Saturday 1 June 2019

Six People I Admire in the Mental Health Community

I was recently gifted a copy of Diana Fox’s 365 Blog Topic Ideas: For The Lifestyle Blogger Who Has Nothing to Write About by fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. As I looked through the suggested topics one leapt out at me. I couldn’t believe I’d not thought of it before.

Talk about your mentors and people you look up to in your niche

Choosing who to include wasn’t easy, but one way or another each of the six people I’ve selected is making a difference by actively combating stigma and discrimination, by sharing personal stories, or by supporting people with lived experience, their friends and loved ones. They are presented in the order we first connected.

Fran Houston | Darren Hodge | Julie A. Fast | Sarah Fader | Steve O'Driscoll | Aimee Wilson


Fran Houston

What is your connection with Fran?

Fran is my best friend and co-author of two books: High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder and No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship.

How and when did you meet?

We met in May 2011 on the Facebook page of a mutual friend who was feeling suicidal. I posted a really dumb comment which Fran immediately picked me up on. We have been best friends ever since.

What do you admire most about Fran?

Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), and fibromyalgia. We’ve been best friends for over eight years and spend up to three hours a day online in each other’s company. There’s very little we haven’t talked about and we have few illusions about each other, which makes for a very deep connection. I admire Fran’s emotional honesty, her resilience, and her determination to keep moving forward even when she seems “stuck,” emotionally or otherwise.

What have you learned from her?

What haven’t I learned?! All the mental health work I am doing in the workplace and outside, all the amazing people I’ve met within the mental health community both online and locally, our two books and the blog posts and articles I have written — none of that would have happened if it wasn’t for Fran.

I have learned a great deal about myself that I never would have explored if we’d not met. Fran has the ability to hold a mirror up to me so that I see myself clearer than I have ever been able to do on my own. She challenges me to be the best version of myself I can be. That hasn’t always been easy for either of us but I’ve learned a lot about commitment and resilience along the way. I am a far better person for knowing her.

What one thing would you like Fran to know?

I’m not sure what I could say to you, Fran, that you don’t know already! But just in case you’ve forgotten, you’re stuck with me now!


Darren Hodge

What is your connection with Darren?

We are friends and fellow ASIST-trained Mental Health First Aiders.

How and when did you meet?

We met at a local Time to Change networking event in November 2013.

What do you admire most about him?

I admire Darren’s calm and gentle manner no matter what is going on, and his service to others which often involves helping people in need. I asked if he could sum his roles up for me:

I am a server and help with communion in church (there is a really grand name but no one would understand what it means!) We do our best to make everyone welcome and care for people who are on the edge. I have been involved in the voluntary sector for over thirty years. I am really drawn to Taize / Northumbrian Saints such as Aidan — they gently walked alongside people. I am often seen with people on the edge and learned British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate with a deaf friend. I also speak a bit of Urdu to build bridges with Asian friends.

What have you learned from Darren?

Darren recommended I take the Mental Health First Aid course, which I took in 2014. We met up again later that year at an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop. His experience in crisis situations is second to none and I’ve learned that it’s not about having all the answers. Offering your presence in a non-judgemental way can be exactly what someone needs.

What one thing would you like him to know?

Darren, you were hugely supportive a few years ago when I was going through a really rough time. I have never told you how much that meant to me. Thank you.


Julie A. Fast

What is your connection with Julie?

We are friends and fellow mental health authors.

How and when did you meet?

Julie and I met on social media in August 2014. I knew of her as the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and had followed her on Facebook and Twitter for a few months. I’d not had much response but I figured she was a busy lady.

One day Julie ran a Q&A session on Facebook and I asked a question about how to query agents and publishers. Julie’s response showed how much she had appreciated my approach.

You liked my Tweets and passed on my tips, sent encouraging messages and asked intelligent questions. You were not intrusive and were understanding if I didn’t actually answer your questions in a timely manner — if at all. I call this hooking your wagon to a star. If you truly care about promoting someone and your work is in alignment with theirs they will naturally want to work with you.

We have been friends ever since.

What do you admire most about her?

Julie has a wealth of knowledge and experience based on years living with bipolar disorder and her work as a family coach. She’s clear about her opinions but she’s respectful of those who might have a different perspective. Above all, Julie is a generous and steadfast supporter of other writers and has been incredibly supportive to me and Fran.

What have you learned from Julie?

From Julie I’ve learned there is something positive to be drawn from any situation, to believe in the value of one’s story, and to never give up. Her mantra “treat bipolar first” helps me support Fran and other friends when symptoms of bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions come to the fore.

What one thing would you like Julie to know?

Julie, you are a dear friend and an inspiration to me on so many levels. I love working with you and look forward to wherever our next collaboration takes us!


Sarah Fader

What is your connection with Sarah?

Sarah has guested on our blog several times and interviewed me and Fran for her podcast. She is co-founder and CEO of Eliezer Tristan Publishing who published our second book, No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship.

How and when did you meet?

Sarah is CEO of Stigma Fighters, a campaign platform that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. We connected in 2015 when I submitted my story No one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.

What do you admire most about Sarah?

Sarah is one of those people who seem to let nothing stand in their way. Think feisty, gutsy, determined. Things are often hard for her but she refuses to let life stop her being the best person she can be. She’s passionate about what she believes in and fiercely supportive of those she cares about. She is 150% herself with absolutely no pretensions.

What have you learned from her?

As someone without lived experience or a mental health diagnosis there are times I doubt my place in the mental health community. By accepting my story for the Stigma Fighters blog and later publishing it in their second anthology, Sarah gave me the confidence to believe I have something worth sharing and the courage to do so. I’ve also learned that great things can happen if you believe they can and are prepared to go after them wholeheartedly.

What one thing would you like her to know?

Sarah, you are a force of nature and I love you!


Steve O’Driscoll

What is your connection with Steve?

Steve works with several mental health groups and initiatives in and around my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne.

How and when did you meet?

We met through Time to Change at the Newcastle Mental Health Day event in February 2016.

What do you admire most about Steve?

Steve is another of those 150% genuine people. What you see is what you get. He is very open about his lived experience which he shares to support and educate others.

What have you learned from him?

In October 2018 I attended a self-harm awareness session led by Steve at Newcastle Recovery College. His knowledge and honesty opened my eyes and gave me a degree of insight I otherwise would not have had. I later wrote:

Steve shared his personal journey, much of which was new to me. Those who know me and Fran know we have a “no pedestals” policy, meaning as far as possible we treat ourselves and others without elevating anyone to hero status. That said, I was deeply moved by Steve’s story and respect him immensely for the honesty with which he lives his life. It takes courage to turn a lifetime of hard experience to the service of others.

What one thing would you like him to know?

Steve, you’re one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met and I’m proud to know you. Despite my lack of lived experience you’ve always treated me with respect and that means a lot.


Aimee Wilson

What is your connection with Aimee?

We are friends and fellow mental health bloggers.

How and when did you meet?

Aimee and I met at a Time to Change session for Newcastle Mental Health Day in February 2016.

What do you admire most about her?

I was rather in awe of Aimee when we met and for a good while after because she seemed (and is!) so professional at what she does. We’ve grown to be great friends and I’ve taken her down from that pedestal, but my respect is undiminished.

I admire Aimee’s courage in writing so openly about what she lives with which includes borderline personality disorder, self-harm, and suicidality. Her blog posts tell it how it is and they can be challenging to read for that reason, but honesty is the only way to shift perceptions and foster wider understanding. I also admire how Aimee is building a rich portfolio of skills, connections, and experience. This has inspired me as I look for opportunities to expand my mental health role in the workplace and beyond.

What have you learned from Aimee?

I joke that I learn something new every time we meet, so it’s quite a list! Some are small things like ensuring I always have business cards to hand, and social media tips like using time-lapse videos to capture the essence of an event or moment. I’ve also learned to celebrate every achievement and make the most of each moment because you don’t necessarily know what’s coming up next. Aimee’s blog posts challenge my assumptions and help me “get it” a little more clearly.

What one thing would you like her to know?

Aimee, when I was struggling over my role in the mental health community the open letter you wrote me helped me see there’s a place for me even if I’ve not quite found it yet. We’ve been there for each other a few times and I’m learning lots but it’s not all about learning and support. We’re friends and fellow bloggers! I look forward to us working together lots more in the future and can’t wait for our next bloggers’ day out!


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