As I walked along Northumberland Street headed for Newcastle’s Mental Health Day event at Grey’s Monument, my mind went back more than two years to my first engagement with Time to Change, England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination.
I first registered an interest with Time to Change in November 2013, and attended a get-together evening at the Crisis Cafe later that month. I enjoyed the evening, but left feeling unsure whether I had the skills and experience to contribute to what Time to Change and the other organisations and individuals I had met were doing. This was no reflection on the warmth of the welcome. Rather, it was a voice inside me that told me I was not yet ready to engage fully.
At that time, Fran and I had been friends for two and a half years. Despite living on opposite sides of the Atlantic I’d supported her through episodes of mania and depression, and accompanied her virtually through a gruelling three month trip around Europe. We were co-writing a book to inspire others wanting to support friends who live with mental illness.
Keen to improve my knowledge and experience, I booked a place on the excellent Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course, and later took the Applied Suicide Awareness Skills Training (ASIST). I learned practical skills, but more importantly I connected with people courageous enough to share what living with mental illness—or supporting people who did—meant to them. I shared my story too. I made connections, and new friends. When I learned about the Mentally Sound radio show here in Newcastle, I approached the organisers with our story, and was proud to be interviewed on air. Fran and I were also engaging with individuals and organisations in the mental health arena on both sides of the Atlantic.
I felt increasingly confident, but something still held me back. Every now and again a Time to Change e-mail would land in my in-tray, announcing some event or other. And I would read it, shake my head, and close it again. That voice in my head was still there, nagging at me. “Yeah, OK, you’ve done some stuff. Taken some courses. Bluffed your way onto a radio show. But you are still not enough.”
Most of us have heard that insidious voice at some point, whether from others or inside our own heads. It is the enemy of courage, of engagement. It is the voice of shame. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew there was a way to prove it wrong. But I didn’t know how. In January, Fran signed up to do an online workshop with research professor, author, and public speaker Brené Brown on courage and vulnerability. The class encourages you to identify your core values, and choose one or more arenas: areas in your life where you feel stuck, or where your impulse to be brave is repeatedly stalled. I decided to investigate my own life values, and choose my own arenas to work on. I chose Connection and Challenge as my life values. My arena: “To engage fully with local mental health groups.”
Within days, I heard about an upcoming mental health awareness event in the centre of Newcastle, to coincide with Time to Change’s annual #TimeToTalk campaign. I signed up as a volunteer before the voice in my head had chance to intervene. As I wrote in my diary, “Fear of engagement has always kept me on the outside, looking in on the arena. It is time to show up for my life.”
As I turned the corner into Blackett Street, I saw folk putting the finishing touches to the stalls and marquees gathered around Grey’s Monument. The weather forecast promised rain, but there was already a good turnout. As well as various Time to Change marquees, there were stalls for a wide range of local, regional and national groups, including Mind, Crisis, and Launchpad.
The first stall I came to was Men Tell Health, manned (pun very definitely intended) by the fabulous Gary Pollard who I knew through Twitter and Facebook. Gary and I met like old friends: manhugs very much the order of the day. I saw several other familiar faces. Angela Slater, Regional Coordinator for Time to Change was there. Alisdair Cameron from Launchpad, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson who was running the social media for the event, and many of the volunteers I’d met at the orientation meeting the week before. A short briefing from Angela and Alisdair, and the event was underway.
Our remit was to engage members of the public in conversation about mental health. This was utterly new territory for me, but I knew I wasn’t the only one volunteering for the first time. It was scary, but I felt fully supported. My first conversations were a little tentative, but I soon settled into things.
I felt most comfortable in the Activity Zone helping run the quiz. This was next to the sound stage, which at times made it hard to hold a conversation, but the array of freebies and fruit juice mocktails drew people in. Whether folk knew the answers or not, the quiz provided a great focus to talk about mental health, and I had some of my best conversations of the day there. I later spent time in the cinema marquee, which was showing a variety of shorts from Time to Change and other organisations.
Mental health covers a wide range of diagnosed—and undiagnosed—conditions, and lived experiences and opinions vary enormously. One very telling moment for me came when I happened to step back slightly just as the man I was talking with shared that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “That’s what people do,” he said. “When they find out. They step away.” I hadn’t done so because of what he said, but it brought the realities of stigma home to me in a very personal way. I was grateful to him, and told him so.
Some stories, whether of mental illness or the often-related issues of poverty, benefits, or housing, were undeniably hard to hear. But the atmosphere wasn’t sombre in any way. No matter the content, genuine connection is empowering if we are open to hear what people are saying. And there were moments too of sheer delight, laugher and merriment.
There was music from the Steel Pan band, the Making Waves choir, and acts including powerfully talented singer Jeffri Ramli. There was dancing in the street (and in some of the tents—a new experience for me!) And there were new friendships struck. I asked a few of my fellow volunteers if they’d like to contribute a sentence or two about the day. Here’s what they said:
The weather on the day was cold, wet and miserable! But although we were cold and wet, we were far from miserable! For me, the fact I was helping spread the word and stamp out stigma made me smile from ear to ear. I met some amazing people, both volunteers and public. The stories I heard and the helping people understand mental health, all while having fun and making new friends, can only mean one thing! I will definitely volunteer again!
Saturday was special, not only because it was both Time to Talk and World Mental Health Day in Newcastle, but because I got the chance to be with like-minded people who accept you and don’t ever judge. There were lots of old mates and the opportunity to work with new people—like yourself, Martin. I love the buzz and chat, talking about well-being and being there making a difference. Can’t wait till our next village.
I was filled with excitement despite the rain and winds. I was lovely and warm seeing friends and making new ones during our discussions throughout the day. From start to finish I was happy and content. I felt we accomplished a lot as a team!
It was excellent to see so many people enjoying themselves: volunteers, stall holders and indeed members of the public. Even though it rained nearly all day it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. Many meaningful conversations were had with members of the public throughout the day. The thing that impressed me the most was even though the Government are cutting Mental Health services on a daily basis we have proved that we can still make a big difference in a positive way to many people’s lives. I am so looking forward to the next event. A huge thanks to all involved and to all my new friends I met at the event.
I definitely intend to volunteer again, and recommend the experience to anyone interested in challenging stigma and discrimination. If you would like to volunteer, or want find out some more about Time to Change, you can sign up for free with no obligation on the Time To Change website.
Thank you to my dear friend Carol Robinson (right) for the photos, and to everyone involved in the event, especially Angela, Alisdair, and Aimee.
I can’t wait for my next time in the arena.