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.