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.