When introduce myself or get introduced to boardrooms and audiences, I am described as an ‘inspirational speaker on the lived experience of mental health’.
But what does this beefy title mean?
I clearly define the difference between mental illness and mental health – which we all possess – then engage, empower and inspire people to reclaim their ‘choices’ both personally and professionally.
I also use the term ‘lived experience’ to inform people upfront that I am not a medical professional, I am not a fix, I do not offer advice.
For me, ‘lived experience’ is the vehicle that takes organisations from the problem of mental health to the solution.
Why vulnerability is key
For me, vulnerability is a superpower – by sharing my story, my experiences, my challenges it empowers audiences to feel safe, not judged and open to exploring their own thoughts, feelings and situations.
However, vulnerability is the one thing that we truly hide from – we are so afraid of being judged, dismissed, not loved or tarnished, especially when it comes to mental health.
We would rather mask ourselves – trying to be what people want to see in us, trying to be what situations demand of us – but never showing ourselves.
So, by delivering authenticity and relating it to my experiences, people then feel safe to explore themselves and then to engage in the wellbeing and mental health initiatives that are very often available to them.
Especially – but not exclusively – with men. Due to our cultural and generational conditioning of the ‘man up’ or the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to mental health, men can find it extremely difficult to engage in solution-led activities relating to mental health or indeed wellbeing generally.
I deliver my talks worldwide and I believe it’s also worth noting that here in the UK we seem to have a built-in belief, from my conversations with thousands of attendees, that self-care is selfish. We will feel guilty about putting ourselves first.
However, to quote that old aeroplane adage of having to put our oxygen mask on first to allow us to be strong enough to help others – if we don’t do that, we can only run for so long before we stop.
My ‘stop’ was in 2012
I had a breakdown outside of a Premier Inn in Somerset, UK (classy guy eh, if I knew I was talking about this for a living now I would’ve gone with a more exclusive brand and got a deal out of it!).
I had just left a Business Networking meeting. Years of mental illness, mental health challenges and a groundswell of frustration came to a head.I’d lost hope – or the hope of something better – and I felt I was living in a haze.
But I had my mask. My happy, strong and successful mask. So, when I was shaking hands with people – that was exactly what they saw – the mask.
I see it so clearly now in other people that I talk to, in audiences that I deliver to – why people get to the point of burnout, breakdown, meltdown – however you want to label that moment when you scream “I’M DONE!”.
It was at that point that I decided to share my story – without getting too dark about it, it was either going to consume me or I had to let it out. So I did.
All six foot and four inches – and 23 stone of me.
I turned up at the next meeting and I spoke about what had happened to me, what was happening to me.A man – talking about what men didn’t.
I’ll be honest with you, for me it was death by police, a blaze of glory or mic drop moment – I was going to say my piece and then off I would go. But that day changed my life forever.
After I had spoken, everyone in the room stood up to give me their support. Everyone gave me a hug – I love hugs! The third thing – everyone, people that I had known for years, immediately started to open up to me.
The truth is completely liberating; it builds absolute trust and locks in safety.
Vulnerability, when practiced daily, becomes a superpower.
If you want to build deeper conversations, connections or relationships then show more of yourself.
That’s what I now do for HR leaders and organisations all over the world.
Honest, authentic, vulnerable engagement.
It’s not about fixing people, it’s about listening to people
I have many conversations, every week, with HR leaders.
The biggest challenge right now may not be with your ‘ground troops’ – the challenges may be closer to home.
It could be you – or your people who are managers, mental health first aiders, leaders, carers. People who have a role such as yours or in any of these positions that I have mentioned tend to take these roles because they have a passion for people.
Naturally, that could make you more sensitive, feel more responsibility or indeed urge you to try and ‘fix’ people who come to you.
But who looks after the people who look after people?
Essentially in life people just want to be heard and they want to be understood. If you can fulfil these things for anyone – genuinely listen, truly hear them – they will find their own way forward.
Unless you are a medical professional, they are not coming to you to be fixed.
So, our responsibility, as I see it, is to get very good at active signposting – know the solutions to guide people to, without the burden of trying to fix everyone.
It’s an admirable intention, but you need to put yourself first.