk openly and honestly, with no apology or self-deprecation is a fundamental step. We’re trying to do it re: PND with our support group The Smile Group (shameless plug, @thesmilegroup) and I think if we all join the dots we really will make a difference.
What a brave and yet utterly liberating thing to do.
Hi Natalie, I’m now following The Smile Group on Twitter. I experienced depression after both my babies were born, but the internet wasn’t available to me then (youngest is now almost 12). Good lucj with your group! 🙂
I also attended the London Mela event and represented Time for Change as a volunteer. It was a very nerve-wracking experience at first that became something very uplifting. I found the stories of other people’s lives fascinating and the opportunity to talk about my issues was a revelation for me. I know that a lot of people there benefitted from the day and hope to get involved in similar types of events going forward. Thanks Charlotte for introducing me to your blog – I will keep an eye on your posts in the future…
Hi! So glad you checked my blog out and left me a comment, that’s great! Do you use Twitter at all? I’m @bipolarblogger, so that would be another way to keep in touch 🙂
What an incredibly great idea, and congrats on your bravery and the thinking/learning process it set off (both for the folks you spoke with and for yourself).
I haven’t heard of anything like Time for Change happening in North America. I wonder if I would be brave enough to talk to complete strangers about mental health issues. But, if I will comment on the weather, etc. to folks in a grocery store line for example, then I hope I could gather the courage to comment “mental health can be a hard topic to talk about,” rather than “been a really rainy, cool summer.”
Thanks, Phylor! I’m going to do another, very similar, event for my NHS Mental Health Trust soon for World Mental Health Day, again just trying to get conversations going in a non-threatening way.
It might make the time in the grocery store go faster! Some of the conversations I’ve had with people on the subject of mental health have been just amazing. A lot of people never usually let on what has happened to them or their families.