Let’s start with you, James. How did you get so involved with mental health advocacy?
This is all born out of my own personal experience. When I was 25, I’d just shut down a business I started and had moved down to London. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and was asking some big existential questions – all while feeling lonely, isolated, skint and in danger of being swallowed up by the big city. I started to feel things I’d never felt before: I was very anxious, knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, panic attacks and not sleeping very well. These things can be doubly scary in a sense: you’re scared by what you’re experiencing, but you’re also scared because you don’t really understand what’s going on.
Did you seek help?
I did, and a lot of what I saw out there didn't resonate. There was lots of quite clinical, diagnostic terminology. There were lots of charities too, but none that made me want to approach the topic. This pushed me away a bit. Instead I started to journal, writing down and articulating my experience privately in a sort of diary. As time went on, I found the words and built the confidence to start sharing how I was feeling with people around. Everything snowballed from there until I was on a mission to open up mental health, so that mental health was not just about pain and distress, but also about joy, fulfilment, purpose and meaning in lives.
So mental health is not just about the bad stuff?
I’d had a difficult experience when I experienced poor mental health, but I’d also had a positive experience by focusing on my mental health. I found myself becoming more creative, I started another business that I was very connected to, and got myself into a really healthy relationship. That’s when I wanted to transform how we view mental health, so we’re not just looking at pain and suffering, but also looking at the light as well.
How do you go about doing that?
My intention has never been to tell people what to do. I’m not a clinical practitioner and I don’t want to be a doctor, a psychotherapist or a coach. I’ve just got a certain set of experiences and observations, and all of my work now is about telling this story. I felt like I’d been hiding something for a long time and I didn’t want to hide it any longer, so it was a sort of freedom of expression – to express all the different parts of myself. If I can talk about that now, maybe it will create the permission for other people to do the same.
The stats say around 25% of us now experience poor mental health of some sort. Is there an epidemic going on?
I don’t know if it’s ever been any different, to be honest. Perhaps mental health issues have just been under-reported traditionally and we’re now a bit more conscious of them. After all, if you look back 50 or 100 years, did people have reasons to be depressed, anxious and stressed? I’m sure they did. The important point for me is that, by society becoming more open, people are more able to express when they're struggling and there are going to be more options for them. This is crucial because society is always in flux – just look at the last 18 months – and people are always going to be struggling. We can’t cure that, but we can create a world in which people who are struggling can talk to someone about it, and people who are excited about positive growth or development can do that as well.
The volume of the public conversation about mental health has certainly been turned up in recent years. Has that been helping?
I think so. It’s easy to be very British and to complain that, you know, the government hasn’t done enough or whatever. That’s definitely true, but let’s also look at how far we’ve come in the last five years. When I started Sanctus and was hosting a mental health event, the reaction was Marmite. People either thought I was weird and turned their nose up, or they were like, ‘God, yes! Thank you.’ Back then, the people who were talking about mental health – Stephen Fry, say, or Ruby Wax – were seen as a bit eccentric. Now we’ve got Prince William, Stormzy and loads of celebrities or influential people talking about how they feel. I think we’ve come a really long way.
And why is it good to talk, exactly?
Because mental health is a massive part of our lives. Every single day we all experience things, we all feel things, we’re all in relationships with one another, and there are events that happen in our world that we respond to. To respond to all of this, our state of mental health is just absolutely paramount. Yet I don’t think we are very well equipped to understand this. School teaches us all about our physical health, but there’s very little on mental health. A conversation that helps us become more aware, more educated, more literate about how we are, how we behave, why we value what we value, is going to make us all feel better.
Is there any danger that all of this chatter drags people into a conversation they didn’t need to have? Are people who weren’t worrying about their mental health now starting to worry about it?
I think that’s a really important question. Yes, on an individual level, everyone’s awareness is being raised, so there may well be people who were trundling along in life feeling very happy and now this conversation has made them question things or see things differently. I’ve noticed this myself in friends and people around me. However, I think a growing awareness of your mental health – and how you show up and behave in the world – is a bit like going from seeing the world in black and white to seeing it in colour.
You start to notice how you experience things – perhaps you start to wonder whether actually your boss is treating you like sh*t and it’s making you anxious. This growing awareness could mean you start to feel worse before you feel better, as you deal with stuff that had been left unspoken. In the long term though – and again this isn’t typically British! – my belief is it’s better for the world if people are in touch with their experiences, their emotions, their feelings. I’ve seen it happening: people who start to explore themselves start to make different life choices. There are a lot of really big challenges in the world right now – think of gender, race, the environment – and having people being more introspective in the face of these challenges can only be a good thing in my opinion.
What does good mental health look like then?
There’s a massive fallacy that good mental health is just not having bad mental health. We often think bad mental health is feeling sad or angry or upset. These emotions maybe don’t feel great, but we shouldn’t just label them as bad. Similarly, we shouldn’t label being happy as good mental health – not least because no one can be happy all the time. Instead, I think the best way to understand good mental health is as an integration of all those different emotional states. There’s no judgement on some being better than others. We should be flexible and adaptable, rather than seeing good mental health as a fixed state.
To help people achieve this, you’ve focused on workplaces. Why is that?
Workplaces are simply the most effective way of reaching people. Traditionally, mental health support – especially coaching, which is primarily what we do – has been almost exclusively for business leaders. There’s a broad middle section of people who have been left unaware or unable to access mental health support. Reaching out to them made sense on that level, but also because people are spending more time at work. They are seeing their workplace as a community, where they can find purpose and meaning in life, so workplaces are taking a more active role in society. They’re not just places you rock up to, check into and check out of each day. People are building long-lasting relationships at work – all while businesses are becoming more active around social causes like mental health.
What practical things can someone do to make their workplace better?
The absolutely fundamental thing is: prioritise your own mental health and well being. Put your own oxygen mask on first, as it were. If you’re a manager, taking actions that prioritise how you feel is great role modelling. And tell people exactly what you’re doing. This will make them feel like they can take similar decisions for themselves. The second thing is to ask people questions about how they feel. Practise talking about mental health by exploring your own. Then you can make these sort of check-in questions a regular part of the working day. But you don’t have to be a manager to contribute to this sort of cultural change. Just start talking about your mental health. I don’t mean sharing traumatic childhood events in an all-staff email. I mean letting people know that you’re leaving at 5.30 today to go for a run because you always feel good after a run. Even just using the phrase ‘mental health’ in a meeting can be helpful.
Long hours, job insecurity, the unfulfilling nature of a lot of work – some might say businesses create many of our current problems around mental health. Can a workplace conversation ever be more than a sticking plaster on a much deeper issue?
Done properly, I think conversations about mental health can lead to significant change. They make mental health permissible in a workplace and, if the business is genuinely listening to the conversations, it can learn from them. Imagine you have a stressed team of people. If they are empowered to talk about their stress, and their managers are empowered to listen, a business is going to have a whole new data set around their staff’s emotions and what they want or need. That could help them make the right decisions to improve things. Mental health at work isn’t just about lunchtime yoga sessions. It can change a business’s systems.
Last one then, James. Why do men find it harder to talk about this stuff?
I can speak about this one from personal experience too. At 25, I was doing what most men do in this country: going out at the weekend, getting drunk, chatting football and trying to meet girls. Classic laddish behaviour. Taking the piss out of each other with your mates definitely has its benefits, but that sort of environment isn’t always conducive to taking a risk and opening up –occasionally it might all pour out of you in the smoking area of the club at 3am, but that’s about it. There’s rarely a sober situation in which to discuss this stuff.
I’ve learnt since then – because I’ve seen it first hand – that men are no less able to talk about how they feel than anyone else. We’re not under a curse that says we can’t talk about our feelings. We sometimes just need to find different spaces, different places or different people to comfortably have these conversations with. For me, journaling was very powerful because it gave me a private, confidential space to start articulating my feelings. I don’t think I ever used the word ‘anxious’ until I was about 27. But we are all richly complex creatures and learning this new language opens up a different part of the world. It can help us see ourselves in ways we might not have seen before.
James’s 3 Things You Can Do Today To Support Your Own Mental Health
Write Things Down
Try journaling. This will prompt you to reflect. Begin by asking yourself: what does mental health mean to you? What have been your experiences with mental health in the past? What do you think of when someone says ‘mental health’?
Start A Conversation
Encourage mental health to become part of the conversations of your daily life. This could mean telling someone you read this article. Share it with a mate and ask them what they think of it.
Do Something That Makes You Feel Good
People usually know what supports them – that one thing they do that always makes them feel really good. It could going for a run, calling a mate, even calling your parents. Just follow your nose on this one.
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