Walking a Mile

6 Sep

Thursday was a very long day for me, starting in the City of London listening to the Lord Mayor discuss me talking health in the financial sector and the need of the corporation to support efforts to address stigma.

Fast forward 12 hours and I was glad to have come back to Edinburgh for the first See Me ‘Walk a Mile’ event.

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When Chris Young started his mammoth walk around the edge of the UK it was with the express purpose of using contact to open conversations, and measure the impact of these in part by whether or not people were prepared to offer him shelter and food. A clever idea and profoundly simple. This simple idea caught the imaginations of the See Me team, and they have worked with Chris Young to develop this format of walk. The new Lets Walk a Mile site will catalogue. support and promote people who want to walk a mile, as it says on the tin…challenging stigma one conversation at a time. See Me have worked with Chris, without colonising or annexing his idea, and that’s very important for a national programme of action the seeks to add value, voice and volume to the efforts of people across communities and backgrounds.

The canon of evidence based anti-stigma work suggests that three approaches have the most promise, when led by people with lived experience.

These are:

  •  Contact: Where hearts and minds are changed following contact with people who tell their story of mental Ill health and directly challenge beliefs.
  • Education: Where efforts like training and awareness raising increase availability of facts and the addressing of myths.
  • Protest: Where collective action creates an esprit de corps and a movement which seeks redress or action.

The most potent of these is contact, and it is there that both the renewed See Me programme and other global anti-stigma initiatives now rightly focus. Walk a Mile was about conversations, so contact in a very potent format.

It wasn’t about protest, but there was an air of assertiveness and pride in the group on the walk that felt like the essence of marches and pride events I have been part of. It felt like the start of something, like a proto-pride, a sense of awakening that might one day turn into self-acceptance and equality.

It wasn’t education…but everyone learned, whether through the conversations had or through the ability to have conversations with strangers, peers and people they’d never feel equal to or able to approach.

See Me has over the past 18 months sought to galvanise a social movement to address stigma and discrimination, both taking on a human rights approach and elucidating this in the field. Critically the programme is now engaging and taking on the spectre of self-stigma, the corrosive internalisation of negative stereotypes.of mental health that we can give headspace to, especially at our most unwell and when kindled by everyday discrimination.

It’s a tall order but this felt like another major step on the road. I’ve been to press events before that seemed contrived. This wasn’t. It was authentic. I even felt comfortable donning a brand T-shirt and whilst i’m always an enthusiastic supporter of the cause, I have to admit that being branded doing so has been known to make me squirm. My colleague Andrew Eaton-Lewis captured the spirit well for the SMHAFF website

The press were there to cover what we were doing, we weren’t doing what we were to hook press. That’s where we need to be in mental health and the media. Making news, not begging scraps. Even as we stopped for photo calls, the blethering continued and people took their chance to find new walking partners or introduce their walk buddies to others. It also gave the chance for tweeting and selfying and the rare opportunity for ordinary people to ask Scottish Government Minister Jamie Hepburn questions. I met my new MP there…and spoke to people from all backgrounds.


Chris Young and Jamie Hepburn MSP receive instructions from the press corps photographers

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As walkers assemble and pair up

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Sarah Boyack MSP wanted a photo with the banners for a blog piece she’s going to write

On the walk I started with Labour MSP Sarah Boyack, moved on to a conversation with a lady bereaved by the suicide of a loved one, had a few words with Chris Young and the Minister before joining a service user from Stirling to talk opera singing, dogs and self-directed support. I finished with colleagues from the Scottish Recovery Network. Even only as as walking networking event with no power differentials I’d recommend it. It was great to see young people, older people, people from all backgrounds there. Our movement can seem a little insular at times and whilst there were familiar faces I was very pleased that there were many strangers too. We need people to refresh and challenge the movement.

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Selfie sticks and Periscope allowed the walk to be broadcast live


Young and old were there…key for our movement to grow and thrive


Edinburgh Tenants Federation catch up with Sarah Boyack

I particularly enjoyed the event because it allowed me to be safe and out in terms of having a blended identity. So often I am either a senior manager in a national charity, or a photographer, or a person with lived experience. Here I could blend and blur without fear, and in quite intimate conversations in public.


Chris catches up with the minister on a key issue

Chris Young, and others in the movement are examples of people who have said ‘why not just do it’. It’s brilliant to see, and something I am trying more and more to do. Sometimes we have it in us to start organising and changing the world, like Chris, or other community champions in mental health. Sometimes it is as big an achievement and as strong a blow for self-stigma to get up and have one conversation, or send one hash-tagged tweet. It all helps. 



The Royal Mile was full of chat, gesture and debate



At the end of the walk, in the shadow of the Parliament, people had a chance to reflect on the walk and recharge their batteries.


As I headed back to the station, I found two walkers still chatting, and bringing in passers by with offers of chips…


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