Wednesday 2 February 2022

Talk. Listen. Change Lives. Time to Talk Day 2022

I’d like to share a few thoughts for Time to Talk Day, which this year falls on Thursday 3 February. The event was launched in 2014 by Time to Change, a campaign run in England to end mental health stigma and discrimination. This year’s event is organised by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in partnership with Co-Op. As described on the event’s website, “Time to Talk Day is the nation’s biggest mental health conversation. It’s the day that friends, families, communities, and workplaces come together to talk, listen and change lives.”

I volunteered with Time to Change from February 2016 until the campaign closed in March 2021. I’ve shared my experiences previously, including a look-back piece written in April last year. You can read some of my previous #TimeToTalkDay posts here:

In a recent intranet post written for Brew Monday, one of the lead Mental Health First Aiders where I work remarked that starting a conversation can be a game-changer for the person needing support. I agree whole-heartedly but I’d go a step further. It can also be a game-changer for the person holding space for the conversation to take place. Based on my experience as a Time to Change volunteer, as a Mental Health First Aider, and in my personal life, I see this kind of conversation as a win-win opportunity for growth and understanding. We all benefit, on both a personal and a wider societal level, from engaging in honest and open conversations about mental health.

I didn’t always appreciate this. I’ll be sixty-one this year, and for the first fifty years of my life I understood very little about what it means to live with mental illness. This wasn’t from lack of opportunity. As I’ve described previously, I actively isolated myself from what others were going through – family and friends included. Mostly, this was because I was terrified of engaging and overwhelmed by what I perceived as the depth of their need for support. I lost many opportunities to help people I cared about but didn’t know how to care for.

My stoic attitude helped me deal with my own ill health, but left me incapable of responding with compassion to the needs of others. I mistakenly believed that caring for someone meant making their pain and hurt go away. It would be many years before I learned to open my heart and simply be there for those I care about. I am still learning.

What opened my eyes was a chance meeting online in May 2011 on the social media page of someone who was having a really hard time. A woman called Fran Houston who I didn’t know at all challenged me about a comment I’d posted to our mutual friend. It was the start of a friendship which has had a profound effect on my understanding of mental health and my ability to support others.

As most readers know, Fran lives in the United States with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), and fibromyalgia. She has other friends and a good professional team, but despite living three thousand miles away, I quickly became – and remain – her primary support and carer. Our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder was published in 2013 as a guide for others who want to know how to support someone living with mental health issues.

The most important thing I’ve learned with Fran is how vital it is to keep the channels of communication open. Whether you live on opposite sides of the world or on the other side of the street, a commitment to staying in touch is the key to any successful relationship, and the cornerstone of caring support. This has never been more important than in the past two years, as we’ve all navigated the Covid-19 pandemic, in many cases physically separated for long periods from those we care about. My long-distance friendship with Fran undoubtedly helped me keep in touch with other friends when face-to-face meetings were impossible.

Time to Talk Day, Brew Monday, Bell Let’s Talk Day, and other wellbeing events encourage us to open up to one another and take better care of our needs. I was inspired last year by a work session organised for International Men’s Day to make an appointment with my doctor for the first time in thirty years. Nevertheless, such initiatives are not without criticism.

Some people reject awareness campaigns as trivialising conditions they live with all the time, not just on a few officially designated days in the year. Others point to professional services which struggle to meet the needs of those encouraged to seek help. Talking with friends, family, and colleagues can be hugely beneficial and protective – Fran has told me many times she would not still be here without my support – but it’s no substitute for professional help and treatment when that’s called for. Fran needs her doctor, psychiatrist, and the rest of her professional team too. The same is true of other friends, who live with a range of physical and mental health conditions. Some of these questions are addressed on the Time to Talk Day page at Mind.

Something else can get lost in the “talk to someone if you’re struggling” rhetoric. Despite the best endeavours of Time to Change and similar campaigns around the world, stigma and discrimination are still experienced by many people. Opening up to someone can be a scary thing to do. It requires a great deal of trust, and there’s no guarantee of a helpful or supportive response.

As important as all that is, Time to Talk Day isn’t just about encouraging people to talk about their problems. Sharing our stories can bring hope and help others feel less alone. There’s a tendency to feel isolated when things aren’t going well, and it helps to realise others are going through something similar or have done so in the past. That’s the primary motivation behind our book and weekly blog posts.

Other people’s stories can also open our eyes to their lived experience. My friend Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m Not Disordered about her life with borderline personality disorder (BPD, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder, EUPD). I’ve learned so much from Aimee’s blog. It’s helped me be the friend she needs me to be and to support her more effectively. This includes understanding that there are times my presence is neither needed nor helpful.

I don’t have a mental health diagnosis, but there are times when I struggle to cope with what’s going on. Over the past year or so I’ve found this happening more and more. I explore this in my personal diary and in public blog posts, but talking about how I’m feeling with others is also incredibly valuable. That hasn’t always been easy, not least because most of my close friendships grew on the basis that I was the relatively stable and well person in the relationship. Admitting that I need support too, and asking for it, requires me to trust not only the other person, but that our friendship is strong enough to handle the shift in dynamics. In all cases, this has proven to be the case. If anything, my friendships are stronger because of it.

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.

Friends like Marty who are willing to be with me in the darkness are the ones who give me light. Yes, there are medications. Yes, there is therapy. Yes, there is personal responsibility. But caring friendship is the best medicine of all. Then life begins to have purpose. [...] Stick around. It may not be easy, but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

I hope you’ve found my thoughts and experiences of interest, and that they’ll encourage you to have more conversations about mental health and wellbeing. If you or someone you know need urgent support, contact professional services or a relevant crisis line. Check our Resources page for crisis and support line links.


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