With this being the eve of Time To Talk Day 2019, I asked Peer Support Worker; Paul Nicol what he thought the benefits are of talking about mental health...

Quite a question to be asked. My trusty armour automatically attaches to me, offering protection at first consideration. Like some sci-fi character, I feel the chunks of metal bolt on to me as my first thought is....... there is no benefit for me. That first thought is a response to the shame I carry of mental health having influenced large chunks of my life. Why would I tell anyone that I felt worthless, pathetic, weak and struggle to survive the now, let alone consider a future? Why would I tell anyone that the monkey on my back keeps me in a regretful past of underachievement; losing job after job because I was just too lazy to get out of bed? Why would I tell anyone that I self-medicated for years and found cannabis and alcohol gave me a reason to continue and chemicals gave me a weekend party to look forward to? I’m vulnerable enough, with all of this, why would I tell anyone about my mental health?

My ego takes over and the second thought is......... it benefits others. Sharing my lived experience can offer something to other people. Sharing with people the insight I have about living with tortuous suicidal thoughts, where the reasons to complete life and the reasons not to, clashed and grappled internally in such a way that I was exhausted for months on end. Sharing an understanding helps a person, at the most isolated time in life. It can help people start to consider that the world is not as lonely a place as it has felt of late and that there are other people who know this dark, dark place. Sharing how difficult it was to get some traction, to find some momentum, to get things moving, in life’s landscape of challenge, after challenge, after challenge which often becomes setback, after set back, after set back, in those early stages of recovery. Sharing this difficulty of coping with life in the early stages recovery, and constantly taking three steps forward and two steps, back helps other people understand that this is not only a personal or individual thing. Nor is it indicative of an inability to find a recovery path. Sharing this aspect of recovery helps normalise the experience and offer hope. Sharing bits of my timeline around mental health and recovery shares further hope.

Armour off, ego appeased and eventually I accept the benefits of talking about mental health as my third thought is ........ it benefits me too. At the risk of going twee, now the armour is off....... talking about mental health and talking about mental health and recovery as part of who I am, has enabled me to be the most authentic version of me to date. To quickly qualify that statement and borrow a fellow peers analogy, following every episode of mental health difficulties, I would regenerate into a slightly different version of myself, trying to find a way forward where I fitted in and the problems my mental health had caused, could be left alone. This time around, becoming a Peer Support Worker and taking that leap of Faith to become intrinsically linked with mental health and my experience of it, I have a greater sense of belonging. Of course, that sense of belonging ebbs and flows like most things in recovery and I still carry that monkey on my back which wonders if this bad day is indeed the start of an episode, rather than a blip or simply a bad day. With the sense of belonging that comes with the authenticity, (yes I read  Brene Brown’s work) I have developed what I believe to be stronger, loving relationships, where I can openly talk about how I feel with the people I love and trust. One of the most ground breaking insights I gained to help me make a sizeable shift in this area, occurred on a Wellness Recovery Action Plan Educator Course. While looking at supporters. I eventually understood why key people in my life, who were so supportive repeatedly, felt like they were letting me down. I was asking them for something they were not able to offer. Like asking lovely uncle Jim who will do anything for you except lend you money, for a fiver. Asking a loved one who is a problem solver, skips validation and goes straight for the solution to help me appreciate and understand why I feel the way I do, after something which has just triggered me, is only going to lead to frustration and disappointment. I eventually understood why my needs were not being met. I was expecting people to be or do something beyond who they are. Accepting the authenticity of the people around me and understanding the bounds of their supportive roles helped me understand which conversations to have with whom and when.

Keeping the conversation alive with peers is like a perpetual recovery and well-being tool kit, live exchange forum. Where talking about mental health leads to conversations of how to manage the difficulties, where new skills and techniques are swapped and shared, building a recovery capital for all involved in the conversation. Talking about mental health and recovery helps me make sense of my life to date. My understanding of those lived experiences evolves as my insight evolves and as a peer described to me recently, that baggage becomes so much easier to carry as I take items out of thin, splitting carrier bags and place them into a large padded rucksack.

And then there is stigma, the thought that pops into mind while considering all which has been written before. Why do I feel shame around mental health ? Stigma. My stigma, my friends, families and communities stigma of mental health. Why would I armour up and ‘protect myself’ from conversations which have helped the relationships in my life flourish? Stigma. The stigma the awkwardness of telling a loved one or hearing from a loved one, just how low one has reached, now or in the past.

Starting, sharing and continuing the conversation about mental health is the way we beat the illness, the stigma and the shame. Locked away in a darkened place, all of these aspects grow. Out in the open, aired, seen, discussed, building a shared understanding and retaining and developing connections, stigma, shame and perhaps even aspects of mental health difficulties, shrink. As recovery is one foot in front of the other, talking about mental health is one conversation after another, evolving the conversation and spreading the benefits of staying connected.

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