Archive | October, 2016

World Mental Health Day

10 Oct

It’s World Mental Health Day – a busy time if you work for a mental health charity.

Up and down the country the charity I work for has been supporting people to have Tea and Talk sessions. The theme this year has been psychological first aid, especially in trauma, and we published a new guide and some excellent personal stories

Today as a part of our work with Virgin Trains  we launched a wellbeing channel on their on-board media app BEAM. The first content is a series of videos to help people to be mindful. Mindfulness is being present in the moment, and the videos we hope will give people the chance to come out of autopilot and refocus.

There are some beautiful videos of beauty spots on the route and something completely new…Slow TV…coined in Norway it involves real-time, long films of everyday things. In this case the view of the whole train journey as seen from the drivers cab – something that will interest a lot of people.

My colleague Cal wrote about his conversion for HuffPost. Even Sir Richard Branson  was blogging and video blogging about it. If you work in a charity having Sir Richard Branson talking about you is as good as it gets in terms of reach…


I’ve got a team of wonderful staff and colleagues. They all worked themselves to the ground today, speaking, planning, thanking, hosting, attending events – people don’t tend to work or stay in charities if they don’t care.

Now I am working with companies too it is incredible to see staff in businesses taking up the cause with excitement and verve – Almost more valuable than the contents of collecting tins it’s wonderful soul food for our staff to hear staff and customers in partner organisations talking about mental health because of something we said or did.

I am proud of all the World Mental Health Days i’ve been involved with. It’s been 20 years since as a fresher I was elected to the student union in Aberdeen and first got involved in anti-stigma and awareness raising work when I myself was quite unwell.

So why do I feel a bit uneasy this week, and every time there is an awareness day?

Well…I think it is because so often the messaging around mental health days can seem to some people with a lot of mental health knowledge or experience as sanitised, approved  or even mad-washed (where mental health lived experience is added to make something look better).

It is very very hard to bring a message to the public’s ear and eye which moves understanding forward without being too saccharine, or perceived as too sellout for some of the activists in the movement, people I respect immensely.

I try and walk the line, and my colleagues do too. I try and expand the audience for mental health campaigns without diluting the impact.

I find it hard to be straightforward, positive and come up with easy answers,  whilst I know that people are existing through mental health awareness day in the same abject misery they faced yesterday and will face tomorrow.

I know that as charities we say ‘be brave, seek help’ – but that these days the chances of finding that help first time is less and less likely. It it ethical to stand and refer people to their GP if I know that their GP is likely to be stretched and the local community mental health team or crisis service stretched beyond breaking point?

I know right now that there are people I know well that may die by suicide tonight because of the trauma they have lived through and the inability of any kind of services to provide support or see them as other than problems.

Services are challenged. Complicated people ruin the  narrative of the ideal recovery. Most professionals are deeply committed and the inability of the system to support the most vulnerable forces them to face challenges they find intolerable and leads many of the best to leave, harden or to burnout.

Mental illness is fucking miserable. It isn’t cake and rainbows, it’s blood, and misery, and early death. It’s isolation, loneliness, denial of human rights. It’s trauma, and abuse, and corrosion of self.  It’s re-trauma, restraint and compulsion. It’s horrifically complicated and beautifully simple. People need compassion and hope, they don’t get it by and large.

If we use cake and rainbows as a means of drawing people in – and cake and rainbows do work – we must connect these activities to authentic experiences whenever we can.

We must find ways of drawing in public interest and charitable donations without reducing mental health to tropes and sanitised stories. That’s hard. Finding a public rallying point in mental health is hard – but we need to keep looking if we want to find ways of charitably funding innovation when government and other public funding recedes.

You can’t cure mental illness by funding white coats and cure oriented lab research – although we need better evidence and there are some excellent road-maps that highlight the kinds of research we need to see. Mental ill health is far more complex than binary illness -> cure. It is poverty, and discrimination. It is self and environment. It is politics, and society. We need moonshots in mental health, and we need rallying flags for the public. But we can’t have those, and not recognise the day to day reality of living with mental illness, or the day to day mental health challenge of being poor, discriminated against, old, or disabled either.

It’s the professional challenge that keeps me jumping out of bed to go to work – how can I personally and professionally stay authentic to the complex whilst broadening and reaching a wider audience of people who might be able to bring skills and passion to the cause.

I’m certainly not always going to get it right…but i’m always going to be learning and listening…and trying to act, try things, fail and learn, and succeed were possible.

In Glasgow yesterday my super colleagues kicked of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, a full octane, no punches pulled social justice festival themed on Time, which reaches every corner of mental health with every kind of arts medium. This is the kind of bold work we need to see more of. Authentic activism and voices that reflect real lives and not just ideal ones are coming forward as young people find their voice in their experiences. I think there’s a growing body of people who feel this – with lived experience and professionals skills, connected to an undercurrent of well hidden functional distress, understanding the digital world and the power of social movements…

Every working day I carry a group of people in my heart and mind. My heroes. People who have died. People who show true valour living on day by day or hour by hour. People I have loved, and love. People in the shadows of the internet and people in my closest circle.

I have the great fortune to be able to ask some of those people about my work whenever I can, and I am fortunate that they are frank – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


It goes without saying that this piece, like everything else on this blog is written in a personal capacity and should be regarded as such.