May 10, 2013

CharlotteI remember the first time I stood in front of a room and talked about my mental health.

I was in remission when I began training as a probation officer in 2005. Stability didn’t stop me feeling like a service user; over the years I has seen numerous psychiatrists and been given various psychiatric labels, and I continued to take psychiatric drugs daily.

At the end of the course, we began a module called “Working with Mentally Disordered Offenders”.

I had looked forward to this part of the training and was disappointed to find the content very theory heavy, with little opportunity for trainees to gain insight into lives of clients with mental health conditions.

Some of the class discussions were full of misunderstandings

Some of the class and online discussions were so full of stigma-laden misunderstandings that I became very uncomfortable. It was hard not to take comments personally, even though the class had no way of knowing that I was a service user.

So when we were given feedback forms, that’s what I wrote. I was completely honest about the fact I felt the module had got it wrong, and why. I was very surprised when the lecturers got back to me, saying, “We agree - would you like to come and help us teach it next time?”

Initially I responded by saying I would love to, but would prefer just to say that mental health was a special interest of mine, rather than disclosing my personal history. I didn’t dare to talk about my experiences. I didn’t know how people would react, whether I would be taken seriously if the class knew I had bipolar, whether colleagues back at the office would get to hear about it and treat me differently.

So I opened my mouth and shared my experiences

During the lecture, however, I began to feel very strongly that my mental health condition was not something to hide, that in fact it was the very thing that gave me legitimacy. Who was I to stand at the front and talk about mental health? Someone who had been there, that was who. And so I opened my mouth and shared my experiences.

At the end of the session, two things happened. Firstly, the lecturer I was working with said, “You nearly gave me a heart attack! I thought you weren’t going to talk about your own stuff? I’m so glad you did though, that worked brilliantly – will you come back next semester?”

Next, a trainee who hadn’t spoken at all during the lecture came to the front of the room to thank me. She told me that she sometimes worried she would never be a good probation officer, because she was living with an eating disorder and didn’t know whether she could juggle the stress of probation practice alongside her eating disorder. It meant a lot, she said, to meet someone who was managing both a mental health problem and a probation caseload and would speak openly about it.

These days, I'll speak to anyone about mental health

These days, I’ll speak to anyone about mental health that wants or needs to hear about it. As an Expert by Experience for Mind, I talk about my experiences to service users, carers and workers from a range of agencies in the health and social care sector. I write about how it feels to have a mood disorder on my blog, and sometimes on the blogs of mental health charities. I have given interviews, sat on focus groups and reviewed mental health information, and, as a Time to Change volunteer, I have stopped complete strangers in a muddy field to start unplanned conversations about mental health.

It all stems from that first moment

It all stems from that first, anxious moment when I stepped away from my comfort zone and into what I felt was scary but ultimately right. And the more I talk, the easier it is. Many people really do want to hear our stories; what we have to say may make them feel less alone, or give them valuable insight into something they would otherwise know little about.

You don’t have to stand up and give a talk to share your experiences, either. I like to think I do as much to challenge stigma by just being myself, by speaking with honesty and openness about bipolar to my children, my friends, my Twitter followers or the people in my choir.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.