Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Challenging Stigma in Changing Times: My Journey with Time to Change

“Time to Change was a social movement to change the way people think and act about mental health problems. The campaign started in 2007 and closed at the end of March 2021.” (Time to Change website)

In October last year I received an email purporting to be from Time to Change, announcing the closure of the organisation at the end of March 2021. The news seemed so unlikely that I messaged the Time to Change Twitter account to check it wasn’t a scam email. Sadly, both email and news were genuine. As of March 31, 2021, Time to Change is no more. Their website and social media accounts remain for the time being, but visitors are met with the following stark message:

Time to Change closed on 31st March 2021, but the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems hasn’t gone away. We need you to continue changing how people think and act about mental health problems.

The closure has inspired any number of social media posts and articles. Most I’ve seen have either been written from a societal perspective (such as A ground breaking campaign that changed the mental health landscape by Brian Dow, Deputy CEO of Rethink Mental Illness) or by people who themselves live with mental health issues (the two categories are not, of course, mutually exclusive). I can’t speak from a broader society perspective and I have no direct lived experience, but I’d like to share what Time to Change meant to me.

Volunteering with Time to Change

My involvement with Time to Change began in November 2013. In the two and a half years since we first met online in May 2011, Fran and I had built a rich network of connections within the mental health community in the US, mostly in the state of Maine where Fran lives. I remember Fran jokingly asking if anyone in the UK lived with mental illness, because we didn’t seem to know any individuals or organisations here. It was time for me to step up and find out what was happening on this side of the Atlantic.

Time to Change was the first UK organisation I checked out and I registered as a Champion, as TTC called its volunteers. In no time at all I received an email with details of a local networking and social event. Turning up on my own at the Crisis Cafe in Newcastle was the scariest thing I’d done in a long time, but I received a warm welcome from Angela Slater, who at the time was Time to Change Regional Coordinator and Equalities Coordinator for Disability. I remember attempting small talk with the people I was sitting next to, some of whom were new volunteers like me, and the passion of the various speakers. I particularly remember talking with Darren Hodge who told me about Mental Health First Aid training. I enjoyed the experience, but as I’ve written elsewhere it left me unsure whether I was ready to follow up and engage fully.

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.

It took two years for me to reconnect with Angela and actually volunteer with Time to Change. During that time I was growing and learning. I took the MHFA training and engaged in other ways, including an appearance on local radio to talk about my friendship with Fran and the book we’d begun writing. What finally tipped the balance was an online workshop Fran and I took with research professor, author, and public speaker BrenĂ© Brown on courage and vulnerability. Within days, I heard about an upcoming 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.”

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d made in a long time. I reconnected with Angela and met several people I’d see at Time to Change events over the coming years, including Aimee Wilson who is now one of my closest friends. I’ve written about the event itself elsewhere but I want to quote something I’ve found to be consistently true as I’ve learned more about sharing space, time, and conversation with people with lived experience of mental health issues.

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.

I volunteered with Time to Change at Northern Pride for three consecutive years (2016 through 2018). As with the first event I volunteered at, the idea was to engage members of the public about TTC’s role, mental health, and stigma. We handed out leaflets, encouraged people to make mental health related pledges, took selfies, and answered questions. After one event I told a friend:

For me, what makes it so worthwhile is when I am talking to someone who might not be used to sharing about their mental health and I comment or ask a question and they are like “yes!” In that moment there is this really genuine human connection. That happened a few times today.

Time to Talk Day

One of Time to Change’s key contributions to raising mental health awareness was establishing the annual Time to Talk Day in February.

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet too many people are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless because of this. Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

Talking about mental health is something Fran and I do on a day-to-day basis. It is the basis of our friendship and the cornerstone of our book High Tide, Low Tide. I wrote What Does Having a Conversation about Mental Health Look Like? for Time to Talk Day 2019 because what comes naturally to me and Fran (most of the time) can sound difficult or intimidating if you are not used to it.

Having “a conversation about mental health” might sound daunting, but it simply means allowing someone to talk openly about what’s going on for them. It might be a face-to-face conversation, a phone or video call, or a conversation by e-mail, text (SMS), or instant messaging. Whatever works for you and the other person.

Confidence and Support

Working with like-minded and like-hearted people is healthy and rewarding. I’ve grown a lot in self-confidence, directly and indirectly, from being a Time to Change volunteer. I discovered I have something valuable to contribute on a wider stage and have felt supported in doing so. I’ve met some amazing people and made good friends, including two of my closest friends, Vikki Beat and Aimee Wilson. I’ve also connected with other people and organisations locally and online, including Newcastle Recovery College (ReCoCo), Launchpad, and LEAPS. I believe I’ve grown and become a better person.

It would be wrong to give the impression that everything has been “sunshine and rainbows,” though. I’ve had periods of crippling self-doubt about my role within the mental health community, including Time to Change, because I lack lived experience of illness or mental health services. Perhaps the worst bout came in late 2018 / early 2019, as I related in Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena. The support and encouragement I received from work colleagues and friends, including people who know me through Time to Change, made a huge difference and reassured me I have a role to play and a contribution to make. I will forever be grateful for their honesty and support.

Employer Pledge Scheme

In 2018 I joined the mental health team at the company where I work, BPDTS Ltd. I knew of the Time to Change Employer Pledge Scheme and met with our Chief Exec and senior executive team to sell them the idea.

My main objective was to gain approval for the company to sign up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge Scheme. It says a lot about our leadership team that my recommendation was approved unanimously. I’m looking forward to taking the initiative forward in the weeks to come.

It was very much a team effort, and we had superb support from our CEO down, but as Pledge Lead I can admit a good deal of personal pride when we were accepted into the scheme. The scheme itself has closed but you can still read our company’s pledge on the Time to Change website. The mental health team which I now co-lead has expanded considerably, and I look forward to even greater things as our company merges with DWP (the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions) to form a new digital organisation.

BPDTS CEO Loveday Ryder, Martin Baker, Lois White

What Next?

I will always be proud of my association with Time to Change and grateful for the opportunities and connections it brought me, but what next? There is so much more to be done. It feels short-sighted at best for Time to Change to close when society as a whole, and each of us individually, has been so severely challenged by covid. I will miss the sense I had of being supported and encouraged by an organisation I imagined would be a permanent part of the mental health landscape. But, as the final email from Time to Change to its volunteers makes clear, we can feel proud of our successes and commit to continuing the work.

Whether you have been part of the Time to Change movement since we began in 2007 or you’ve only recently joined us on this journey, you have played a significant role in changing the way we all think and act about mental health problems. Remember that each action we take, however big or small, has the power to improve attitudes and behaviour towards those of us with mental health problems.

And while Time to Change is closing, we can all continue to use our voices to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination. Our enduring efforts will help to empower and support others to join us on this journey as we strive to create a more equitable society.

If you are wondering how the work and journey will continue, the Time to Change website has plenty of information and suggestions.

We encourage you to continue to challenge stigma and discrimination when you see it, hear it or experience it for yourselves. On this website, you’ll find a range of useful resources which will help you to take action.

There are lots of ways that you can continue to campaign around important mental health issues with our charity partners, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Find out how to get involved with our partners.

You can still find Time to Change on their website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

What If I Never Do All the Things I Used to Do?

In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.
— Dave Hollis

A few weeks ago I was talking with a colleague about England’s road map out of lockdown. He said he felt cautiously optimistic and that he’d made a wish list of things he wants to do again when it’s possible. He asked if I’d made a list. I said no, it hadn’t occurred to me. That wasn’t entirely true. It’s not so much that it hadn’t occurred to me. At some level it feels wrong to me, even unhealthy, to make a list like that because I’d be wishing for things that are no longer possible or available.

Like most of us, I suppose, I spent the first months of lockdown imagining a time when things would start getting back to normal — or at least to something resembling how things were before. Being back in the office. Holidays. Meeting friends for coffee, drinks, meals, or days out. Hugs. As the weeks and months passed those hopes receded, but they still felt feasible. Out there somewhere a “near normal” future was waiting for me.

At some point, though, it dawned on me that things will never return to how they used to be. The impact of covid, of lockdown, of all the changes we lived through last year and are still living through, is simply too great for us to pick up where we left off. Vaccinations will allow us to move forward but right now, as England begins gradually to open up again, I can only see that many things I valued (and some I took for granted) have already gone beyond any hope of retrieval. Others may resume, but they won’t be the same. I’m not the same. We aren’t the same. How could we be, with all we have gone through?

The holiday cottage I’ve been going to for decades, the one that felt like a second home? I had to cancel two planned visits last year but what if I never get to go back because the lady who owns it — who is practically family after all these years — decides reopening is too much to deal with, with all the new restrictions, and the risk that people may cancel at short notice?

The Wateredge Inn in Ambleside, which is one of my favourite places in the world? Maybe I’ll sit there again beside the lake with a pint and my notebooks, but it won’t be this year. What if it’s never?

STACK Newcastle, my go-to hangout until covid struck, where I’ve had so many good times hanging out with friends, or calling in on my own for a beer and a falafel wrap? The venue is set to reopen and I dare say I’ll go back at some point, but with social distancing and having to book in advance the atmosphere will never be the same. What if it never feels warm and welcoming — a Marty place — again?

The Frankie & Bennie’s restaurant in Newcastle I’ve visited for years? There’s no “what if?” about this one — it never reopened after the first lockdown and is closed permanently.

My two favourite coffee shops, where I’d sit and write, or meet up with friends, and where I always felt welcome and at ease? I’m more optimistic about these but what if they never reopen fully, or are too busy and cramped to feel comfortable again?

There are bigger things to focus on, you might be thinking. Mourning the loss of my holidays, favourite coffee shops and bars hardly registers when set against the devastating hurt and loss others have endured in the past year. These are the “little things” of my life, though. The little things that are actually the big things. Because it’s not about the coffee shop, or the pub, or the bar. Not really. It’s about the connections they represented, facilitated, and hosted.

When lockdown first hit I feared my local friendships might falter because they were born — and thrived — in meet-ups for coffee and drinks, days out, and time shared face-to-face. In fact, they flourished and grew, as we replaced face-to-face encounters with online chat, voice and video calls. They transitioned, successfully if not always seamlessly, from in person friendships to online ones. And I have some prior experience and success with those. I do wonder how things will be, when we’re finally able to meet again in person, but as with the outer trappings of my BC (before covid) life there is no going back. Only forward.

So no, I don’t have a list of things I want to do again. “Like it used to be” or “like we used to do” are false hopes, illusions, to my current way of thinking at least. Instead, I will hold myself open to whatever is possible, available, present, and real.

 

Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Free Books for World Bipolar Day

To mark World Bipolar Day 2021 Fran and I are offering our books for FREE on Kindle for five days between Monday March 29 and Friday April 2, inclusive.

In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we share what we’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.” With no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches and practical tips, illustrated with real-life conversations and examples. Buy it here.

Friendship is a beautiful part of life and an important component of long-term wellness. No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship is a collection of articles from our blog which shows that mental illness needn’t be a barrier to meaningful connection; indeed it can be the glue that holds people together. Buy it here.

Once the free offer is over the prices will go back to normal.

World Bipolar Day is celebrated each year on March 30, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who is thought to have lived with a bipolar condition.

The vision of World Bipolar Day is to bring world awareness to bipolar conditions and to eliminate social stigma. Through international collaboration, the goal of World Bipolar Day is to bring the world population information about bipolar conditions that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the condition.

For more information check out the following websites.

 

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

It's ok if you don't. (Thoughts from the first covid lockdown, one year on.)

It’s ok if you don’t want to make the best of it
It’s ok if you don’t want to bake banana bread.
It’s ok if you don’t want to craft with Kirstie.
It’s ok if you don’t want to do a scavenger hunt around your home.
It’s ok if you don’t want to learn a new language.
It’s ok if you don’t want to have a quiz night with your colleagues.
It’s ok if you don’t want a movie night with your buddies.
It’s ok if you don’t want to have themed evenings with your beloved, your family, or your friends.

It’s ok to miss how it used to be.
It’s ok to feel afraid.
It’s ok to hate it.
It’s ok to be overwhelmed.
It’s ok to do this your way.

 

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Nobody Is Immune from Stress, You Know

In my recent article 11 Things I Am Grateful for This Week I revealed “I’ve been experiencing a good deal of stress lately one way or another.” I thought it would be useful for me — and hopefully interesting for others — to explore what was going on for me at that time and how I handled things.

Why Was I So Stressed?

I sometimes get stressed about work or relationships, but this time the trigger was discovering the hot water tank (immersion heater) at home had stopped working. Looking back, I can see there were several strands to my stress and anxiety. The first was the immediate, practical issue of not having any hot running water and having to find someone to deal with it. I have a poor track record finding reliable tradespeople. I felt under pressure to engage someone who would do a good job for a reasonable price.

There were several other plumbing jobs which needed doing about the house, including drippping taps in the bathroom and kitchen, and a kitchen waste outlet that blocked easily despite my attempts to clear it out. I realised I could probably get these long-standing issues fixed at the same time as the water tank, but I could feel myself getting anxious about other household maintenance I’d put off and spent a long time trying to ignore. I was also scared in case bigger repairs came to light.

Most of all, I felt out of my depth. I couldn’t fix the issue itself and felt unequal to the task of finding people who could and would fix it.

What Actually Happened?

It started on Thursday February 18 when I discovered there was no hot water. I immediately went online (checkatrade.com) and looked for an electrician to see if it could be repaired. One came out on the Saturday. He said the element had burnt out but the tank was so old it needed replacing. To his credit, he wouldn’t take any money for the callout.

I wasn’t surprised. The tank was about thirty years old. It started leaking last year but I couldn’t find anyone willing to replace it. The leak stopped on its own and I pushed it to the back of my mind. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I went back onling and put in a new job to replace the tank. Two plumbers responded. One seemed particularly keen. I send photos and we discussed what was needed. It was looking good but nothing much happened for a week, despite chasing plumber #1 for a quote. The tank began leaking again, causing damage to the ceiling over the stairs and massively increasing my stress. I isolated and drained the tank.

I tried plumber #2 again. He agreed to call round and quoted for the work within a couple of days. It was more expensive than I’d anticipated but it needed doing. He came on Saturday March 6, replaced the ancient tank with a new hot water cylinder, and also replaced the taps and kitchen waste outlet. From start to end, it had taken sixteen days.

How Did I Feel?

My main symptoms were discomfort and pain in my gut, elevated heart rate, and headaches. They became more persistent and problematic as time went on, and were most severe in the final days before the work was done. This was different from how stress usually affects me; I tend to feel a tightness in my chest and gut but not to this extent. I was very aware my heart was racing much of the time. I checked my heart rate and stress level on my phone and found them much higher than usual. It was disturbing but in a funny way it helped that there was something tangible that validated what I was feeling. It was real. I wasn’t imagining it.

How Did I Handle It?

I took practical steps to mitigate the disruption until things could be fixed. This included buying a water heater to heat water for baths/washing. I also researched as much as I could, which helped me engage with the tradespeople and understand what they suggested.

For the stress itself, I mostly followed the strategies in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). I shared what I was going through with Fran, other close friends, and colleagues including fellow Mental Health First Aiders at work. I also went out for walks (walking is one of my key wellbeing strategies) but the discomfort I was feeling got in the way of walking as much as I might have done.

Watching Grey’s Anatomy with Fran on Netflix helped a lot as a distraction, especially in the evening before I went to bed. Blogging and working on the reprint of our book No One Is Too Far Away also helped, as did exploring my thoughts and feelings in my daily journal. I reminded myself that no one had been hurt and any damage was pretty minimal. (As one of my friends puts it, no one died and no one caught fire.) I focused on things I had to be grateful for, which led to the blog post I mentioned earlier.

I reduced my coffee intake, and turned to peppermint tea when the abdominal discomfort was especially bad. I also cut down on bread to ease the bloating I was experiencing.

How Did Others Respond?

Without exception, the people I confided in listened to my grumbles without judging me or making me feel my issues were less important, serious, or immediate than theirs (although in many cases they were). With some I discussed the practical aspects of the work; what might be up with the water tank, what replacements might be appropriate, and what the work might cost.

Fran, Jen and others were supportive. (Fran had water leaks in her apartment at the time so could empathise on that level too.) Aimee asked if I needed to see a doctor. She didn’t nag me, though, and respected my wish to see if the symptoms eased once the work was done. She also sent me a hot water bottle to ease the pain, which was much appreciated! A conversation with Vikki the day after the work was complete reminded me that stress and anxiety can affect anyone, and ultimately inspired this article.

“I feel a lot less stressy now the work is done. It caught me off guard, how much it affected me, if I’m honest.”

“Nobody is immune from stress, you know.”

“That’s so true, Vikki. I’ve rarely known it affect me so much, though. It’s something for me to watch out for in future. I think it was different this time because it wasn’t something I could deal with directly myself. Also my not feeling confident about finding someone to do the work. (These plumbers were good, though, I would definitely use them again.) I’m looking forward to my walk later!”

I’m grateful to everyone I opened up to. You really helped.

How Do I Feel Now?

It was amazing how quickly the symptoms disappeared. Writing in my journal the day after the work was done I noted that the headaches had gone and I was generally feeling much calmer. As measured on my phone, my stress level and heart rate had returned to their usual levels. It took a day or two for my gut to settle but even in the first 24 hours it was much better than it had been. A week later, none of these symptoms have returned.

Reflection

Looking back, I can see I did some things right. I didn’t ignore the issue, pretend it wasn’t happening, or delay in addressing it. I researched options, engaged with the electrician and plumbers, and was clear and concise describing what I needed them to do. I was open with friends and colleagues which helped a great deal. I didn’t keep it all inside, or pretend things were fine when they weren’t.

Inevitably, there are things I might have done differently. I could have chased the first plumber more when he failed to get back to me. The temptation to let it slide so I didn’t have to deal with things there and then led to several day’s delay overall, and left me feeling less in control than I might have been.

On the whole, I believe I will be better prepared if something like this happens in the future. I can plan for future work and home improvements rather than waiting until things break or need replacing. I already have a list of possible improvements and changes to work with in the coming months. I also intend to review my WRAP plan and update it to include the kind of symptoms I experienced.

Do you suffer from stress and anxiety? Do you know how to minimise its effects on you and move through it as cleanly as possible? Do you have any tips or strategies you would like to share? We would love to hear from you.

 

Photo by zhenhappy on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Positivity Rules! The poetry of Jules Clare

With great sadness, we have learnt that Jules Clare, aka The Jewelster, passed away on February 15, 2021. We are resharing this article in tribute to his great spirit.

Originally published May 2015.


Jules Clare was born in Wales in 1963. He is a Welsh Brummie Mackem poet. He supports Aston Villa. He is a born survivor. He has lived through and with a brain haemorrhage, ulcerative colitis, bi-polar affective mood disorder, acute rheumatoid arthritis and a deep vein thrombosis. He smiles a lot, especially in the face of adversity.

He is strong willed. He has been barred from the Surtees, The RAFA Club, The Kings and The Fat Brewer. All of these are shady drinking establishments in Crook. Nobody messes with The Jewelster!

He started writing poetry nine years ago during a mental health recovery phase at The County Hospital in Durham. He has not looked back since!

People love his sense of humour, his poetry’s directness, his delivery and his dress sense.

Jules puts himself out to help people. He has done a lot of work motivating mental health service users convincing them that they are priceless individuals who can reach any goal in their lives providing that they believe in themselves.

Positivity rules! You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try!

At the time of writing Jules has had 67 poems published in national newspapers and magazines, had eleven books published and appeared on numerous radio stations; most notably the Mentally Sound show on Gravity Radio North East and James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough.

You can find Jules' poetry on YouTube, Soundcloud and Facebook.

 


Friendly Miracles

I believe in miracles
I believe in my friends
They are truly spiritual human beings
In their own way
they're all sexy things
Yes, I believe in miracles
since they came around

Where did my friends come from?
Where are they going?
With a little love and understanding
they'll be there forever
supporting me, giving me space
setting me free, granting me grace

An Angel of Mercy
brought them into my life
Did they appreciate my smile?
Did they want to help me cope with strife?
They must have
because they never ran a mile

My friends touch me
I love the way they respectfully
hold on to my soul dearly
I guess that I am treated as a friend
By appreciating what they see
they give me self esteem

Yes, they make me believe in miracles
They'll keep me smiling until my very end

~ Jules Clare


Personal Respect

Life is not about winning
It’s about living
My mind is well and truly spinning
Yet I’m still giving

People treat me with little respect
I’ve formed my own Buddhist sect
Nothing affects me if I stay meek
I turn the other cheek

I give people love, peace and understanding
I give them the chance to be free
I can cope with their philandering
All I ask is that they let me be free

Life is about living
Life is about one moment at a time
It’s real and I’m not kidding
Living my life the way that I want
should not be a crime

~ Jules Clare