Wednesday 27 February 2019

One Step at a Time: Walking for Wellness, Walking for Me

When I’m happy, I walk.
When I’m sad, or lonely or lost.
When I’m hurting, or numb.
When there’s too much to think about
Or nothing on my mind.
I walk.

Walking has played an important role in my life for as long as I can remember. So much so that it was one of the first things I included in the wellness tools section of my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). It’s also made its way into my writing more often than I’d realised until I began writing this article. (The idea for this piece came to me whilst, wait for it, walking into work one morning a few weeks ago.)

My family never owned a car, so when I was growing up in Liverpool if I wanted to go somewhere it was catch the bus or walk. From the age of eleven I walked thirty or forty minutes each way to and from school, lost in my thoughts about whatever was going on for me at the time. In my late teens I remember going for Sunday evening walks to West Derby village and back, a round trip of maybe an hour and a half at my ambling, contemplative pace.

About that time I started going on the Ramblers’ Association (now The Ramblers) public walks every couple of months with my aunt and her friend. I loved the exercise and the sense of freedom, being out on the hills. The people were lovely but I mostly kept my own counsel and walked separately the rest. There was one exception, a lady whose name escapes me some forty years on. Her spirit is captured, however, in one of my poems from that time.

Song to the high hills

Take my hand offered
across streams
we jump
that trickle your laughter
down the savage fen.
Share with me one day’s
in this weird land,
where even the spring shuns
the mark of our
and unnamed birds cast down
forsaken echoes
from the high hills above us.
Do you not see
the whole earth bleeding …
distant mountains burn
a venous red
and at our feet
the bare rocks haemorrhage,
oozing lichen up from unseen wounds.
Believe me,
cares that clothe us
will fall
like autumn leaves
       that colour in your hair
come winter’s purge.
And yet, in all of this,
a little rain might mark my sadness
to court you but a day
—surely inhibition falters
as we share the innocence
of exploration together.

Innocence tempting revelation.

From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

I joined the hiking club at university but didn’t keep it up. I do recall one hike with friends across Ilkley Moor during a thunderstorm that painted the sky in all manner of crazy hues. Instead, I took to taking urban walks on my own, mostly early in the morning. A favourite route took me out of town to a park where I would sit a while by the lake before making my way back for lectures. One day I went further than I intended and got myself a bit lost. I remember taking my shoes off and walking part of the way back barefoot across a golf course in the rain. A different early walk, along a derelict railway to the local park, was captured in another of my poems.

The Bunch of Wild Flowers

this morning
as you slept in his arms
I wandered,
picked you flowers white as sonnets
early in the morning
where the lonely go
and lovers wonder)

stirring in your arms he
tasted autumn in your hair
ascent of flowers,
brushed away the cobwebs or a dream
and (plucked one throbbing rose as red as
early in the garden
where the lovers grow
within each other’s arms

And bore you welcomes wild
of flowers truer than all orchids
my love
this morning as you slept
in his arms I wandered
gathering poems deep as daisies
early in the morning
where the lovers

From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

Urban or rural, walking for me has always been about space: space in which to think or not think, depending on what I most need at the time. It is my instinctive response to uncertainty, challenge, and loss. When I got the news that PJ, a dear friend from university days, had died my instinctive reaction was to get out of the house and walk. It didn’t matter where, I just needed to be moving. (Years later, that one evening of loss is imprinted on these local streets, although I’ve added many overlying layers of other days, people and memories in the intervening years.) A week or so later I took the day off work and went to the coast for a solitary hike, long enough to try and process the fact that my friend was no longer here. After my mother died I walked by Crosby Marina the evening of her funeral. The words that came to me are, perhaps, a poem. If so, it is the first I’ve written in many years.


How do I feel
What do I feel


Re birth


Un known
Un homed

Un tethered


Centred (thank you

— Liverpool, March 26, 2018

I mostly prefer to walk alone but there have been times when I’ve taken a trusted friend along. One of my dearest memories of PJ is of walking her home in the snow one dark winter night. Years later I recall another walk in the snow with a different friend, when we got seriously lost on Wimbledon Common. The walk Fran and I took around Beaulieu in 2013 when we met in person for the first time was, quite simply, precious.

We walked, and talked, and took photos of the Abbey and gardens, and went on the monorail and the old open-top bus, and walked some more, and sat, and talked some more. It was amazing—and the most natural thing in the world. If we were a little shy it didn’t show. We were just two friends out together enjoying the day.

From: High Tide, Low Tide, The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Walks by the sea are special. I spent six months in Norwich on placement from university. One Sunday I drove to the coast with one of the other students for an hour or so walking on the shore.

(In the Depths of) Singing

Down the western reaches of the sea i
findme walking with a friend,
wind and seasalt wildly in the sky, you on
my mind. Late november: pebbles in a
wilderness of oceans and a fulling moon.

Something like the flesh of friends too
raw for touching walkwe. Two
investigating puddles. Our togetherness apart
we wander down our dreams while all the
waves one water can involve strike
sparks about our feet. From flints we
gather in the night.
We gather. In the

(o i love the waves that break upon
me like you)


From: Collected Poems: 1977–1984.

That memory sparks another. One morning long ago when I ought to have been at work but instead spent the day on the beach walking with a friend who understood that sometimes shared solitude is just what is needed.

A few years ago I paddled in the sea along Long Sands Beach at Whitley Bay here in the north-east. At first it was cold. Then my feet went numb. I probably should have come out at that point but I kept going to the point when my feet were hurting with cold. I got out of the water, dried my feet, and put my thick socks and boots on, expecting my feet to warm through within a few minutes. They took so long to thaw out I was beginning to think I had caused some serious damage. I have paddled in the sea several times since then, but not in quite such extreme conditions.

Over time, regular walking routes become saturated with memories. The best example of that is the walk I take each evening when on holiday at the Cumbrian cottage my family have rented for the past twenty years or so. So rich are the echoes of the people and situations I’ve brought with me in mind and heart over the years that I’ve named it Memory Lane. Fran has accompanied me on that walk many times via the magic of Skype. A few other friends have done the same.

I have done a few sponsored walks. When I was at school I organised a twenty mile walk for friends in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. I think only two of us completed the task but we did raise some money. More recently I have done the Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk a couple of times, and taken part in the NAMI Maine Walk, accompanying Fran from 3,000 miles away. Last December I took part in the Jingle Bell Walk to raise money for children’s cancer charity The Chris Lucas Trust.

Returning to my solo walks and their place in my wellbeing, the best example is the walk I took almost every evening during the summer of 2013 when Fran was traveling in Europe. Those walks were part of my wellness plan for that period, which was the most challenging we’d faced as friends and one of the most traumatic Fran had ever experienced.

That wellness plan developed into the Wellness Recovery Action Plan I mentioned at the start of this article. It is a living document and will grow with me as my needs change, but I cannot imagine walking not being in there as one of my key wellness tools.

Well, this article has turned out to be rather long and rambling, much like many of my walks!

I will close with another passage from our book, because short or long every walk starts out as a single step, then another, then another. And where steps are concerned, size and speed are not always the most important things. The important thing is to keep moving.

As we like to say, baby steps are steps too.

This is one of our favourite [sayings]. It reminds us to stay focused in the present moment, to take life one step at a time, and to acknowledge that even the smallest advance counts as progress. Fran is very goal-oriented, and becomes frustrated if she seems to be straying off course or failing to make fast enough progress. In depression, this can reach a point where she despairs of ever achieving her targets or even progressing further towards them. At such times, “Baby steps are steps too” reminds her that she rarely stays stuck for long. She will try new ideas, or re-visit old ones, until something happens to move her forward.

From: High Tide, Low Tide, The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.


Saturday 23 February 2019

Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena

When did you start feeling like a fraud?

Fran asked me that question recently. It’s not exactly that I feel a fraud. I’ve never passed myself off as other than I am or claimed knowledge and experience I don’t have. But I have used that knowledge and experience to involve myself in groups and activities intended for people with lived experience of mental illness, which I do not have. Maybe it’s more a case of impostor syndrome than fraud.

According to Scientific American, “Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.”

Putting smart and successful to one side, that description is a close fit for how I’ve been feeling, especially the university example. Last October I enrolled at ReCoCo, Newcastle’s Recovery College. I attended two excellent courses (a self-harm awareness session and a Wellness Recovery Action Plan workshop) and helped out at one of the college’s wellness events. As I wrote in a post which has been included in ReCoCo’s current prospectus, it seemed I’d found finally found somewhere I belonged.

I felt welcome and accepted, and my contributions and story [at the drop-in session] were considered as respectfully as anyone else’s. (As someone without direct lived experience of mental illness, crisis, or trauma, it is a big thing for me to feel I have something worth sharing that might be of interest and value to others.) It left a powerful impression.

Lately, though, I’m doubting the legitimacy of my enrollment. The Recovery College is explicitly organised by and for people with lived experience, and I no longer feel my interest in mental health, my desire to learn, and my role supporting Fran and other friends justify my being there. It’s not only ReCoCo. Quite rightly, the mental health community is focused on, and increasingly led by, people with lived experience of illness and services. I have been proud to volunteer with Time to Change over the past few years and have attended or been involved with various events, groups, and organisations including OPENM;NDED. Right now, I’m doubting my place in all of these.

Aimee Wilson, a mental health blogger who has worked with organisations across the north-east and beyond, told me “you have as much right as anyone to attend these events and personally, they wouldn’t be the same without you.” Aimee’s friendship and support is hugely appreciated, but I do need to work this through. Impostor syndrome undoubtedly plays a part, as does a need in me to feel I belong. A never-quite-satisfied desire for home.

Talking about this with Aimee and others, I’ve come to realise feelings of not-quite-belonging are not uncommon. Roiben has guested several times here at Gum on My Shoe. She describes how she finds herself falling between the gaps because she does not fully satisfy the criteria of different support communities:

It is difficult to feel one doesn’t fit. I get that a lot. I am often on the edge of what services and charities support. Not blind enough for RNIB, not deaf enough for some Deaf groups. I never claimed to be SI [Sight Impaired] or SSI [Severely Sight Impaired], nor did I claim to be Profoundly Deaf. Yet somehow the fact that I am not makes some people feel I am trying to take their place. I’m not. Just trying to connect, through areas I have some experience in. It’s frustrating.

One thing Roiben said resonated strongly for me:

I make a great advocate for disabilities, because I have experience of some and have friends in other areas. I have seen and experienced accessibility or lack of it in action. The fact I am not totally one or the other doesn’t diminish that in any way!

That’s very much how I feel about my mental health work. I don’t have lived experience of mental illness but I have support experience, knowledge, and some useful skills. I believe these have value. The question for me is how and where are they best exercised? Fran said to me the other day:

It’s about serving. You take what you have to offer and serve others with that. You are not an expert on lived mental illness. You are an expert on how to be friends with those that are.

Fran’s right. I am shy of being called an expert, but I can accept “expert by experience” based on my years supporting Fran and other friends who live with illness. That is my field of competence. It’s the basis of our book and what I do pretty much every day. I don’t doubt myself in that area. I’m just not sure where I fit, in the wider mental health community. It’s about serving — but where and how do I serve?


Wednesday 20 February 2019

How to Gently and Kindly Talk with a Friend About Difficult Bipolar Symptoms

By Julie A. Fast

As friends of people with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder we want to be understanding and kind regarding the struggles people with serious mental illness face. But — and it is a very big BUT — there is a line to be drawn in terms of what you as a friend can handle, especially if the person’s symptoms are active.

I see this from both sides. I have bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder myself. I know what the symptoms can do to our minds, and ultimately how they can affect our friendships. I have lost or left many relationships with people who have untreated mental health symptoms. On one occasion a friend with schizoaffective disorder decided that I had stolen one of her ideas. She texted me at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night and said:

I am very upset with you! I just saw your latest blog post and you’re using my ideas in this post and this is not cool. I need you to take it down and print a retraction!

Another time, a friend with bipolar one decided that he wanted to live the manic life and went off all meds, saying:

I am finally free to live the life I have always wanted!

Let’s look at these situations in more detail.

Scenario One: Paranoia

It was Saturday night. I was asleep and suddenly my phone (that I keep switched on in order to use a sleep app) started buzzing with texts. They were from a good friend, so I assumed she was in a crisis and I sat up so that I could be there for her.


I read text after text accusing me of stealing her ideas. I naturally had the thought Oh no! What have I done?! But when I read them again I realized that there was nothing specific in them. I had not done anything that she could point to that made any sense. I recognized that my friend was experiencing psychotic paranoia and that I was suddenly, after a long term friendship, the TARGET.

It felt terrible. It was a little scary, to be honest.

I was a good friend to her and reading these accusatory words felt like a punch in the stomach. I of course know that she has bipolar and a psychotic disorder. I know that, as I do myself, she gets paranoid. But I have a policy in my own life that I don’t take my symptoms out on the people in my life and I ask the same of my friends. I won’t be the target of a late night paranoia attack, just as I will not let my paranoia make a similar late night attack on someone else.

Believe me, I did this in the past and ruined many relationships, but I have taught myself to manage my paranoia. I thought my friend had done the same. We talked through her worries the next day, but six months later it happened again. This time she accused me of not spending enough time with her and not helping her with her new book project. Of course, as with all paranoia, it FELT real, but she was not being realistic. She was ill with psychosis.

After much sadness and worry I decided that I could not be in this relationship and simply stopped contacting her. I was the “bad guy” who left, but I am ok with that. I didn’t feel protected from her mental health symptoms. I need to be protected if someone is my friend.

I did try to talk with her about how her paranoia affected me but she was in a strong delusion and I could tell that talking was not going to work. I am not here to change anyone. She has a team around her to take care of her. She is fine and I am fine. Our relationship simply ran its course. This often happens and it is a normal part of life. Did I get upset? Of course! She was my friend! But I have boundaries in place to keep myself well enough to be who I want to be in the world and I had to let this relationship go.

Scenario Two: Mania

After a thirteen year friendship, a dear friend of mine who has always worked hard to stay stable suddenly decided to stop all medications in order to live a “manic life.” I felt deep worry about this and let him know my feelings. My policy in life is to let people be who they are. Then I can decide if I want to be with that person. I don’t change people. I knew his plan would be a disaster, but he is allowed to make his own decisions.

I love this person and am still deeply conflicted about what happened. But as with my friend who has paranoid psychosis, a person with bipolar has to be working on their stability to be in my life. Otherwise, I will get sick as well.

In this case, my dear and kind friend, who I will call Marcus, decided that mania was more fun than responsibility. As a result he went off all meds, left his partner and kids and decided to relive his youth. He moved out of his house and got his own place. Before long our phone calls were about the people he was meeting in bars and how he finally felt free for the first time in his life. He told me he was using weed. That really set my alarm bells ringing. Cannabis and bipolar do not mix: the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the cannabis can make us manic and psychotic. I was deeply worried and let him know from the beginning. I gave an opinion and stated my needs.

He came to visit for a weekend and I could tell he was manic from the minute he arrived. His eyes were wild and he was dressed flamboyantly. He openly talked about the handsome men he met at the coffee shop and sat in positions that were sexually suggestive. He was being very outgoing and nice to everyone around him but he was NOT focused on our relationship. He was not bothering anyone, but I could tell he was not himself. It was like the lid had been taken off a jar of bees.

This continued all morning. At lunch he was talking and talking about his new life and playing pool and trying weed, and suddenly I realized that I felt incredibly uncomfortable. He knows my position on cannabis as it made me very psychotic and manic, and in our state it is not well regulated. Marcus would never touch the stuff when stable. When he said this so nonchalantly, I woke up to the situation. I asked him if he was still off his meds.

Oh yes Julie! I went off months ago. They were making me so fat and I was so tired all of the time. Making kids’ lunches and doing homework with them. I had enough! I feel like a real person for the first time in my life!

This continued for a few hours. Finally, I realized that this was not healthy for me. I was getting agitated and worried. Due to my policy of not telling people what to do, but always telling people what I need so that they can decide what works for them, I said the following, right there at my kitchen table:

Marcus, you know how much I care about you. We have been friends for many years and you have been there for me when life was really tough. A large part of our relationship has been working together to manage our bipolar. You help me test the ideas in my books. You were there when I needed to explain my system to the world. I am forever grateful. I am not here to change people and I am not here to tell people what to do. But, you know that my life is based on being stable.

When you say, “I feel that I have been in jail for all of these years. The marriage and the kids were a rope around my neck and now I am free! I don’t need the meds and I need you to understand that this is my choice and I am finally feeling great for the first time in my life!” it is mania talking.

You do not talk this way when you’re stable. I’m not comfortable being around mania. It is truly a trigger for me and I ought to know about triggers as I wrote a book about it and you have always helped me market this book! I love you and you know you are important to me, but I can’t be around this. I ask that you cut your trip short and go home now. This is the best for both of us.

He was very understanding. This was an episode of euphoric mania and people tend to be open to anything during this kind of episode, but I could tell he had no idea that his mood swing was creating one in me. In the past I would have waited it out and become more ill. Not now. Now, I focus on what I need and I let people know this in a calm and kind way. I have to take care of my bipolar disorder first or I literally will not sleep, and then the mania starts in my brain. Oh, this was hard. I loved Marcus, his kindness and friendship, but the decisions he was making were not safe for anyone. We sent a few emails back and forth and eventually I said the following:

Marcus, you visited my house while manic. You didn’t tell me until I was sitting in front of you that you had been off your meds for a few months. I know this is not my business and you don’t have to call me and tell me what you’re doing. This is your life. But I can tell you that this mania is incredibly frustrating, and if I’m really honest it is scary for me.

To see you like this reminds me of my manic days and I feel in a bit of a panic to think of what your kids are going through right now. I am not going to tell you what to do, but I am so sorry, I can’t be around you when the mania is given free reign. It is too stimulating for me and it is very distressing. You know my feelings on the topic.

He was very understanding, but from friends I hear Marcus is still off his meds to this day.

My goal is to help you as a friend of someone with bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder figure out what YOU need in the relationship. I could have called his doctor or his ex. I could have gotten involved but that was not my role, and never had been my role throughout our long relationship. Someone who is very manic and using cannabis is not someone I can have in my life. This is not a judgement. It is not about him at all. It is about me. I need stable people around me. I can love my friends with bipolar and psychotic disorders, but I can also be very clear that relationships work best when both people are working on stability.

Your thoughts as a friend?


About the Author

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get it Done When You’re Depressed and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. Julie is a board member of The International Bipolar Foundation, a columnist and blogger for BP Magazine, and won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. She is a bipolar disorder expert for the Dr.Oz and Oprah created site ShareCare.

Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists and general practitioners on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression. She struggles a lot due to bipolar disorder. Friendships keep her going. You can find more about her work at and


Saturday 16 February 2019

Announcing Our New Book, “No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship”

Back in September we announced our new creative partnership with Eliezer Tristan Publishing. The fruits of that partnership can now be revealed!

Available in print and for Kindle, No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship showcases the very best of our blog posts and articles.

“Friendship is a beautiful part of life and an important component of long-term wellness. When Martin Baker met Fran Houston online, he never imagined that they would develop a connection that transcends time zones and international boundaries.

“In Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship, journal entries from Baker and Houston show us the deep-rooted value of intimate bonds and shared experiences. Through their writings, the authors demonstrate that mental illness needn’t be a barrier; indeed it can be the glue that holds people together.”

No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship is available in print and for Kindle from Amazon (COM | UK) and in print from Barnes and Noble and other booksellers. Also on Goodreads.


Wednesday 13 February 2019

When All Is Said & Typed, by Aimee Wilson

Fran and I are delighted to introduce the new book by a dear friend of ours, Aimee Wilson. Aimee’s mental health blog I’m NOT Disordered has had huge success across the world, with numerous media appearances and collaborations. Recently published for Kindle, When All Is Said & Typed is a complete collection of articles from I’m NOT Disordered published between January 2013 and January 2019.

The articles are arranged by chronological order in five topics: The Power of Writing, The Impact of the Media, The Devastation, The Progress, and The People. The book can be read as a self-help guide or as a source of inspiration as it leads the reader through Aimee’s journey from psychiatric hospitalization to recovery.

When All Is Said & Typed is available for Kindle at,, and in other regions.


I’ve always loved writing so putting my everything into a book seemed like the natural next step.

I remember when I was young, and I used to write hundreds of short stories about ponies and horses that my Nana always loved to read. As I got older, I seemed to be so bogged down in homework that I lost writing as a hobby and interest and it became more of a chore. I was always in the highest sets in English class with having the top predicted grades and in Middle School a teacher predicted that I’d be a Journalist (she said a Political one but that’s not going to happen!).

Later, in High School, I kept diaries. When the abuse started, I actually found these a really helpful outlet when it became apparent that — for a number of reasons — I couldn’t confide in anyone. I didn’t — for one minute — imagine that two years later; after being sectioned under the Mental Health Act (1983), I’d end up giving these diaries to the Police as evidence of the abuse.

But I think that — even with my poorly mental health — it was actually an important life lesson; it taught me just how profound writing can be. The impact that writing has can be life-changing. As a writer, you can shape a person’s mood, their ethics, or even just their day! I think that writing about mental health can be even more powerful with 1 in 4 people experiencing mental health problems at some point in their life, it’s often a more personal and ‘close to home’ topic.

In starting my mental health blog I’m NOT Disordered in January 2013, I basically made writing my everything and what started as a hobby quickly became more of a career. I can’t ever stop thinking about how lucky I am to be able to do something I love and something that I’m passionate about.

I’d like to give special thanks to my Mum, my best-friends; Lauren and Ellie, my Aunt, Cygnet Healthcare, Richmond Fellowship, Northumbria Police and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.


I’d like to dedicate this book to my Nana who would have cried with happiness when she’d seen it.


When All Is Said & Typed is available at,, and in other regions.

About the Author

Aimee Wilson is a 28-year-old mental health blogger who has used her personal experiences to develop a popular online profile. Aimee was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2009, and after over 60 attempts on her life was admitted to a long-term, specialist psychiatric hospital almost 200 miles from home. It was during her two-and-a-half-year stay in hospital that Aimee began her blog: I’m NOT Disordered.

Originally it was meant as an outlet for pent-up frustrations from inpatient life, and a means to document her journey through the trauma therapy that eventually led her into recovery in 2014. The blog has developed into a platform for others to tell their stories and to give their own message to the world — whatever it may be.

Aimee’s blog now has close to half a million readers. Its popularity has resulted in three newspaper (in print) appearances, two online newspapers, BBC1 national news, ITV local news, interviews on BBC Radio 5 Live and Metro Radio; as well as a TV appearance on MADE. Aimee has had the opportunity to work with such organisations as North Tyneside and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Northumbria Police, Time to Change, Cygnet Healthcare; and with individuals who range from friends, family and colleagues, to well-known people in the mental health industry.

Her first book, When All Is Said & Typed, is available at,, and in other regions.

You can follow Aimee’s blog and read more about her at


Wednesday 6 February 2019

What Does Having a Conversation about Mental Health Look Like? #TimeToTalkDay

Thursday February 7 2019 is #TimeToTalk Day, an annual event organised by Time to Change to focus attention on mental health. (Time to Change was formed in 2009 by MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, with the aim of reducing mental health-related stigma and discrimination.)

Some feel that awareness campaigns trivialise the lived experience of people with serious mental illness, giving the impression that talking to someone or going for a walk can fix things, or take the place of professional treatment and support. I wholeheartedly agree that a chat with a friend or a breath of fresh air is never going to cure anyone. But I do believe—as the following quotation from Time to Change makes clear—there is much we can do to lessen the burden of isolation and misunderstanding.

Conversations about mental health change lives.
At the moment, too many people with mental health problems are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless by other people’s reactions. But talking about mental health doesn’t need to be difficult. It can be as simple as making time to have a cup of tea or go for a walk, and listening to someone talk about how they feel. Being open about mental health and ready to listen can make a positive difference to someone’s life.
This is what Time to Talk Day is all about—giving us all the chance to talk and listen about mental health.

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.

Whatever the channel, there are a few things that distinguish a supportive conversation from the normal everyday kind. I find the following reminders helpful.

Don’t interrupt. This is self-explanatory, but can be one of the hardest to remember. Let the other person share what they want to share, without giving in to the urge to interrupt with your own ideas, suggestions, and questions. I certainly need reminding of this one!

It’s their story, not yours. Don’t monopolise the conversation by recalling times you have been through what they are talking about. “I know just what you mean” is particularly unhelpful. No matter how similar your experiences might seem, their situation is uniquely theirs, and what worked—or didn’t work—for you might not be relevant to them at all. If you are asked for suggestions or advice, fair enough, but wait until you are asked.

Save your judgments for later. It’s hard to listen to someone without analysing and mentally judging what you are hearing. This isn’t wrong in itself—you might need to assess whether the person is in immediate danger, or in need of professional help—but beyond that, your internal dialogue only serves to distance you from what they are sharing with you.

You don’t have to fix everything. Depending on your relationship (partner, child, parent, family member, close friend, colleague, acquaintance, or stranger) you may be in a position to offer help, advice, or support. But it is not your responsibility to fix everything, so hold back with your suggestions unless they are asked for. On the other hand, don’t feel paralysed or useless if you can’t think of anything that could possibly help. If you are present and engaged, you are helping. Often, that is precisely—and all—that is needed. You’d be surprised how rare a gift holding space for someone can be. As Time to Change put it:

“It’s #TimeToTalk because if you say something, you realise how many people around you haven’t, and needed to”

But I’m Busy

We are all so busy these days. School, college, work, commuting, chores, children, our own issues and problems, fill our days—and often our nights too. When are we supposed to find time for all these conversations?

#TimeToTalk isn’t about blocking out chunks of “Mental Health Conversation Time” in your calendar—although it might involve committing to meet up for lunch with that friend you haven’t seen in a while, calling on a relative on your way home from work, or turning off the TV after dinner to talk with your partner or child. It’s about being open to what the other person wants to talk about, and not being scared if that includes their mental health, or that of someone they care about.

Think of the people you talk to already. The colleague who gives you a ride home. The person you speak to every Saturday in your favourite café. Social media and the internet mean you can connect with almost anyone, almost anywhere, at almost any time.

It’s Not All about Mental Health

You won’t always be “talking about mental health,” of course. Open conversations span the full gamut of topics: deep and trivial, funny and sad. But if they are genuine, they encompass whatever is going on for you and the other person, and often that does include some aspect of mental health. That said, if you are open to such conversations, you might find yourself having more and more of them. I consider it a privilege that people feel at ease talking with me about topics which so often are kept hidden, because they attract judgemental attitudes, stigma, and discrimination.

Balance and Boundaries

You can’t be there at all times for everyone, however. You are not a 24/7/365 crisis line. Aside from the dangers of burning yourself out, doing too much can lead to codependency, which is unhealthy for both you and the other person. Don’t take on too much, and pay attention to your own health—physical and mental. Remember that #TimeToTalk includes sharing your issues and concerns, as well as listening to those of others.

What Difference Can I Make, Really?

Fran and I believe passionately that all of us—you, me, everyone—can make a difference. Fran knows this first-hand, and I can do no better than close by sharing her words from the Epilogue to our book.

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness.
Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.