Wednesday 5 October 2022

Speaking Up, Speaking Out: Harnessing the Power of the Spoken Word for WMHD

When we speak we educate and also free ourselves from a silence that surrounds mental illness.
— Brynn McCann

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and mobilize our efforts in support of mental health. Fran and I have shared pieces in the past to mark WMHD and other mental health awareness days and events. I was keen to do so again, but when I saw this year’s theme — Making Mental Health and Well-Being for All a Global Priority — I was unsure what to focus on or how to proceed. The topic is hugely important, but that was the problem. It felt too big, too wide-ranging, for me to address it meaningfully. Surely, anything I wrote could do no more than touch the surface.

I was pondering this when my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson asked if I’d like to go with her to a local WMHD event. I said yes immediately. We attended the event in 2019 and it was really good. I remember listening to presentations by local individuals and organisations, and meeting a number of interesting people. On that occasion, Aimee was one of the keynote speakers. I was incredibly proud of my friend for speaking so powerfully and honestly about her lived experience. She’s not speaking this year, but all at once I could see a connection; a way in, as it were, to writing something meaningful for WMHD.

There are few things more compelling than someone telling their story in their own voice. As Fran and I have said elsewhere, “The most important sounds we can ever share with another person are our own voices.” Speaking our truth and listening to other people doing the same counters stigma and discrimination by opening us up to lives lived differently than our own. It turns out I’m not alone in making this connection: one UK mental health charity has chosen to mark WMHD this year by focusing on “using spoken word to show the different ways people talk about their experiences.”

I’ll focus on my experience of speaking publically about mental health and wellbeing. I’m aware of the irony of writing about how important the spoken word can be; where possible I’ll provide links to video or audio recordings so you can hear me for yourself, if you’d like to!

Mentally Sound Radio Show

In May 2015 I was interviewed by Steven Hesse and Sharon Race for the Mentally Sound show on Gravity Radio NE, talking about my friendship with Fran and what I’d learned about mental health and supportive relationships. It was my first live interview and I was both nervous and incredibly excited. You can listen to the recording here.

Fran and I later recorded two episodes with Steven for his podcast Geek Apocalypse, where we discussed bipolar disorder and our friendship. You can listen to those episodes here and here (MP3).

Time to Change, Time to Talk (and Listen)

In February 2016 I volunteered with Time to Change at a mental health event in the centre of Newcastle. As a volunteer, my job was to engage members of the public in conversation about mental health. This was utterly new territory for me and my first conversations were a little tentative. I soon settled into things, though. As I wrote at the time, “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.” One conversation in particular left a lasting impression:

One very telling moment for me came when I happened to step back slightly just as the man I was talking with shared that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “That’s what people do,” he said. “When they find out. They step away.” I hadn’t done so because of what he said, but it brought the realities of stigma home to me in a very personal way. I was grateful to him, and told him so.

It’s a lesson I hope I’ve learned. I volunteered with Time to Change on other occasions, including Newcastle Pride for three consecutive years (2016 through 2018). 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.”

Podcasts and Interviews

I’ve mentioned my first time on the radio, and guesting with Fran on Steven Hesse’s podcast. Fran had appeared on TV and radio to talk about her first book before we met, and we’ve been interviewed together several times. If you want to know what we sound like, check out the following links. There’s a full list on our news and appearances page.

In October 2016, I was proud to appear as a panellist in Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s annual It Takes a Community forum discussing social media and mental health. You can listen to the session here, including a contribution from Fran in the audience!

Book Readings

The publication of our first book brought plenty of opportunity to tell people about it and (hopefully!) interest them enough to buy a copy. The first book readings I did were at Newcastle Literary Salon. I attended one session to get a feel for the place before my speaking gig the following month. It left a lasting impression on me, which I wrote about for the hastywords #BeReal blog series.

I knew nothing in advance about any of the people who came forward to read. That in itself was an exercise in realness: to hold each person without prejudgment, to hold myself open to whatever they’d chosen to share. There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people. And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be.

That night opened my mind to the power of the spoken word, and gave me the confidence to take my place at the mic. I read from our book on three occasions: June, July, and September 2016. Each time I felt I was amongst friends who were attentive and interested in what I had to say. I remember especially one lady who approached me after my first live reading to say how much my words had meant to her, and share a little of her story in return.

I’ve read excerpts from our book at other venues, including in the interval of a pantomime, and at a wellbeing event in Ely in November 2017. My theme for the Ely event was how you can be a supportive friend to someone living with mental illness, whether you live in the same town or thousands of miles apart. I gave the same talk later at a work event for International Women’s Day.

Fran and I have recorded ourselves reading from our book for our YouTube Channel. I recorded the following four pieces while on holiday in Cumbria.

You can read the backstory to those recordings here.

Other Voices

I’ve focused on me and Fran sharing our story of mental health, friendship, and support, but it’s not a one way street. Listening to other people’s stories is no less important.

In February 2017 I attended the premiere screening of Speaking Up, a Film about Mental Health at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema. This was the first in a series of short films “exploring young people’s experiences of mental health issues by producing and creating their own shorts to convey powerful, practical messages.” The first part opened my eyes to the realities of living with anxiety. The team then took to the streets of Newcastle to interview members of the public. The films are available on YouTube; I recommend checking them out.

Another great opportunity came in March 2017 when I was in the audience for my friend Sharon Sutton’s TEDx talk. In a powerful and moving speech, Sharon offered an insight into what it’s like to live with mental illness, and how she’s found her purpose and passion. I don’t have a video link, but you can read the transcript of Sharon’s talk.

Other friends have experience of public speaking about mental health. I invited two to share a few thoughts on what that means to them. We’ll hear first from Brynn McCann.

I have just started to speak publicly about mental health and my journey with Bipolar 1 and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. and I think it’s important because normalizing and breaking the stigma around mental illness is crucial.

Working with a mental illness is a full time job and I don’t think that people who don’t live with a mental illness realize this. That’s why speaking up is so important. Our stories matter, as do we.

When we speak we educate and also free ourselves from a silence that surrounds mental illness. This silence needs to be broken and talking about mental health hopefully opens up doors to understanding without judgement.

— Brynn McCann

Next we have Aimee Wilson, who blogs at I'm NOT Disordered.

Before I began blogging, I was definitely not good at public speaking! My blog, however, has given me so much more confidence and has really taught me how important it can be to talk to others about mental health.

Speaking out more can help someone feel less alone, encourage them to get help, and aid them in being better educated to support someone with a mental illness.

Without mental health being talked about, the lack of education can very easily lead to misunderstanding which will often influence stigma and discrimination. So please, don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation.

— Aimee Wilson

I’m grateful to Brynn and Aimee for their contributions.

Private Voices

Brynn’s observation that “talking about mental health hopefully opens up doors to understanding without judgement” is true of our private conversations as well as speaking out publically. The conversations we have with friends, family, and colleagues are every bit as important in breaking down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding, and building trust and empathy.

As regular readers will know, many of my blog posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with friends, either in person or online. My friendship with Fran is founded on our commitment to keep in touch, and in particular to keep talking. We may live 3,000 miles apart, but our voice and video calls allow us to appreciate what’s going in our lives and support each other effectively. The same is true with other friends. Text-based chat, SMS messages, e-mails, and written letters all have their place — Fran and I have used them all at different times — but there’s something special about that face-to-face connection, whether in person or online.

This is something that was highlighted for so many of us during the covid pandemic. During lockdown, voice and video calls were often the only means we had of talking to one another. Aimee and I didn’t meet in person for over a year, for example. We chatted online a lot, but occasional video calls meant a lot and helped keep us truly connected.

Risk and Responsibility

It’s important to recognise that speaking out about our lived experiences is not without risk, whether conducted publically or in private. No matter how much trust we have in our chosen audience, it’s not always possible to predict how things will go. We can clarify our meaning and respond to questions or challenge, but once our words are “out there” they cannot be taken back.

No one should feel obligated to share more than they feel comfortable doing, or in ways that feel unsafe to them. It’s not the responsibility of those living with mental health issues — or excluded or marginalised in any way — to educate the rest of society.

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored how speaking up about our lived experience — and listening to others who speak up about theirs — can help counter stigma and discrimination. Fran and I hope our story has touched people, and maybe opened them to the idea that mental illness does not preclude anyone from enjoying full, mutually supportive relationships, and that being friends with someone with a mental health diagnosis is far from the uphill struggle or constant firefighting exercise it’s sometimes imagined to be.

What are your thoughts about speaking out about mental health, whether publically or in private? If you’ve done so, was it a good experience for you? Was your audience receptive to what you were saying, or did you feel ignored, rejected, or shut down? What’s the most transformative speech you’ve heard, or the most valuable conversation you’ve had?

More generally, what does “Making Mental Health and Well-Being for All a Global Priority” mean to you, and how best can it be achieved? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


No comments:

Post a Comment