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Thursday 2 February was “Time to Talk” day. It’s a campaign sponsored by the mental health charity Mind to encourage people to take a moment out of their busy day to pause and check-in with friends, family and colleagues about how they are feeling and ask about their mental health.

This year I supported the conversation in my role as a Lived Experience Champion for the End Stigma Surrey anti-discrimination campaign. This was the first time in my role as a Champion that I had approached members of the general public out of the blue to engage in discussions about mental health. This post shares some of my insights gained from my conversations on the day and how two things kept coming up that stopped people taking action to improve their mental health. These were having the time and the shame created out of stigma. But is this really what’s stopping us or are these just lies we tell ourselves so we keep putting it off? Lets find out.

Seeking out stigma

As an End Stigma Champion the most interesting conversations for me were the ones where I actually detected a note of stigma. During the day the most striking remark on the surface sounded like the mental health panacea we’ve all been looking for:

I don’t have time to be depressed!

Darn it! If only I’d known that before. Everyone look busy and you’ll be ok! I’m expert at “looking busy” and it turns out that’s all I had to do for the dark cloud of bipolar disorder to shimmy on past me and rain down on the next person.

What was particularly striking was that this remark embodied not just stigma towards others fighting against a bona fide medical condition but potentially also an element internalised stigma that may prevent this individual from allowing herself to seek support if she needed it. The feeling I got was regardless of what might be happening in her life she would never allow her self to identify as “one of those people”.

But as we know, it doesn’t work like that. Mental ill-health does not discriminate; rich or poor, young or old, busy or lazy. It’s just the same as any physical condition – it’ll strike you down when you least expect it. You can’t just decide that you’re “too busy” for that migraine, stomach ache, virus or worse, and expect that by magic it’ll go away just because you’ve too much to do – despite how much you might wish it would.

What left me a little sad was that I sensed from our conversation that her own wellbeing wasn’t in a particularly good place. I felt that if she were more open towards understanding issues surrounding mental health that it might allow her to take steps to improve her wellbeing and enjoyment of life, but it was clear to me she really didn’t want to continue this conversation about this thing that only affects those other people who where clearly just lazy.

On balance, I think there is an element of truth in what she was saying. Keeping yourself active and occupied is no doubt good for your mental health. Not only that, poor mental wellbeing can indeed be ignored for a while – just like you can ignore persistent physical pain – but it’s not advisable to do so forever. Persistent physical pain typically suggests something more sinister may be happening under the surface so its worth getting it checked out. It’s the same with your mental health. Left unchecked and without seeking the support of charities or professionals, sooner or later it’ll strike you down. But all too often asking for help just seems like a bridge too far – and stigma can sit behind this too.

Too proud

Stigma from others can also stop people asking for help. This became clear when I spoke with another lady. She described how she had this “thing”. She didn’t really know how to describe it other than she knew she’d always felt like it and when it happens she just needs to hide her self away for a few days to get through it. She knew that it wasn’t right and also that asking for help was the right thing to do. But what was stopping her was the expectation of others.

In my family we always cope.

​We’re not supposed to ask for help; not for this.

As she spoke these words there was clear relief running through her body. She’d clearly been keeping these powerful emotions inside for too long and to finally tell someone was a huge weight off her mind. I was humbled that she’d chosen to confide in me.

In her case it was close family members that had created a stigma about mental health and had prevented her from seeking the support she needed. As we spoke I took a moment to express how I have struggled with asking for help in the past. My case is slightly different in that I always think “I’m not bad enough” and that “it’ll get better on it’s own” but I used it as a way to try and show that she’s not only one that finds it hard to ask for help and also to try and show its ok to do so.

​What was particularly challenging was how she found it so difficult to actually describe what was happening to her. It made asking for help all the much harder. Maybe all she needed to say is “there’s something wrong and I don’t know what it is” and let the conversation go from there. We talked about different ways of asking for help that might make this easier – such as by emailing a support service – which would allow her to take time to describe the feelings and emotions that are affecting her. The organisation might follow up with a phone call but at least it’s got that awkward bit of trying to explain the problem out of the way.

​I know how tough it is to experience mental health difficulties and not know what it is. This was one of the worst parts about the first time I fell ill with my bipolar disorder when I was 19. I just didn’t know what was happening to me and also whether or not I’d be like it forever. Getting a diagnosis was a great relief. It meant that it was treatable and that I probably wouldn’t feel like that forever. It also meant that I could find out more about the condition online, engage with others at support groups and learn about other peoples experiences from books, films and documentaries. All of these things helped me feel less alone by realising “it’s not just me” and enabled me to learn new ways to become more resilient and live with the condition.

Am I really helping?

Throughout the day I had the opportunity to engage in a range of different conversations with people from all backgrounds. With some, the conversation remained quite superficial; others were willing trust me enough to bare all and share their deepest fears and challenges – something that caught be quite by surprise. As much as I wanted to help, I couldn’t. That’s not for me to do; after all I’m not a counsellor or medical practitioner – in fact I have no mental health qualifications at all beyond my own hard fought experience.  And for that, I felt crap.

It made me completely call in to question the value I’m adding as an End Stigma Champion. If all I could do was start a conversation about mental health, what good is that when you identify someone really in need of support? Of course, I can signpost to supporting organisations, but I felt I should be doing more.

Everyone can make time

As the day came to a close I did come to one resounding conclusion which did, thankfully, reinforce the importance of what we do at End Stigma Surrey and make it all feel completely worthwhile.

Time to talk day is all about “making time” for your mental health. It’s about making the conscious decision that your mental health is as important as your physical health and worthy of your time to look after it.  We all live busy lives and may often remark that we’re “too busy” to do something. But, every one of us has agency over our own lives. When we’re stuck in the monotony of the daily grind this may be hard to see; but we do. Everyone has choice over what we believe to be important and what we spend our time doing. 

If you think you’re “too busy” to look after your mental health, take a moment to undertake a time audit of your day and identify some of the time sinks you’re not “too busy” for. I bet you “make time” for your favorite TV show, find time to scroll through the latest updates on Instagram or complete the daily “Wordle”. How important are these activities, really? The 20-30 minutes these activities take are all you need to check in with your mental health and take steps to improve it. Taking just 20 minutes for a conversation about your wellbeing and mental health could change your life. 

I know it’s hard and that’s why we put it off.  And that’s not entirely your fault. Its the stigma surrounding mental health that makes this feel too difficult. And that’s why we continue to campaign and raise awareness of the ubiquitous, yet too often unseen nature of mental health struggles.

Our End Stigma campaign is about helping people “make time” for their mental health and start a conversation about it.  Whilst this may be as far as we go in terms of providing support – this is the first step that’s needed on a path to improved health and wellbeing. It is, therefore, the most important step. Without our campaign challenging societal stigma surrounding mental health and making it OK to talk about how we’re feeling, those in most need would continue fighting their internal demons in silence. And it is for this reason that I feel what I do as an End Stigma Champion is vitally important. 

​It’s about breaking down these invisible barriers to talking about wellbeing and mental health to enable progress to the next step of accessing professional help. We might just be the first link in the chain – but without it, there is no chain.

Regaining control

​Finding a few minutes a day for your mental health and wellbeing can be hugely empowering. When I was “too busy” to fit in anything else and every minute felt “double counted for” what I really needed was to find some zen like calm amongst all the craziness.

I had to make the decision create space in my life to make a change. To do this I started meditating for just a few minutes a day.  It was hard to find the time but it started me on a path of restoring agency over my life. And it wasn’t long before the benefits of this first step allowed me to make changes in other aspects of my life to further improve my wellbeing.

It’s my life. And if I want to sit and do nothing for 20 minutes, I damn well will!

We fight stigma to make it ok for everyone to start their journey to improved mental wellbeing. Mental health affects a surprising number of people. But, because it’s invisible everyone it affects thinks they’re the only one. Add old fashioned attitudes that stigmatize mental ill health in to the mix and it creates feelings of shame that we want to hide from. If you’re having a tough time mentally you just need to know that the way you feel is normal. By opening up you’ll soon find friends, colleagues or new contacts who have felt the same way and when you do this you’ll realise that stigma not the big issue you thought it was.

​So, what are you going to do to regain control over how you feel? What small action could you take today to improve your wellbeing that you’ll thank yourself for tomorrow? It just takes a moment to decide you want to make a change and a few minutes to take that first step.

​If you’re reading this and feel you need to talk to someone, the crisis support page on the Mary Frances Trust website has details of both local (to Surrey) and national organisations that exist for this purpose and are there hoping you’ll pick up the phone.