I don’t know how typical this is, but most of the Time to Change Champions I’ve met have personal experience of mental illness, their own or someone they care about. My own story starts 2011 when I met American writer and photographer Fran Houston on Facebook. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, also chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. She was intensely manic and frequently suicidal. As our friendship developed, I witnessed first-hand how people responded to her on social media, and spent many hours listening to Fran recount how she was treated by friends and strangers alike. It was clear that while some were supportive and stuck around, many did not, either unable or unwilling to handle her with compassion. This was stigma in action.
Over the past six years I’ve learned how dangerous (literally life-threatening) unhelpful responses to mental illness can be, and how important it is to offer an alternative. In Fran’s words:
“It’s not only difficult experiencing stigma, it’s demoralizing. I’ve lost many friends due to my illnesses. When there are people who choose to not only support but champion those of us in need, it creates a warmth, a wholeness, and the chance of a life worth living.”
We sought out like-minded individuals and organisations on both sides of the Atlantic including Bring Change 2 Mind, Stigma Fighters and NoStigmas in the US, and Time to Change here in the UK. Registering as a Time to Change Champion was a turning point, and one of my better decisions! I’ve met some amazing people. Some have become good friends. Others are trusted contacts I’d have no hesitation in reaching out to – as I did earlier this year when faced with a mental health crisis in my immediate family.
It’s been suggested we need a society not merely aware of mental health issues but educated enough to know how to help. At the first Time to Change event I ever attended, someone recommended the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course to me. That led in turn to me taking the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). These and a range of online courses have greatly enhanced my ability to help Fran, and other people.
My most recent campaigning was at Newcastle Pride. About half the people I spoke to had heard of Time to Change through TV campaigns, and thought the public was generally more aware due to the openness of celebrities and others in the media spotlight. Media campaigns are important, but changing society’s attitudes requires more than TV coverage and celebrity endorsements. That’s where we Champions come in! Not just campaigning and taking part in official events, but putting it into practice in our day to day lives.
I asked two people I met at Newcastle Pride what they had taken away from the Time to Change stall. Both emphasised openness and connection:
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Curiosity is the path to knowledge, and knowledge is the power to shed light and overcome obstacles. Open up. Educate. Spread the word.” – Vikki
“The people at the Time to Change booth were extremely informative on what they do. I felt understood when I spoke about my mental health which is extremely important to me. Everyone was very friendly and I went away with lots of information and things that I can check out.” – Loretta
Fran and I are open about our mutually supportive friendship. We wrote a book (High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder) about how to support a friend living with mental illness. We share relevant articles and resources with our online community, and encourage others to share their stories as guests on our blog.
Being open and honest invites people to reciprocate. It’s hard to overemphasise how important that is in a society generally ill at ease talking about personal things. Over time – in our homes, our schools, our colleges, places of worship and workplaces – we can shift the culture.
Last week a colleague asked for time with me to talk about some mental health issues he was going through with a loved one. He wasn’t looking for me to fix things or tell him what to do, although I was able to suggest approaches from my own experience, and signpost local support services. He was looking for a safe space in which to talk about what was going on for him, without feeling judged or pushed in one direction or another.
More than anything else, campaigning with Time to Change has given me confidence to do this, supported by a network of people I trust to be there for me if needed.
Read more from Fran and Marty at their blog, Gum on my Shoe.