Author Archives: Ben Jones

  1. School holidays are full of great times but also a helping hand for depression

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    The most predictable thing about having depression is its unpredictability. You can be going along serenely for weeks, sometimes months (although it’s not normally months for me unfortunately) with no dramas, no red flags, no black clouds. Life is manageable. Not always easy, but then not too difficult. It takes a lot of effort each day and lots of techniques and tools but it can be done. Most of the time.

    Then one day, bam. It hits you. It’s there. It’s back. Not invited. Not expected. Not welcome. 

    I woke two days ago feeling rotten. My whole body felt heavy. Tired. Low levels of motivation. Constant nausea and discomfort. Wind-like pains in my stomach. Need an afternoon nap or rest. Longing, no craving, quietness and being alone. Increased toilet frequency. Restless sleep. Bad dreams. Exhausted by 9pm. So annoying. So fucking annoying. 

    As so often before, there wasn’t any real warning this time. No obvious build-up. Nothing tangible I feel I could have done to stop it from appearing. That makes it more annoying. More frustrating. It just happens. It’s just there one day. All over you. In your face. In your bones. 

    I have been able to function – mostly – for the last two days but have felt pretty down. At times, pretty worthless. It is a passing feeling but it comes and goes often enough to feel real. 

    I am often asked how it feels to be in the midst of an episode. It doesn’t differ much for me – it’s always the same sorts of symptoms and a nagging, overwhelming feeling like you’re getting pushed down upon by a great weight or your every step is blocked by a darkness: a wall that keeping moving in front of you or a rope that is tugging on your belt from behind to stop you breaking free and moving exactly how you would like. 

    I have spent time on a postmortem. Trying to piece together those few days or hours before this episode to see if I missed something. Is this my fault? Did I take my eye off the ball? Was I complacent?

    I think about this for a few minutes and reflect that I wasn’t. Not really. I have continued to look after myself and tried to keep my good habits going each day. Running. Walking. Meaningful work. Time with my girls. Reading. Music. Podcasts. LFC. Golf. Red Sox. Fresh air. Tea. No alcohol. No late nights. Not spending time with people who bring me down. 

    But then this is the school summer holidays and some of my normal routines are off limits. I am not getting as much me-time as normal (I am someone who needs lots of quiet, alone time) and spending all day with a seven and a half year old is a source of wonder but very little quiet. And this realisation brings with it guilt. Heavy, choking guilt. I want to be with her – my life is given purpose and love because of her and her wonderful mum – and yet I know that this daddy-daughter time is sometimes squeezing the time I need for myself to stay on top of my depression. Even writing that makes my feel guilty but it is my reality and I think the reality for others too. 

    I spend every day working incredibly hard to stay ahead of my depression and it takes a lot of effort and I only just manage it in normal times. The school holidays just put pressure on this effort and sometimes I fall over. Two days ago I hit the ground.  

    I am not writing this looking for solutions or suggestions. I am not looking for sympathy and not seeking to be judged. I am just putting words to the thoughts and accepting that winning the battle against depression isn’t possible all year round. For me, no matter how hard I try it never goes away and it also comes back.

    Having depression is shit. It really is. But I know that writing this post will help me and that in the same way that the dark clouds arrived, they will soon just be gone.

    The really good news is that when the clouds part and the darkness disappears, I will have my little sidekick with me to enjoy the better weather. And I have no guilt about that.

  2. Spare a thought for our leaders – it’s a very, very lonely business being them and tough on their mental health

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    In one of her typically brilliant pieces of writing, the great Victoria Wood introduced us to Nicola (played by Julie Walters), the health farm manager. When talking about her philosophy of fitness and healthy living she searched for an inspirational phrase and uttered the immortal line: “I only speak a little Latin, just enough to buy a paper”. 

    Now, we didn’t do much Latin at my comprehensive school, aside from the occasionally verse of Ave Maria in hymn practice, but I’ve had a well known Latin phrase running around my head all week: ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, translated mostly as ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’ or ‘who watchers the watchers?’. 

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of leaders in organisations; in companies; in public life; in government; in the world – and the critical role they have, and sometimes fail to accomplish, in looking after or supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their people. I’ve not been doing this to point the finger of blame at them – although this is easy to do and at times feels justified. But I’ve been thinking about the pressure they are under, the responsibility they bear and the incredibly lonely place it is when in a leadership role: how all roads lead to you; how you are expected to have all the answers; how you are expected to set an example; be the guard and watcher of others and also of the culture of your organisation and what that can do to support or damage mental health and wellbeing. How the bucks always stops with you. 

    I’ve worked in and with dozens of organisations in my career and held positions of leadership, having a duty of care over dozens of people. I have worked with many CEOs, directors, chairs, board members and other managers and leaders. I have personal experience – and seen first hand – the huge pressures that push down on leadership figures and how isolating being a leader can often be. I have seen far too many leaders struggling with their mental health but feeling unable – for lots of reasons – to put their hand up and say ‘I am struggling’. 

    Imagine for a minute the stigma – as a fellow scouser once said, it isn’t hard to do – that millions of people feel every day in the workplace which often stops them for telling colleagues or their boss that things are tough for them and that they need help. Then imagine the stifling stigma that the boss feels if they are themselves are the ones struggling. How much pressure is on them to push on, be the invincible, indestructible figure who leads the organisation through the daily storms of business, political, reputational and financial pressures towards the golden sky. Who is there to ensure they are not walking alone? Who is holding their hand? To whom can they turn and confide? How can they truly trust?

    I am not talking here about coaches, mentors or colleagues, I am talking about specialist mental health and wellbeing support that recognise that our leaders are not machines or robots but human being who feel the same stresses, pressures, anxieties, insecurities and pains that the rest of us feel.

    Someone the leaders can talk about the whole of their life and the impact work is having on it – not just business plans, strategies, motivating colleagues and posting end of year accounts. But the whole person. The person who as well as being a leader is trying to be a good mum, dad, partner, wife, husband, brother, sister, son, daughter and friend. Can we honestly say that organisations are doing enough to support these individuals as they navigate the huge demands placed on them? Or are we saying that this just comes with the territory and the film star wages? Are we really saying that? Are we really saying that a big pay packet insulates individuals from needing and deserving specialist mental health help and they should just suck it up? Please tell me we are not saying that because we may at times question or resent the money they earn or the decisions they make. 

    Think about recent high profile figures who have voiced their own mental health vulnerabilities, with great bravery and in way that has helped millions. Next time a CEO, political leader, premier league football manager, university vice-chancellor, senior civil servant, or any other leader we encounter through the media or social media, acts in a way we find annoying or strange, ask yourself what kind of pressure are they under and think about whether they are able to put their hand up – without being judged or losing their job – and say “I need help”. Think about the support that is open to them. Think about how many people in their lives truly are there to help them, looking for nothing in return or without judging them. Think about how lonely the walk is that they tread. 

    If we don’t do more to watch over those who watch over us we will have no-one left. No-one watching us. No-one guarding us. No-one well enough to help us to stay well. It will then be us who are lonely. 

  3. Being kind also means respecting that I’m not ready to ditch my mask or go to the match

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    Every phase of this pandemic has brought with it huge mental health and wellbeing challenges, with different worries and pressures. It has been an emotional rollercoaster. Lots of downs – so many deep downs – and many, many false highs, false dawns and over promises. Thankfully, there is now light at the end of the dark tunnel, but despite all the positives of recent weeks, I am still finding life hard.

    Like many people – probably most across these islands – I am delighted that restrictions have been mostly lifted and that life is returning to something like normal – or at the very least to a new, more normal. I am thrilled, and more than a little grateful, at the incredible vaccine development and roll-out effort, and was more than a little emotional to receive my two jabs. I am happy to be able to write this blog from one of my favourite places – the lovely MerseyMade in Liverpool – which at one point was closed and then only open with outside tables. And I am delighted that life is increasingly looking like it did before the news broke from Wuhan and all our lives were turned brutally upside down: kept away from family, friends and the activities and places that matter most to us.

    But I am still finding my feet in this latest phase. I am still worried. I am still being cautious. I am still not totally happy. I am still working very hard every day on my mental health – working harder than during the old normal. My updated daily routines and habits that are keeping me mentally well most of the time require extra effort and thought. It’s tough. 

    I appreciated the part of the pandemic – albeit now it feels it was short-lived – when the world seemed to embrace the message to “be kind” and there was a strong sense of community, with people looking out for each other. I liked the consideration that people were showing each other and the space – literal and emotional – that we were offering and were offered. Moving over as we passed on the pavement; standing back from each other in shops; not leaning over each other to grab stuff from shelves in supermarkets and respecting each person’s personal space. Those were the days.  

    Understandably, with the lifting of restrictions, that has changed with people feeling freer and safer to ignore those practices – despite the continued medical evidence that they remain important, even for double-vaccinated people.

    I am still wearing a mask in crowed places, including in shops, on trains, when I am around people I don’t know and when moving around cafes and restaurants. I am still carrying hand-gel around with me and using it regularly. I am not going to pubs – not that I did that much any more (as I approach 3 years sober in September) and I am still trying to keep my two metre distance when in public places. I am not ready yet to return to the match – despite being desperate to return to Anfield for my 38th season – even though I was kindly offered tickets for the first home league game of the season next weekend. I am not ready despite missing it so much. So, so much. That is painful to me, but it is how I feel. 

    I am not ready to be pushed up against strangers – unmasked strangers – who may or may not have had the virus, the vaccine or may knowingly or unknowingly be passing COVID to those around them at that very moment. No, I am not ready. 

    Even in non-pandemic times, I spend every day working on my mental health and trying to stay calm, present and anxiety-free. It was a huge challenge in those old normal times, especially after my breakdown. It was and remains a 24/7, 365 effort. For me – and millions of others – the pandemic just made our daily mental health struggles even tougher than usual and it took me some time to find our ways of managing the usual levels of depression and anxiety alongside this new – life-threatening – set of worries and existential fears. 

    I recently was in London with my wonderful wife and darling daughter and whilst there I went briefly – and cautiously – to a small mental health conference. I chaired a discussion on the ‘new normal’ and how relationships were working in these times, reflecting with those gathered about the impact on our mental health and wellbeing. The over-riding message for me was that there is no universal pandemic experience and no universal view of what we all need to do to feel safe. We must respect each other’s choices, as long as those choices do not impact on others. I am passionately of the view that I will do me and you should do you – as long as you doing you doesn’t expose me to passive smoking as I was a child to my 40 a day woodbine and roll-up habits of my grandparents. 

    I am a big boy and don’t need or seek the approval of others for my actions. I am happy with my choices – I need them to stay well and functioning but I know they are not always welcomed or respected.  At times I feel the disapproving looks; the silent (and sometimes not so silent) sighing and eye-rolling, as I arrive in my mask (and not just because it has an LFC logo on it!).

    Being kind doesn’t always seem to extend to those who are making different choices. My choices – which help keep my mentally safe – are not hurting anyone else, even if they are sometimes hurting me. My choices may seem over the top to others but they are my choices – they are right for me and they are not stopping others from making theirs. 

    As I try to navigate this next phase of the pandemic, I simply ask that you to be kind. If you can’t be kind, then just leave me to be me. Please.

  4. Feeling below par isn’t good for my golf, or anything else.

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    Mark Twain is credited with coining the phrase “golf is a good walk spoiled”.  For those of us who love the game of golf this isn’t just wrong, it is inconceivable. 

    For golfers like me, golf is not just the best sport in the world, it is a health, mental health, wellbeing and social lifeline. It provides us with hours and hours of fresh air; exercise; friendly competition; time with friends, family and the chance to make new acquaintances; provides opportunities to travel and walk amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery and landscapes in the world, and, it is great craic. 

    For me, golf has played a big role in my post-breakdown reset as a activity that gives me so much pleasure and quiet, immersive me-time, where I am in nature and in my own thoughts, usually about what club to hit for my next shot, away from the stresses and strains of daily life. It is not an exaggeration to say that golf has been a salvation for me since 2015. 

    I have been playing the game since around 1989 and play to a reasonable standard – being as low as a seven handicap (although now nearly ten). I play every week. When time and headspace allows I play competitively every Wednesday with friends and then try to find one or two other slots during the week to play alone. I am fortunate to be a member of a wonderful club, less than five minutes from home – Southport and Ainsdale – with a magnificent course and long and rich history, including twice hosting the Ryder Cup. It is set within the best golfing area in England – known as the England’s Golf Coast – bordering other great courses, including Open Championship venue, Royal Birkdale. 

    But it’s not all good news. This week has highlighted a challenge for me in wanting to play good quality golf when I’m in the middle of a depressive or anxious period. It’s virtually impossible to do. 

    My current state of mind is unsettled. Very unsettled. We recently moved house and aside from the natural stress of that process – not helped by COVID and all the various unhelpful and self-interested parties involved – there is a fair amount of work to do on the house and so I am organising lots of mini projects and different people who we need to help us. This is of course exciting and the results will be worth it but the process and the amount of change, upheaval and uncertainty in the short and medium term is triggering for me. 

    I have also struggled since moving – it’s three and half weeks – to find my normal routines in these changing times. I have been exercising, reading, listening to music and podcasts, writing and working (all good healthy parts of my own wellbeing approach) but I am lacking the usual set structures and stability that I crave. I am feeing anxious most of the time – the nausea is particularly unpleasant – and my sleep is disturbed and my mind is busy and my attention span short and lumpy. 

    Back to golf. Playing golf to a reasonable standard is as much a mental challenge (I would argue mostly a mental challenge) than a physical one. The importance of being present, following good, positive swing thoughts and approaching your shots and each hole with clarity of thought and purpose is vital. Here, as in so much of life, golf is the perfect metaphor for success. And that is something else about golf of which I am conscious. It provides me with an outlet for my ambitions and my desire to succeed. I redefined what success meant for me professionally, financially and materially after my breakdown and have a much more balanced, low pressure life now – thanks to my wonderful wife, who carries the vast majority of the work and financial stress for our family. But I am still ambitious. I still want to be a success and that includes on the golf course. 

    I have goals. To play all the Open venues. To break 74. To get my handicap down to six. To win an individual competition at the golf club. To average less than 30 putts a round. To have a better short game. To hit more fairways. And on and on. I like having these goals and a plan to achieve them – just like in other aspects of my life – but I am conscious of not replacing work pressure with other debilitating pressure in an area of my life – my golf – which should (and mostly is) a source of enjoyable, battery recharging and sheer pleasure. 

    It’s a balance. To play well and compete but also to keep it in perspective. Yesterday’s round was a great example for me – and there have been many in recent years – when I arrive on the golf course with good intentions but an inability to truly focus and concentrate on the job at hand. My mind wanders. I can’t do the simple mental things I need to play well. I am using up so much of my mental energy just to get through the day so it becomes very, very difficult to dig deeper for more concentration to watch the ball or remember to stay down on my short putts. The result. A poor score and a feeling of failure. 

    It passes and I have it in perspective but it hurts. It hurts because my mind – my troubled, depressed, anxious mind – is again getting in the way of something I love and enjoy and stopping me from being the best version of myself. Golf is hard enough – especially at a championship standard course like mine – without having one hand tied behind your back because your mind is sabotaging your best efforts. 

    The moral of the story? Golf is wonderful. But golf is hard. Golf is the best game in the world. But to play golf well you need everything to be working. Everything in sync, especially your mind. This week – and for quite a few weeks now – my mind has not let me play my best golf. And that is painful and annoying

    You might read this and think that is the definition of a first world problem. Fair enough. But it is important to me and it can be heartbreaking to put so much effort into something and get so little in return. 

    Mark Twain was right about one thing, golf is a good walk and so I can still take something positive from disappointing rounds, including yesterday. I was lucky to have great company and friendship throughout. I spent four hours in picture book surroundings and wonderful weather. I walked six miles or so and smashed my steps target for the day. I had a delicious sausage roll after nine holes! But I also want to take a few lower scores from these rounds and the satisfaction of achieving some goals. 

    Living with depression doesn’t mean having to live with failure but I know that to succeed at golf I need help from my restless mind. At the moment, my mind is elsewhere.

  5. Honesty is the best policy – easier said than done

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    Like most cliches, there is truth behind the lazy language that tells us ‘honesty is the best policy’. Telling the truth is a good thing: telling lies, not so much. But that black and white view on life is seldom enough – something I realise the older I get. There are too many grey areas for that mono pallet to work. 

    I write that as someone who has styled himself as an ‘authentic’ person, who tries to be direct and honest with people. Of course, I acknowledge that there are exceptions. The necessary diplomacy of the white lie should never be lost in my view: the capacity to smooth the ground, unruffle feathers or stroke bruised egos or hurt feelings. I make no apology for the occasional bit of sensitivity spin that goes out of its way to avoid injuring someone’s feelings unnecessarily, or omitting to say the thing that may be on the tip of my tongue but helps no-one by saying it out loud and has the power to cut deep or damage.

    But like so many of my interactions and ways of relating to people, my counselling and psychotherapy course has prompted me to do a lot of thinking over recent months, in particular about my authenticity, my levels of honesty, or as Carl Rogers would call it, my congruence. 

    As I finished the first year of my masters course, I was asked, along with my fellow students, to reflect on what we had learnt over the year and what things remained works in progress. It was fascinating to reflect personally – and to hear others reflect – on the challenge of being truly yourself and being congruent. Here I make no distinction between what happens in the counselling room/in the therapeutic relationship and in the rest of our daily interactions. 

    I was left questioning myself, how honest am I? How true am I to myself each day? How authentic am I?

    There is no doubt that I am the most authentic, congruent version of myself when at home, in my place of safety, with my wife and daughter. I feel held, loved and totally accepted in those moments. Never judged. Never disappointing. Never not enough. As a result, they are seeing me. All of me. Unvarnished. Unspun. Unhidden.

    I reflected too on my day to day interactions in my work, studies and general life. The report card here is pretty good too. I reset my approach to life following my breakdown in 2014/15 and embraced self care and some healthy selfishness, which means I say no to stuff, only do what I really want to (unless there is an exceptional reason) and don’t make excuses when presented with an option I don’t want to take.

    I have learnt this year that listening to your feelings is so important, even if you decide not to voice them but are guided by them. This comfort with my feelings and the choices that I make as a result – not going out with people I don’t want to see; not being part of the WhatsApp groups that invade my personal space or cross my boundaries, not just agreeing with people because it is easier – has reduced my stress and anxiety levels. It’s not always easy but I feel it is something that gets easier with practice. The more I listen to myself and do what feels right for me, the more natural it is to do. 

    The trickiest area – for me and I understand for others – is in interactions with some close family members and friends. Here we all have lots of roles we play, years of baggage and engrained behaviours and expectations that may have started in childhood and are likely to have continued in some form into later life. Here I am often caught in the guilt trap of wanting to be that perfect son, brother, friend etc and at the same time listening to my own needs and feelings. Where these two sets of feelings meet – or more accurately, don’t meet – is where it gets difficult. This is where the post-breakdown me, is different from the younger version of me. Today, I do suit myself much more – even writing that jarred a bit as it sounds so selfish (something most of us learn as a child is not a good thing to be) – and listen to my needs. I avoid stressful situations, events, occasions and conversations. I do this because it helps me. I do this for my own mental health and wellbeing. I do this for me.

    It isn’t always easy but the alternative is to live needing the approval and consent of others – living for their needs and not your own or worrying about what others think of you instead of what you think matters. This year has shown me that so many of the emotional challenges that we face are linked in some way to that imbalance: that focus of the approval of others and not listening to your inner voice.  

    I end this year of studying a long way from the finished article as a therapist but enjoying all that have learnt and experienced. I end it too feeling like the changes I made five or so years ago have really helped me in this current phase of my life – being there for me, not putting others first.

    It has its downsides – not just the guilt. It can be isolating at times, lonely and requires bouts of bravery, but it is how I want to live. For me. For my needs. For my approval.

    I am embracing all the colours available – accepting there is black, white and grey – but choosing for myself which colours to paint with. That is my policy.

  6. What message should we take from Christian Eriksen’s collapse? Maybe not the one you think.

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    Christian Eriksen’s collapse and the reaction to it says a lot. It speaks volumes about who we are and what we stand for, especially as we enter International Men’s Health Week. But it may not say what you think.

    There has been rightly much focus in the aftermath on the courageous, selfless and impressive actions of the Danish captain, on Christian Eriksen’s teammates in protecting his (and his family’s) dignity, and the quick and potentially life-saving response of the officials and medics in the stadium. Much too has been made, again rightly in my view, of the risible decision to keep showing live footage of the unfolding, distressing scene and, even more disgracefully, the distraught partner of Christian Eriksen as she arrived on the pitch. 

    But I fear we are missing a critical point in this sort of post-match analysis. The match should not have taken place. A line should have been drawn. A statement made. 

    The players, spectators and everyone involved should have been sent home for the night. Not out of respect for Christian Eriksen or through some mawkishness about the near-death experience that had transpired, but because we care about the mental health of everyone present. 

    UEFA did what they do best – put their priorities and money before all else. Incidentally, they follow in a long tradition of sports administrators doing the same. If you believe they were in a no-win situation and couldn’t have anticipated an unexpected disruption to the tournament, then I suggest you could think about the recent history of major sporting events (including those hit by terrorism, a pandemic, drugs scandals and more besides) and the imagine the contingency planning they do.

    I am fortunate to have never watched one of my closest friends, who was also a work colleague, collapse unexpected in the workplace we share, see him receive CPR in front of me (and thousands of others in person and millions of others watching on TV) and then be asked to get right back to work. I have never experienced a traumatic incident at work, with people all around me crying, shouting, dazed, confused, staring into space in shock and then be expected back to my work shortly after. I have not accompanied one of my colleagues as they were carried by paramedics out of the workplace we share, and watch them lifted into an ambulance and drive away with their life in the balance and help comfort his closest loved-ones and then be expected to get back to work. 

    I could go on.

    UEFA’s statement in resuming the match said they responded to a request from the players to play the match that evening. They omitted to tell the world that was because they (UEFA) had only offered the players the option of doing that or coming back to work less than 20 hours later and then play the game. 

    It would have reflected much better on UEFA had instead of offering this heartless ultimatum, they had instead offered everyone affected some time, some counselling, some space and some respect for what they had experienced. It would have been better if the players, officials and medical staff had been expected to process the trauma they had experienced rather than expected to perform within hours. It would have been better to send a message to the world, including the men of the world who made up most of those on the pitch and many watching from the stands and sofas, that putting your mental health before your work is truly heroic.

    The only thing that has sickened me more than seeing Christian Eriksen fall to the floor is the way the footballing world bounced his colleagues back to work before they had chance to catch their breath. It was a huge missed opportunity to discuss mental health, dealing with trauma, talking through experiences and acknowledging fear, pain, grief and anguish. It says something very powerful and sadly it’s not ‘Happy International Men’s Health Week’.

  7. First year of my psychotherapist training: I’ve survived!

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    It was 21 years since I graduated and longer since I’d written an essay. 252 months. 13,104 weeks. A lifetime ago. Pre-daughter. Pre-marriage. Pre-career. Pre-breakdown. Pre-self doubt. Pre-losing my father from my life for the second time. Pre-questioning the purpose of my life and the reason I am here. Pre-9/11. Pre-Iraq War. Pre-Brexit. Pre-COVID. Pre-austerity. Pre-Jurgen Klopp. 

    With this passage of time and the big decision to retain for a second career, it was daunting to start my postgraduate course in September 2020, beginning a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice at Liverpool John Moores University. Add in a pandemic, no face-to-face teaching and a requirement of my course that you needed to undertake personal therapy to get through it and you have the makings of a perfect storm. But fast forward an academic year: I’ve survived. 

    I have just completed the last full day of teaching of the first year of my three year course and write this having attended 30 weeks of lectures/classes and counselling skills practice (much of it recorded and then shared with other students and my tutor), 45 hours of personal development group meetings and written five essays. It feels good. I am proud. Fulfilled. But not smug. Not even close. Nowhere near the finished article or the full trained/ready therapist, but feel a better-prepared, better person as I look to the future. In X Factor terms, I would say it’s been quite a journey. 

    The immediate future is a summer break – with lots of reading and some preparation for my placement, which begins in the autumn and the start of amassing 100 hours of real-life practicing to help complete my training as a psychotherapist/counsellor. It feels like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt this year and what has changed. 

    I have changed. Changed utterly. Not my values or who I am but how I approach people – not just in a therapeutic setting but in my day-to-day life and in my interactions and relationships. I am more reflective. More empathetic. Less quick to judge. Less reactive, more responsive. Not so fast to question, quicker to listen. More present. More mindful. More rounded and more aware of the privileges I have been born with and have accumulated. More alive to realities – ugly, brutal realities – that others face who don’t share my gender, race, class, age and sexuality. Less talking, more listening. More time spent in others’ shoes. I have a much deeper understanding of the experiences and influences that have shaped me and those around me (conditions of worth) and how these impact on my life today and how I react to what others say and do. I understand myself and the world around me much better. I am better to be around (I am told). I am a better listener. Did I mention, my improved listening? 

    I have found the year hugely, hugely rewarding. At times very emotional. I have accessed feelings and experiences in my past and present with greater depth and understanding than ever before, even with many years of therapy under my belt. I have reconnected with the child I was and the feelings I had buried, ignored, not even been aware of from the painful days in my life.

    My commitment to my chosen second career has deepened and with it a burning desire to offer clients the accepting presence that makes sure they are heard – truly, deeply, meaningfully heard. I am a better parent and husband. I am a little calmer. A little happier. A little better.

    There is still a long way to go on my journey. I’ve just reached those X Factor judges’ houses but I can see the live shows in front of me. It’s incredibly exciting. It feels like a huge responsibility but also a huge privilege.

    The biggest thing I’ve learnt this year is how deeply moving and humbling it is for another person to sit with you, open their heart to you and share some of their most personal, deepest and hardest thoughts and feelings. It is amazing to be trusted in that way. It is a very special feeling. It is precious. It is incredible to see someone in front of you explore their feelings – sometimes through pain, sometimes through joy – and find a way forward.

    Aside from meeting my best friend and with her becoming a parent, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. By miles. And miles. And miles.

    I can’t wait for the second year to start.

  8. Mental health awareness week: raising awareness is critical but only as a stepping stone to raising us all up

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    My daughter is seven and already understands the importance of talking about her feelings, getting things out of her head (especially if they are “all jumbled up” – her own lovely expression) and uses words like therapy, mindfulness and mental health with confidence and positivity. It is only one data point but it is evidence that we are, at least in some schools, winning the awareness war with the next generation. 

    This familiarity with mental health and what it means if you are feeling worried, scared, sad or confused needs to extend into every classroom, college and campus around the country – and it needs to be the start, not the end, of our conversations. 

    I am often reminded, especially for those of us who live and breathe mental health – whether viewed through our own mental health, the health of those close to us, or through our jobs and volunteering – that it is never a bad thing to be raising awareness and trying to reduce the stigma of talking about how we feel. For some people, having that first conversation, hearing that first story from someone they can relate to who is struggling, can change their lives. But I worry. No surprise there with my long history of depression and anxiety – a little mental health joke there for you! I worry because I fear that awareness raising is too often seen as the end point – the destination – and not the start of the journey. I worry that for some, awareness raising equals ‘job done’ when in reality it is only just ‘job started’. 

    It is vital – life saving at times – that we have more conversations about our mental health and that everywhere from schools to care homes we are raising awareness about how we feel and normalising the process of facing into our most difficult, sad and distressing feelings. But awareness needs to be a stepping stone to change and not the change itself. We need to build on the progress we have made across society in reducing the stigma of speaking up about our mental health – which I know is patchy and remains a massively unfinished task, especially in many workplaces and communities – and provide each other with options to make changes that will improve our lives. 

    There are smarter people than me who are working on developing this menu of options and actions to help us move from awareness raising to change making and are campaigning to get those in power – in government, health services, workplaces and elsewhere – to help make it happen. But it’s not rocket science. The more we encourage people to talk about how they feel, the more we need to be ready to respond when the talking starts. We need not just to listen – although listen we really need to – but we need to be able to support the talkers with actions. Not with platitudes, but with professional support and workplace and learning cultures that can help people make a difference in their lives. 

    For what it’s worth here is my starter for ten on the sort of things we need on our mental health menu:

    • We need to introduce six month mental health check-ups for everyone on the NHS – like going for your regular dentist appointment. These check-ups can act as an early warning when things are starting to go wrong and for others can provide folk with the tools and ideas that can help them stay proactively well all year round – the mental health equivalent of flossing and brushing our teeth. 
    • There needs to be fully-trained counsellor(s)/therapist(s) in every school and every sixth form and FE college
    • Universities need to be ranked in a league table on the ratio of students to mental health/wellbeing support staff and on the time it takes to get an appointment to see a specialist on campus, the recovery rates from sickness due to mental health issues and their spending levels per student on health support services. We also need them to publish the reasons – the real reasons – why 10%+ of students drop out each year – putting some real data in the public domain to show much much of this is driven by mental health issues. Spoiler alert: it’s loads. You get what you measure and I know from my time in higher education that everyone complains about league tables but that they do focus minds and push issues onto the agenda.  
    • Employers should have a legal duty – like the public duty enshrined in the Equality Act – to provide every employee with access to support for their mental health and wellbeing, including everything from healthy physical workplaces to counselling and support, on site during the working day. Not a passive, do no harm duty – although that would be a good start – but an active requirement on employers to promote health and wellbeing at work.
    • We need a huge shift in workplace cultures, including how we use over-use emails and meetings to put people under unbearable pressure, so that we stop seeing employees as resources and cogs in a wheel and to see them as people with lives outside of work and needs – ensuring they can make choices about when and where they work and making flexible working the rule and not the exception. 

    There are of course more fundamental changes that are needed across society to ensure that everyone has meaningful work, a home, enough money to live on and access to equal treatment under the law and fairness from the authorities, but that is for an other post.

    This all costs money – a lot of money – but the costs of not spending it in lost lives, lost opportunities, lost people and lost days to sickness and despair far exceeds the investment we need. It is surely the true measure of a society is how we treat those in need, not just those in power; how we level up our opportunities to have good levels of health, not just good levels of wealth.  

    In his inspiring and ultimately tragic run for the presidency in 1968, Robert Kennedy reflected on the misplaced emphasis there was in the US on measuring the wrong things, with too much focus on wealth and GDP and not on health, culture and nourishment of our the souls: “…..it (GDP) measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

    We need to enable people who have taken the often incredibly difficult and brave decision to start the conversation about their mental health to then have the next few steps on the journey open to them. They need options for what happens after they’ve hit awareness. They need to be able to move forward. To take control.

    As I have written many, many times before, I believe passionately that our mental health is about the choices we make. We cannot choose to be happy or sad, whether or not we are depressed, but we can choose how we respond when things go wrong for us. We are in control of what we do when life throws stuff at us, even if it throws the most heartbreaking, soul-destroying things our way. 

    In a week in which politics and elections have been front and centre, I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve heard the phrase ‘levelling up’. It is a shibboleth of modern British political discourse for those who wish to be seen to be in touch with the various shades of electoral walls. Like so much in politics it is a convenient slogan, designed as a shorthand to convey virtue. But true levelling up isn’t just about economic measures but about what it means to live in a fair and civilised society. That starts and ends with good health – especially good mental health.

    If we are really serious about mental health and wellbeing we should use this year’s mental health awareness week to map out the road ahead that has only just started when the conversations begin – and start to pay for it.

    I see your awareness raising and I raise it to action. To investment. To change. To improvements. To choices. To a happier, better life available for all. Raising us all up. Every one of us. Every day.

  9. I’m still that little boy, wanting to be heard

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    One of the biggest changes I made after my breakdown was to rethink what it meant to be successful. Before I snapped my emotional elastic band, around the end of 2014, I defined success in career terms: the next promotion; pay rise; bonus and job title. I thought constantly about opportunities to raise my profile and build my network of contacts and supporters. I saw my life’s purpose through the prism of my work; my career; my status, and I enjoyed it. I liked feeling important. I like being a success. 

    That feels like a long time ago now. A lifetime. A totally different country. A world away. 

    Success now starts and ends with my mental health. How I am feeling today. How smiley the face is in my daily wellbeing journal. Whether I get through the day in one emotional piece. How much self care I have done. 

    I know it’s a good day if I see lots of my girls; have some quiet time to myself; if I write something meaningful that stimulates my mind and feels good when read back; if I exercise, listen to music, podcast(s) and ideally watch a little of the West Wing. I know it’s a good day if I have the time and space to think properly about my feelings and emotions – listening to myself and accepting myself. I know it’s a good day if I’ve been heard.

    As I wrote that I knew that it may have sounded a bit like I was playing therapist bingo – using a buzz phrase I’ve learnt on my course. Mouthing a counselling cliche; a therapy tick box. But it’s not that. It’s a real thing. It really matters to me. There is something hugely important to me in that phrase, in that simple idea that I am being listened to, accepted and understood. Not just by others, but by me. 

    The most significant change in my life since my breakdown has been getting to know myself better; understanding what makes me tick; what upsets me; what pushes my buttons; why I ended up in hospital and in my dark, excruciating pain. I have learnt so much about what really matters to me, not what I thought mattered to me. I now do know myself and I know that the most important thing to me is to feel heard. 

    I need to feel that when I am speaking there is someone listening. Really listening, understanding and accepting my feelings. Not trying to answer them. Reframe them. Correct them. Sort them. Dismiss them. Saying ‘don’t be silly” to them. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. That listening starts with me: with self love, self care, self hearing.

    I was an only child for the first ten years of my life and such children – unless they are surrounded by similar-aged cousins or other close family and friends (which I was not) – tend to be alone a fair bit in these key years; in their own heads; talking to themselves. That was me. Me and my portable radio and headphones. Listening at home. Walking to school. Walking home. In the garden. In bed. Pretending to be on the radio, running news and sport bulletins through in my head. Making tapes of my radio shows. Me and my radio. Me with my own thoughts.

    I can now see myself back then in my mind’s eye, worrying about so many things from as early as I can remember; watching things; noticing things. Will my mum’s car start in the morning? What is that noise outside the house? Why do I get called names and pushed around at school? Why is my father always late to pick me up? Why is there so much arguing around me? Is everything going to be ok? 

    For years, I was either not talking – just pushing on through the stress and the pain – or when I did talk no-one was really listening. I just looked like I was fine – getting on with life – chatty, smiling, not complaining. I had already learnt how to get on with things without drawing attention to myself but it meant that I just kept it all inside. Temperature building deep inside the pressure cooker. Sadness building.

    I was the first in school each morning, aged 11, before the teachers or any other children walked through the gates. In the ten months before my breakdown – 25 years later – I was in the same routine in the workplace. First in. Alone. Listening to my radio. Trying to manage my (at that time) undiagnosed anxiety and stress. Managing my aloneness. Being alone. Pushing on through my pain. I just didn’t know it. I knew it was a bit odd but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t questioning it. I wasn’t listening to myself or accepting my feelings. I was too busy coping, getting through to the next meeting, the next email, the next target. That’s what I’d always done. Head down, keep going. That’s all I knew.

    It doesn’t take a genius to work out why I now write this blog and use social media, or why I tried drama at school, public speaking and politics. I used to pretend to say mass as a child – performing to grandparents and others, handing out communion made from ice cream wafers. Looking for an audience. Attention. Seeking a hearing. 

    It’s not rocket science either to see why I’ve found therapy so helpful and why I am so passionate about being there for others – becoming a professional listener. Someone to be there to hear. To accept. To be alongside others.

    Every day I think deeply about how I can make sure that my daughter feels heard, getting my full attention in the moments she requests it and at times when she doesn’t. I ask how she is. I accept all her feelings. I say it’s ok to be sad. To be angry. To feel jumbled up in her tummy. I try not to judge. I try not to show her if I do judge. It’s hard all the time but so important. Vital.

    I am here now, nearly 43, typing this post with a proper understanding of who I am and what I am about and yet I still feel like that little boy. That little boy, sat at a table on his own at lunchtime in the school canteen or all alone even though he is sat with others, just wanting to be heard. To be understood. To be accepted. That is so important. The most important thing. For me. For everyone. For each other.

    Being heard – now, that is real success.

  10. It’s too easy to apologise for feeling down, especially during COVID

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    One of the biggest barriers to people seeking help with their mental health is a worry – often ironically – that they are not sick enough. That they need to pull themselves together. They just need to get through the next few days or weeks and all will be back to normal. That counselling or medication is for those who are really sick – those who deserve the help. Not for them. 

    Some of this reluctance is tied up with the complex web of stigma surrounding mental health and worries about what people will think – especially in the workplace or within their families – about admitting (that word says a lot) that something is wrong and they are struggling. Despite the progress of recent years with greater openness in society to talk about mental health and the struggles that many of us (1 in 3 is the statistic that is oft-quoted) experience every day, we are light years away from the healthy place where speaking up and seeking help is the rule, not the exception. 

    Our collective experience of the last year or so has added an extra layer to the stigma of seeking help, driven often by guilt that others are much worse off than me, especially in the face of COVID and the losses of loved ones, livelihoods, financial security, freedoms and confidence that so many have endured. I see it every day and I do it every day – saying sorry for saying we are struggling though COVID because ‘there are so many people worse off than me’.

    This guilt, this talking down our own feelings and experiences, often deeply felt and painful experiences, is damaging our individual and collective mental health. It is making us feel worse not better. It is part of the problem not part of the solution. 

    So many of us – me included – are prefacing our answer to the question ‘how are you?’ with the words ‘first world problems’ and apologising for saying we are struggling through COVID because we are not in ICU with COVID, dead, dying, bereaved, or out of work or homeless. Just think about that for a second. We are saying that we must ignore our feelings of anxiety, depression, loss, grief, fear, isolation and more besides, because it isn’t as bad as someone else’s awful experience. Put in physical health terms, it’s like saying I have broken my leg, but I am fine and don’t need to go the hospital to get it set and put in plaster because my next door neighbour has broken both their legs.

    Like many, I have found this most recent lockdown very hard, the toughest of the three. Like many – probably all – I am hoping this is the last lockdown I experience in my lifetime. I don’t know exactly why this has been the hardest although I have a few theories.

    It’s been long. The weather has been pretty miserable. The cumulative effect of the previous two have added to the negative experience, with me feeling a kind of heavy lockdown fatigue. In Merseyside we had the relative joy – and it really did feel like pure joy – of living under tier two restrictions for part of the end of 2020 which gave us a glimpse of freedom, including being able to work in coffee shops and do something I love the most in the world: going out for weekend breakfasts with the two loves of my life. 

    But like many, I have found it hard to say this without feeling the need to apologise because my struggles during lockdown #3 haven’t been worse or involved greater loss or pain. I have missed my small pleasures. The little things that form part of my daily self care routines that help to keep me well. I have missed the pots of tea to accompany my writing or studying in my four favourite coffee shops. I have missed playing golf with all the wonderful benefits of the fresh air, distraction value and exercise. I have missed bookshops. I have missed the freedom to travel, even small distances. I have missed all my small freedoms.

    I write a mental health journal every day and capture the daily self care things I do. This list has been curtailed during locked #3 as some of my go-to activities were off-limits, even illegal. But whenever I was asked how I was managing through the last three months or so I made the same guilt-ridden apology and talked down the impact of these losses – the reduction in my wellbeing activities and the knock on effect that had on my mental health.

    I said, ‘oh, listen to me with my first world problems. Poor me not being able to play golf or buy a cuppa in a coffee shop. Poor me.’ And yet, I had one of my worse every episodes of depression during this lockdown – something I captured in its raw quality in a previous post – http://www.amjcomms.com/2021/02/28/i-am-in-the-eye-of-the-storm-what-its-like-to-be-in-a-depressive-episode/ – and have found myself emotional and melancholy a fair amount during this time.

    I long to connect with the things I have been denied that give me joy. I have a constant image in my mind of the next time we travel to Ireland, stepping onto the aircraft stairs and then onto Éireann terra firma. I see myself emulating Pope John Paul II kneeling and kissing the ground and giving thanks. It sounds a little silly when I see it written down but it has been a thought that has sustained me over the last few months. It represents for me a return to a place of deep meaning – a place of safety, of happiness, of love. Of purpose.

    It symbolises a return to a place and a time I took for granted. It is 18 months since we were last in Ireland – 18 months that has felt like 18 years. Just as this last lockdown has felt like an eternity.

    I have learnt a lot through this rocky period. The most important thing – which mirrors much of the learning I have encountered on my psychotherapy training – is the importance of hearing and accepting feelings – yours and those you are seeking to help. Minimising how we feel is not the route to health and happiness. Dismissing how you or someone else feels because it appears less serious, less painful, less important than someone else’s experience is a damaging route to take. It is the road to more pain, more suffering, more anguish.

    I have found inspiration and support in a number of places during the last few months, most recently in reading and then rereading Viktor Frankl’s 1946 masterpiece, Man’s Searching For Meaning, which charts his own experience in various Nazi concentration camps and the outlining of his existentialist concept of logotherapy. In the book, Frankl contends that meaning can be found in every moment of living and that life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering. He argues that there are times when suffering cannot be avoided and we have no option but to face it. However, we can choose – we have the free will – to decide how we respond to this suffering, We can find meaning and purpose within it.

    I was moved to tears several times in reading his book and contemplating the immense suffering that he and those around him experienced at the hands of the worse of human behaviour. But I was uplifted too and reminded that all suffering is relative – all pain is our own and that nobody can know how it feels to walk in our shoes and be inside our heads. No-one’s pain is more or less valuable or important than anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy in suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering.

    It’s not a first world problem to struggle during lockdown. It’s just a problem and one I now choose to accept and embrace. I’m done with apologising. Apologising for this has no purpose.

  11. I am now in the eye of the storm: what it’s like to be in a depressive episode

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    With the support of therapists, a kind GP, a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist and a lot of soul-searching, self reflection and painful introspection, I know that I have been living with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. 

    My bed-wetting as a child (which went on for a lot longer than for most children); my quiet days growing up, sitting alone for hours at a time, sometimes in near darkness; my jumpiness at any unexpected noises and constant, nervy fiddling with car radios, windscreen wipers and other buttons and switches on the dashboard (which were the source of much light-hearted derision amongst some of my mates); the periods of feeling sad, lonely, unheard and not understood; and the worrying – the at times, constant, crippling worrying – about being on time, of flying, about my health and the health of others and any impending events. There were fall-outs with friends that were unnecessary but felt the only way of surviving fears of abandonment or rejection – adding further to my isolation and aloneness. These were all signs. Big signs. Signs I missed and nobody ever pointed out to me until many years later. 

    The eventual, unravelling of my mental health followed in my mid thirties – helped, if that’s the right word – by the pressure and stress of work, demanding corporate structures and cultures and complicated by demands of sharing my life with a little person I adore, whilst still trying to make sense of a failing and ultimately failed relationship with my own father. More feelings of abandonment. More rejection. More isolation. More worries.

    Looking back it is easy to see where the seeds of my 2014/15 breakdown were sowed and, in many ways, it feels like a miracle it took that long for the wheels to eventually come off my wellbeing wagon. They were kept on for so long by the love of my amazing wife – who has helped me back on feet many, many times – and by a keep going, head down, don’t talk about it, ignore it, get on with it mentality which so many of us are gifted by our families, our society, our role models and our survival instincts. That approach works for some for the whole of their lives; it works for many for a long time; and for some, like me, it only works until it stops working, with huge consequences. 

    I write of this today – early on a Sunday morning – as despite all of my hard work, self care, healthy life changes, supportive structures and so many blessings that mean I live a very happy, fortunate and comfortable life, I am in the midst of a prolonged (for me) depressive episode. This is a bad one. A long one. We are around three weeks into a dark spell, which has been intense and very painful.

    I am lucky – well, not really lucky – by it is a fact, that my depressive episodes tend to be nasty but short-lived. They are mostly short intense episodes that last for a week, or a few days, in which the darkness lifts often as soon as it arrives and normal service is resumed. In truth it is never fully resumed as every episode chips away at my confidence and leave an indelible mark on my soul, but my life returns to its regular patterns after the clouds clear and the mental health sun comes out again. 

    This time it has been a deeper, longer darkness. I am often asked – I was asked by someone yesterday – how does it feel, what is it like to be feeling depressed? I always give the same answer: I can only tell you how it feels for me, about my experience. And that’s what I do.

    • I feel tired – at times exhausted or drained – low energy, even for things I love like running or golf  
    • I have nausea and at times a headache
    • My teeth and gums ache a little
    • I sweat more than normal 
    • My toilet output changes – sometimes less, sometimes more
    • I don’t sleep well – hard to get off, waking through the night, tossing and turning; all of the above 
    • I have bad dreams – nightmares that wake me and leave me feeling distressed
    • I don’t really want to talk
    • I want to be on my own
    • I seek quietness, calm, safety 
    • I want to be at home
    • I am irritable, tense, edgy
    • I feel alone even when I am with the people I love the most in the world
    • I need to be hugged but then I doubt the love behind those hugs – I feel I don’t deserve them even though I need them
    • I am sad – at times excruciating sad
    • I am emotional – not necessity crying, although they are sometimes tears – but a lump in my throat when hearing some music, seeing something on TV that wouldn’t normally evoke that reaction, thinking about people who are important to me
    • I can’t get going with my work or with things I would normally be able to do happily – especially in the morning (although interestingly I am writing this in the morning and it is coming easily – I know I write better when in pain but also this may be the light at the end of this tunnel and perhaps the bad weather is about to lift)
    • I am less responsive to friends on WhatsApp or on the phone – I often ignore their calls – I don’t have the energy to be ‘normal’
    • I have an overall feeling of heaviness, of everything being a bit darker (like I was wearing sunglasses all the time) 

    It’s raw as I write this. It is sad to put the words on the page. And yet it helps me. It helps to remove the mystic of it, the hidden, unspoken, shameful part of it that colludes with me into silence.

    I have written a lot before about things I do to help me out of these moments and I turn to these for a lifeline. They help. But the biggest help is just time. Time ticking around until the end of this moment. 

    I have been in this hole, covered by these dark clouds, before, and I know I will clamber out soon. Maybe later today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after. But I know there will be an end. 

    For the moment, it is tough. It hurts. It drains me of my me-ness. That’s ultimately how it feels, like someone or something has stolen the real me – taken him hostage for a short while. But there is an irony here – something I have realised recently. There is not a kidnapping, nor hostage-taking. This is me. This is the real me and has been since I was a boy. As each day passes, I am learning to accept that, live with that and trying to love that.  One day at a time.

  12. Wellbeing at work box ticking is easy to spot

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    As well as COVID reaching deep into our daily lives and communities, there is another virus infecting parts of UK life. It is proving prevalent in many big organisations, sweeping through corporate entities from boardrooms to shop floors.

    We are experiencing a spate of box-ticking mental health initiative-itis

    In mitigation, let me firstly say that any genuine efforts to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, and any real attempts to help people achieve a healthy and sustainable work-life balance, is to be welcomed. There are lots of leaders and managers who are trying their best to shift organisational cultures to be more focused on people’s health and happiness, whilst continuing to (rightly) try to maximise the performance and success of their business, education provider, charity, government body or other organisation. They should be thanked and applauded and I see positive, well-intentioned work on this front every day.

    But there is also a world of horse has bolted; papering over the cracks of unhealthy culture and business models; mental health band wagon joiners. They have spotted a trend and don’t want to be left behind. They have seen where their followers are heading and they are rushing to lead them.

    These leaders and managers need help, not handshakes and back slaps. 

    This box ticking work is characterised often by its focus on lists of stuff, announcements after announcements, suites of measures, ‘our people are our top priority’ cliches, and the comfort that is taken in the rolling out of mental health first aid, awareness-raising sessions, town hall meetings, reverse mentoring and the like. None of these initiatives are intrinsically bad but too often they are used as reactive measures to treat symptoms of mental ill health at work and work-life balance issues and not the causes. Putting a plaster over a cut knee of a child who has fallen off their bike isn’t itself a bad thing to do, but surely it would better to help the child learnt to ride the bike more safely in the first place. 

    For the avoidance of doubt, I strongly support the provision of reactive services in organisations to help those who are struggling and need support. These services are often a lifeline – sometimes a life saver – but they are necessary, not sufficient. They should be the exception and not the rule. The main focus of organisations who want to support their employees should be on helping them say healthy, well and happy in the first place, not just get them back on their feet – and back to work (which is often their primary goal).  

    The pandemic has forced many organisations – through both necessity and public expectation – to prioritise mental health at work but sadly this has focused on the easy to tackle, easy to see and easy to measure stuff. It is the bandaid to the knee. The sticking plaster. The challenge as I see it for organisations of all shapes and sizes is to be a place that moves from helping people to manage when things go wrong, or to help anticipate challenges that are coming down the road (home schooling, more forced home working, isolation from colleagues etc), to one that ensures that the culture of the organisation supports healthy work  all the time – not just during a crisis like COVID. A culture that values employees switching off at the end of the day; taking proper breaks; not days crammed full of endless, back to back meetings, often that squeeze out anything approaching a lunch break; discouraging emailing outside of the normal working day; respects holidays without interruption; and rewards behaviours that treat everyone in the workplace with dignity, respect and kindness. 

    My own lived experience following my breakdown, which was at least in part influenced by my working life, and my experience of working with individuals and organisations since my breakdown, suggests that the unspoken, unwritten parts of organisational culture are the things that will make a difference in the long run and will be sustainable. It is business models, reward processes and leadership behaviours and recognition (explicitly and implicitly) that are built on pressure and value speed, responsiveness, going the extra mile and being a “can do person” that will sadly drive much of the mental health issues related to the workplace, regardless of all the support and advice that is offered. Regardless of how many mental health first aiders your organisation has on standby to leap into action. 

    Wellbeing at work is on trend at the moment and long may that continue. But I want to see organisations genuinely tackling the root causes or contributory causes of mental health challenges, unhealthy stress, crippling anxiety and other conditions that are – at least in part – driven by corporate cultures that mouth the words of wellbeing but are built on the premise of squeezing ever little bit of productivity –  every bit of life – out of their employees.

    I saw it, experienced it, lived it myself. It nearly ruined my life. And I still see it happening every day.

    When I see an organisation reeling off its list of latest initiatives I am immediately suspicious. Are they really helping their employees or just trying to tick a box to help themselves? You can spot them a mile off. 

  13. Mental health COVID aftershocks will be with us for years

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    Whatever your views on lockdowns (I’ve seen two new pieces of graffiti today saying “lockdowns kill”) and the government’s performance during this crisis, there is one thing I hope we can all agree on: we will be paying the mental health price of COVID long after the vaccination programme is done, the No 10 press conferences are thankfully a distant memory and masks are something worn only at halloween. 

    The impact of the lockdowns, the restrictions and the economic misery brought about by the virus and the response from government, employers and individuals are beyond calculation. The cost – the human cost in tears, fears and pain – will be impossible to measure but it will surely outstrip the catastrophic cost we are already enduring in lost lives, lost livelihoods and lost life chances. 

    Every day we hear ministers, journalists and others talking about the importance of mental health and of us all needing to prioritise this as we enter this third lockdown, as if we hadn’t thought about it, or almost anything else since March. Sadly, for many of us, these words ring very hollow. They smack of virtue signalling, box-ticking and going through the motions. There is a lot of talk and very little action. The same investment in mental health services and support is promised over and over again, old money recycled as if new, and then actions taken that rob people of the very coping mechanisms (including access to gyms, golf, outdoor swimming and the like) that could help them manage a bit better through these terrible times. 

    Like many people studying or working in mental health, I hear the current cacophony of cries for help and see the explosion of demand for support and services – some of which have been themselves hit by COVID sickness rates, scaled back whilst resources are diverted elsewhere (with good intentions but terrible consequences) and getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of desperate requests for help. This demand will naturally increase now in ‘lockdown #3’ but my biggest worry is what happens from the end of this lockdown. What is the long term plan? What is being done now to gear up for the mental health long COVID that will be with us for years? What are doing to get ready for the painful future we have ahead? 

    I am training now to become a psychotherapist – hopefully qualifying in the summer of 2022 – and am constantly thinking about what COVID will mean for my future clients and for my practice. What do I need to be doing now and in the coming months to get ready to help and support people who will be living with the long term mental health effects of COVID and what can the NHS, employers and charities be doing to refocus and resource so much of their mental health offer? 

    It doesn’t take long to draw up a list of the types of issues that will likely dominate mental health demand, including for talking therapies, for years to come. Much of this is not new but will present with a fresh potency and pain, as it will be felt and experienced through this hideous, vicious virus:

    • Loneliness – in part driven by the social distancing, shielding and the forced separation we have endured
    • Relationship breakdown – impacted by the stresses and strains that COVID and the changes to lifestyles/living arrangements that have brought
    • Loss – of our chance to say goodbye to people we love and to some of our pleasures, freedoms and friendships
    • Grief – of people we love and people who love us 
    • Addiction – people turning to or returning to a range of damaging patterns of addiction, including to alcohol, drugs and food
    • Physical health – for some driven by cancelled medical appointments, operations and treatments – and for others who have struggled to get out for exercise or to achieve a healthy work-life balance or healthy diet during these awful months  
    • Fear – of sickness; of infection; of each other 
    • Isolation – from the people and things that previously gave us joy, energy and light 
    • Trauma – not just from the direct suffering from the virus in care homes and hospitals but also including from the horror of domestic violence in homes the length and breadth of the country
    • Death – by suicide but also as a result of crimes committed under the cover of lockdowns

    This list could go on and on and on. Everyone will have their own worries about what COVID could mean for them and their family. I know that for me it has meant significant fear for myself, Dr and Miss J, but mostly for those close to me who are older and more vulnerable to getting this disease and with it being handed a death sentence.

    I am struck too by this list and by the impact that COVID has had on just one group of people across our society; those working in the NHS caring for those struck down and giving everything of themselves and then some to keep those we love alive. Their traumatic experiences are hard to fully comprehend even when we try through our clapping and tears.  

    The light at the end of the tunnel of the virus is the vaccine and I am full of hope about this, especially for those most of risk from its deadly grip. But when this light appears we will face a much longer darkness and be living with the long-term affects of COVID for years to come. The pain has only just begun and we need help to be on hand for every child and every adult across the country to help us all recover – not just our wallets and daily lives but our hearts and souls. 

    I am sick of weasel words and empty promises about the future of mental health services and support. As a country we are already on the back foot as this mental health crisis worsens. We need action. We need a plan. We need to get moving. 

    If the last ten months with its lockdowns and restrictions have been the COVID earthquake, the looming mental health crisis are the long COVID aftershocks and tragically we know that this is often where the most damage is done. 

  14. Work can damage your health – that’s not a mystery.

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    I love a good mystery. I grew up on Inspector Morse, Taggart, Cracker and Prime Suspect. Many of my favourite films or recent streaming or TV series involve the weighing of clues and the elimination of suspects – as well often as gruesome serial killers (lovely!). Over Christmas, I have been marking the passing of the great John Le Carre by getting stuck in again to Smiley and his complex web of secrets, plots and sub-plots. It is escapism but also feels like exercise for the mind. 

    At one time I seriously considered a career as a detective, although I think my TV-influenced view of what it would have been like and the reality on the ground would have been worlds apart. Over Christmas, I have binged on The Ripper on Netflix and revisited old films and episodes from my list of favourites. Incidentally, this trait of returning to familiar pieces of film, TV, literature and music, is something I have become aware of in recent months – it is rooted in a need to feel safe, comfortable and secure, without unwelcome surprises or feeling out of control. This is fascinating to me – something I have shared with some of my fellow counselling and psychotherapy students – as a way of helping me manage my mental health: another small intervention to help me work within safe, agreed boundaries and establish and maintain routines that provide me with a sense of support and reassurance. It explains why I am on at least my 20th rewatching from start to finish of The West Wing (the greatest piece of television ever made).

    I have known for a long time that there is a direct relationship for me between my health and wellbeing – especially my mental health – and my work. To be more specific, it is the culture of the organisation I work within, for, alongside, or as an adviser to, that can have a negative impact on me. Organisations in which poor behaviour is visible and tolerated, for example, passive aggressive emails; long hours culture; presenteeism; bullying (overt or covert); unsupportive senior colleagues; sneaky emailing sent to senior people to undermine others; excessive cc-ing of people to emails, especially senior people, to pressure colleagues; I could go on – really damage me. They undermine my confidence, eat away at my morale, make me feel less than I should, make each day a little harder to manage and to bear, and make me feel sad and low. There is however another dimension to the health impact on me. Rashes.

    Since my breakdown I have been aware that rashes appear on my body – mostly, but not exclusively on my lower legs – when my stress levels, anxiety and depression are heightened. I now know that I suffered signifiant physical symptoms of anxiety and depression in the lead up to my breakdown (sweating, chest pains, headaches, extreme tiredness, more than normal visits to the toilet and the like). At the time they were just part of my daily life and I didn’t stop to question why they were happening – I was too wrapped up in getting through the day and climbing the corporate ladder. 

    Some of these symptoms reappear from time to time when I am not firing on all cylinders – especially if I am in the midst of a depressive episode. I understand my body better now and because of all the small things I do now to try to stay well (but not always succeeding) they are the exception in my life now and not the rule. The exception to the exception is the leg rash. That old favourite is constantly around and will turn up the itchiness when it wants to warn me that all is not good. It is actually a helpful (albeit unpleasant) canary in the coal mile to keep me alive to the negative impacts I may be feeling. 

    Anyway, back to my amateur sleuthing and a recent personal mystery.

    Over the first and second lockdown, I had an unwelcome spread of the rashes – to my armpits (nice) and even nicer, my backside. Alongside this, I was experiencing some – I will choose my words carefully to protect the squeamish – interesting visits to the toilet each week. The rashes were eventually cleared up with some cream from the doctors – I was concerned that my daily runs and addiction to my Nike John Barnes-style leggings were part of the problem – thankfully they are not! But the toilet issues continued. Then a breakthrough. Rather like the moment in the second hour of Morse when the minor Oxford character suddenly starts to take on a more prominent role and moves on the list of suspects, the penny dropped.

    The toilet issues started on Monday mornings (sometimes Sunday nights). They lasted until at least the middle of the week. They cleared up in time for the weekend. And the pattern repeated. Again and again. You got it yet? It took me a while. It took until I was leaving my most recent job, which was full-time and at times overly demanding and unhappy for me (see previous post: http://www.amjcomms.com/2020/09/02/its-time-to-make-a-change/) that things changed. The pattern ended. The problem stopped. Suddenly, and now it has gone. 

    It was another physical manifestation for me of the stress and unhappiness I was experiencing by working in a role that didn’t suit me – that was impacting on my health – that was making it hard for me to stay well. There is not rocket science or a great mystery behind this. We spend a lot of time at work. It can be a source of enormous support, friendship, intellectual and physical stimulation. It can be a really happy part of our lives. But it can also damage us if we are working in place or in a way that doesn’t suits us. 

    In 2021, I will be working for myself again and making different choices about who I work with and the working cultures that I expose myself to. As I move towards the next stage of my career and seek to help others more formally with issues they are facing in their lives, I will continue to be focused on the impact that work can have on health and wellbeing.  I am passionate about this. I really want to help people to understand the workplace factors in their lives which can enhance or damage them and ensure that work – and their approach to work – doesn’t become their itchy rash or unpleasant toilet routine. 

    Talking and writing about these things can be embarrassing. It can make others cringe or wish things were left unwritten or unsaid. But I know from experience the importance of being open and of sharing. It can really help. It can make us feel less alone. Less like the only person going through it. Less like a freak. 

    If we are to learn one of the big lessons of 2020, it must surely be that life is too short to be unhappy. Solving the happiness mystery cannot be left to others but is to be owned by each of us. I plan to make 2021 a year in which my work never again impact on my health, unless it’s in a positive way. The pandemic and all the carnage it has brought with it has made work very challenging for lots of people and presented us with pressures and stresses we could have barely anticipated, let alone easily handled, but we are now heading into a new year.

    2021. A chance to start the year as we mean to go on. To make 2021 a year of positivity. That’s my plan. To enjoy the year. To put work in its rightful place. And to spend less time itching my legs or on the toilet. 

  15. Training to become a psychotherapist: no pain, no gain

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    Despite the daily, drip, drip, drip of dire news on the COVID front and the seemingly inevitable impending doom of tier four restrictions reaching us here in Merseyside (perhaps as part of a full national lockdown in January), I am enjoying my Christmas/end of year break. 

    Like many people – although not all as there are plenty of folk working hard at the moment to keep us safe, healthy and stocked with food and the like – I am taking a few days off from work. This process is much easier to navigate when you are working for yourself and there isn’t a holiday rota to accommodate or the annual game of musical chairs of “who is working over new year?” to face. This year is also a formal break from studying for me: a break from classes as part of my masters in counselling and psychotherapy. 

    This break came at a good time: just after my first assignment (and my first essay in over twenty one years!) was due – and at the end of an intense term in which the studying hasn’t just been of books and ideas but of me. 

    This self study, this deep looking at what makes me tick, is incredibly important on the journey to becoming a counsellor/therapist. I have learnt that it is perhaps the most important aspect of the learning that you would apply in practice, including how to spot whether your clients’ material (their issues, problems, stories and discussions) are pushing some buttons for you; bringing up things from your life; reminding you of people or experiences that have shaped who you are. Understanding this is so important to ensure that you are staying with your client and their frame of reference – their life – and not drifting into your own.

    These acts of self reflection come naturally to me as someone who has spent and continues to spend a lot of his life thinking and reflecting on what he has done and why – helped by extensive experience of therapy from different parts of my life. I have returned now to therapy partly as a requirement of the course – you need to undertake some therapy during the first two years – but also as I have been aware of issues that have come up for me as I have been studying the books and the deeper recesses of myself over the last fourteen week or so. 

    This is a good thing. It would be strange I think to be on this course and not to be thinking afresh about parts of my story; parts of my personality; parts of me and what makes me who I am. I am enjoying this aspect of my experience but it is not easy. It is painful. It has at times been sad. At times deeply, deeply sad. Too sad even for tears. 

    There is very little (I would have said nothing fourteen weeks ago) of my story that I hadn’t explored and tried to understand (within therapy and outside over the last fifteen years or so) and I was confident that I had a good grasp on me and my material. The last few months have shown that only to be partially true. The big stuff was on the table and I knew a lot, but not enough. The depth that I am now going to with my own reflections, thinking and exploring are so much deeper than before and reflect the power of building up some greater knowledge of therapy and more importantly of myself. The constant gentle challenge (and support) you are presented with on a course like this to ask yourself why did you feel like that/what was going on for you in that moment/why did you react like that, allows you to dig a little deeper and understand a lot more. 

    Working on my practical therapy skills each week – as I have be doing with my fellow students – wearing the hat of a therapist (albeit a trainee therapist) whilst one of your classmates talks to you about things that are going on for them and opening the door into their feelings, some of them raw, painful and upsetting, is an incredibly humbling thing. It is a huge privilege. It is a massive responsibility and it is an opportunity – one I am trying to seize – to reflect on the parts of my own story that I may have placed in the box marked ‘tackled’ but that probably deserve a further airing.

    Revisiting parts of my life as I have been doing, with this new-found developing knowledge and skillset, has been illuminating. It is not all about the darker moments (the bullying, the breakdown; the boy becoming a man before his time; the brutal feelings of loss and loneliness), it is also about the partner and parent you have become and the positive ways in which you are trying to play your role in the world: the ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that Robert Kennedy spoke about in June 1966. 

    I am already knowing myself a little better and understanding the things that have influenced me and the choices I have now about how I respond to things and people. I am becoming less judgmental, including about myself, and kinder to others and importantly to myself. If the course was a marathon, I feel like I passed the first big milestone. The first three miles or so are done but there is still a long way to go and although my legs feel fresh now, I know there are some hard yards ahead.   

    With muscles, they say more you work them, the more you get out of them. The more I have been working my mind, the more it seems to be responding and the more I am learning and understanding. But I guess like all exercise, there are times when the muscles are strained and soreness sets in. I have felt some of this pain over the last few months – some of it deep and raw – but I have received so much more gain as a result. 

    Dr J is probably suffering the most; hearing, as she does, my daily penny drop moments as something in my story suddenly makes more sense to me than it had ever done before. It is worth some pain for this gain (I hope for both of us!), but as I have been learning, it is also important to hear the pain, to listen to the cries and the sadness and to accept and not fight it or ignore it.

    I plan to continue to enjoy this break from the classroom but to keep an open mind about what I can learn every day about myself. After all, every day is a school day. 

  16. Unpopular view of the year: 2020 hasn’t been a bad year for me and my mental health

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    2020 will go down in history as the worse year in living memory. It’s not hard to see why. A global, deadly, cruel pandemic, decimating families and communities and leading to unprecedented (the word of 2020) economic, social and health misery on an unimaginable scale.

    Lives lost. Lives put at risk. Lives thrown into despair (including those trapped at home with hateful, violent partners). Lives changed forever. 

    Victoria Wood once wrote: “I only know a little latin; just enough to buy a paper”, but I think she would know the phrase ‘annus horribilis’. The horrible year of 1992 for the House of Windsor was nothing compared to 2020 and that’s even before we mention The Crown! We’ve clearly had a collective horrible year. A year of darkness and sadness. A year to forget. 

    But that’s not the full story. It’s not my story.   

    For me, 2020 has brought with it awful sadness and fear but more besides. I have been lucky that – so far – nobody close to me has been lost to this vicious virus and those I care about who’ve had it have recovered and are safe and well. Dr J and I are so grateful to have jobs that have continued to be secure – if anything even more secure – during this year of all years. We did our home schooling in the first lockdown – and it was challenging and stressful whilst working full time – but Miss J has spent most of the year in school, receiving a full education and enormous love and support from her teachers and schoolmates. We have the space and the jobs to be able to work at home and have, so far, sidestepped the worse effects of the pandemic. 

    Of course, we have missed seeing family and friends – especially those across the Irish Sea for whom a walk together in the local park is not possible. We have also missed things that matter to us, including for me the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people who share a love and a passion to celebrate the end of a thirty year title drought at Anfield and the golden sky that came at the end of the storm. But these are small sacrifices and losses in a year when lives, jobs, homes and more have gone. In the final analysis, this personal good fortune – the avoidance of the worse impacts of the pandemic – is not why 2020 has been ok for me and my mental health. There is more.

    In 2020:

    • I have been at home (my place of safety, security, happiness and contentment) more than ever.
    • I have seen more of my extraordinary wife than at any time since we met.
    • I have spend more time with my darling daughter than any time since she was born – and have had lots of 121 time with her, building a deeper connection and relationship that moves me to tears even as I write this. 
    • I’ve had time to think about the things that matter to me/help me to stay well and build them into my life more consistently than at any time – certainly since my breakdown – including running every day, reading books and listening to podcasts. 
    • I have reconnected and stayed connected – virtually – with friends, with whom in normal times, things slip.
    • I’ve had the time and perspective to make big decisions about my working future and am in the final days of working my notice at LJMU and moving to a new phase of my life – part time work/part time study – with a future in mental health and a chance to do something I care so much about. It feels like a calling and a vocation rather than a job. 
    • I am enjoying my masters course more than I could have imagined – feeling humbled that people on my course have shared with me some of their most private thoughts and feelings and seeing a glimpse of what my working future could be like.
    • I have started my training to become a psychotherapist and have for the first time in my working life found something to do that doesn’t feel like work, even though it is stretching all of my intellectual, emotional and philosophical bandwidth. 
    • I have reconnected with my personal therapy and therapist and have been talking through some of the toughest parts of my story – at a depth and with emotions that I hadn’t reached before. This has brought – and continues to bring – tears and pain but also a feeling of a great progress, understanding and acceptance.
    • I have learnt so much already on my course about myself (as well as the start of what it takes to be an effective counsellor/therapist) and am seeing changes in how I see people and life – less quick to judge, more accepting of others, more thoughtful and reflective. 
    • I have played more golf this year and enjoyed it more than at any time since I was a child – appreciating the joy of the game and not preoccupied with score. 
    • I have worried about those close to me and their risk of catching the virus and dying but I have worried less about stuff in general and been less anxious in my day to day life (and have stopped taking my daily anti-depressant). 
    • I now worry less about leadership in the world with full, rounded, compassionate President and Vice-Presidents elect in the US. 
    • I have met some amazing, inspiring people – virtually – in 2020 and am full of hope of what 2021 will bring. 

    Over the last few years, I have learnt that not everything is what it appears at first look. I was the smiling, contented, successful guy with a dream life and a career to envy. Inside, I was falling apart and screaming for help. Screams that not even I could hear.

    And so 2020 can seem like a shocker for everyone but for some it can be full of joy. For me, it’s been my best year for some time, even though I mourn and grieve with those who have suffered. This reflection – my reality of 2020 and that of my own mental health this year – is how I feel about life now. No longer black and white and immediately clear but full of grey. And at times, grey can be a beautiful colour. 

  17. Talking about your own mental health is a man’s job

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    As I know from my own experiences in the corporate world, academia, media, politics, working with the medical profession and working with senior leaderships teams across all sectors of the UK economy – as well as being a keen observer of sport, literature and public life – every day is men’s day. 

    Every day, men – frequently less-qualified and less able than the women who outnumber them – dominate key positions, the best opportunities and the organisations and meetings in which they are involved. It has always been galling to see my wife – as just one example amongst so many – face daily sexism and discrimination at work and in her life – and to have to deal with outdated, ugly, corrosive and dangerous stereotypes of gender roles. 

    It has always been a man’s world and, despite improvements across society, it still is. Even in 2020. This is something I think about every day as I watch my daughter growing up, bombarded with messages and expectations from a world that is still geared to maintaining the status quo, whilst at home we push back against that nonsense and talk about ‘yes you can’. 

    But I also think about my fellow men. I think about the pressures and expectations on men to continue to conform to the stereotypes and traditional roles that are too often imposed on them with horrendous consequences.

    We are talking more and more – and about time – about the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the emotional damage that is being done to boys and men across the country and the world of being bullied into behaving as men are too often expected to behave. No crying. No showing emotion. Get up if you fall over and don’t show any pain. Any weakness. Any vulnerability. And whatever you do, don’t talk about your mental health. Don’t admit you are struggling. Don’t show someone inside your carefully constructed emotional armour. Don’t give in to the the temptation of sharing. Sharing is not caring. Sharing is weakness. Be strong. Be a man. Man up.

    Yesterday was International Men’s Day. A chance to publicly discuss issues that affect boys and men’s health and wellbeing. A great opportunity to talk about men’s mental health. Depression. Anxiety. Body image. Resilience. Grief. Self harm. Shame. Identity. And much more besides. An important moment to talk about the number of lives we lose every hour, every day, to suicide in the UK and beyond. 

    I made a short video for the university’s students’ union  – I am now a new (old!) postgraduate student, studying counselling and psychotherapy, with a view to adding this knowledge, skill and experience to my lived experience of living with depression and a breakdown from 2014/15 to try to help others. I talked in this short video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PX74q67j6qM – about my mental health and the approaches I take to try to stay well. 

    The key thing that arose yesterday again for me was that the positive response I got was not on the detail of what I said but simply because I was speaking out – being a man talking about his own mental health. Being open. Being honest. Showing some vulnerability. This is something I have been doing for several years and at times probably take it for granted as it is part of my daily life (writing, speaking, teaching, sharing on social media etc), but it is so important to acknowledge that it is still seen as a novelty – as something unusual – to see someone who looks like me (beard and all) being open about his mental health.

    It shows once again how far we still have to travel on the road to normalising men talking about their mental health and having conversations rather than suffering in silence which can lead to life-shattering, life-ending consequences.

    Every day may be men’s day when it comes to power, influence, employment rights, opportunities, earnings, profile and status, but not yet a day when men are talking enough about their mental health. To themselves. To each other. Out-loud. To anyone.

    The stigma is still real for lots of men. The barriers still feel too high. The pressure to stay quiet are hardwired. There is much work to do – a day at a time. Today. Tomorrow. And every day.

  18. My mental health weather forecast for the coming week: unsettled.

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    As someone who lives with depression, I am used to the feeling of dark clouds looming towards me from the horizon. That feeling – sometimes arriving as suddenly as a thunderbolt or as gradually as a slow dripping tap – of an episode of depression hitting me. Like someone has switched off the lights, slapped a pair a sunglasses on my face and made me swim The Channel fully clothed. The heaviness of a ten ton weight pushing down on all parts of my body, mind and soul. The loss of confidence and hope is like being hit by a bus. 

    I recognise these sensations and the abject awfulness of the experience and so I spend every day – in truth, every hour of every day – working hard to keep that particular wolf from my door. 

    • I run every day.
    • I play golf at least twice a week (weather permitting – I am not a fair weather golfer but I am certainly not an any weather golfer!).
    • I read for news (including the two best newspapers in the world: the FT and The New York Times) and for escapism.
    • I try to write at least one meaningful and important thing a day – it can be as simple as a well-crafted, thoughtful email.
    • I spend as much time as possible with my darling daughter and wonderful wife who fill my world with love, light and laughs.
    • I listen to music and podcasts throughout the day – I am writing this with the help of the unplugged Tony Bennet.
    • I don’t drink alcohol (26 months and counting).
    • I drink good tea – the best that Yorkshire and Fortnum and Mason has to offer.
    • I give a big piece of my heart every day to Liverpool Football Club and the Boston Red Sox.
    • I believe in politics and political leaders (some of them) as a force for good and try to be positive about the ability of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world – because it’s the only thing that ever has (thank you to Margaret Mead and Aaron Sorkin for the reminder).
    • I watch the West Wing. A lot.
    • I pray every night with my daughter at bedtime, including at the moment for an election of a president in the US who treats people as people.
    • I bet on Irish horse racing and follow the Irish rugby team.
    • I cook every day.
    • I think about how I can play a small role in making the world around me a little bit better.
    • I plan ahead.
    • I try to keep learning.
    • I make lists.
    • I give myself things to look forward to.
    • I try hard – although rarely succeeding – to live in the moment and not look too far ahead.
    • I listen to the radio.
    • I avoid people and situations that make me unhappy, doubt myself or love life a little less.
    • I make time for breakfast during the week and for special breakfast with my girls at the weekends.
    • I remember that work is nowhere near as important at being at home and not working.
    • I try to be kind to myself. 

    These are some of the tools in my mental health and wellbeing toolkit – the stuff I rely on to try to make the good moments last longer and keep the bad moments from turning into catastrophic ones. I need a combination of some of these tools every day, even in the best times, but with new clouds racing across the sky at me, I need all of them even more than ever. The mental health weather forecast for the next few days looks pretty unsettled. So many things that I care about, worry about and think about are at stake………..

    A new England-wide COVID lockdown is about to start with restrictions that will hit hard, including on my wellbeing-important golf. The lockdown was announced by a prime minister in whom I have zero faith and even less respect. The US election is two sleeps away with the prospect (receding but still real) of four more years of corruption, a total disregard for any human life that doesn’t come with the name Trump and a selfishness that makes 1980’s Britain look like Attlee’s new Jerusalem. Liverpool are playing away at Manchester City without the best player in the world. The Red Sox roster is in disarray. The dark nights are kicking in and the actual weather seemingly getting worse by the day. It’s no wonder my head is starting to feel cloudy and under siege. 

    But I know, from bitter experience, that there is no trick, silver bullet, magic spell or miracle cure (although I’ve tried taking tablets as well), that can make the bad weather disappear. There is just hard work, commitment, faith (that it will pass) and the love and hope that my various tools and interventions can give me.

    The next few days and weeks may be tough but I know that I have the tools for the job. I just need to be prepared to use them all and do whatever it takes to get through it. As someone once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. It’s time for me to dress for the occasion.

  19. World Mental Health Day 2020

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    To mark World Mental Health Day 2020, I was delighted to be interviewed by colleagues at The British Medical Association (BMA) as they launched their new Mental Health Network. We had a great conversion about mental health and the workplace. It is fantastic to see this initiative which will make a big difference to so many people who do so much to support us all.

    I was also really proud to take part in a four-way discussion hosted by SilverCloud Health, alongside Dan Burningham, Mental Health Programme Director at City and Hackney CCG and Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. It was hosted by SilverCloud’s Head of Europe, Lloyd Humphreys.

    The theme of the podcast mirrored theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day: “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access. Everyone, everywhere”

    I spoke about my own perspectives on the relationship between the workplace and mental health and some of my own personal experiences.

    https://www.silvercloudhealth.com/uk/blog/world-mental-health-day-2020

  20. I raise a cuppa and a big smile to not drinking

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    IIt remains the most difficult conversation that I regularly have. It almost guarantees tons of tumbleweed and awkwardness. It prompts social embarrassment. It leads to looks of confusion. Dismay. Bafflement. Astonishment. 

    No, not the interaction that follows from the revelation that I once had a breakdown and spent – and occasionally still spend – time curled up in a ball on the floor crying. Not, the announcement that I’ve never been to a gig that didn’t involve Paul McCartney or Tony Bennett taking to the stage. Not even the news that I once ran for parliament as a conservative, although that does provoke very strong reactions (horror, anger, pity, acts of violence etc), especially in my beloved Liverpool.

    I write instead about the discomfort that I create when I say that I don’t drink. I’m teetotal. I’m alcohol- abstemious. I’m sober. 

    Today marks the second anniversary of my last drink: the last time alcohol passed my lips. Two years sober. Twenty-four months. 730 days. Over 17,500 hours. 420,000+ minutes.

    In keeping with the assumptions, prejudices and general suspicions of tee-totallers, I feel I have to now justify and explain myself. I’m not an alcoholic. I didn’t have a drink problem. I am not in recovery.

    Well, technically, aside from not being an alcoholic, that’s not entirely true. I did have a problem. It was a mixing drink with depression problem. And I am in recovery – constant, daily and ongoing recovery from my 2014/15 breakdown, in which drink played a very small role.

    I feel I have to get these denials in early because I am now so used to judgments being rushed to when I say that I don’t drink. I can see the mental cogs turning. The scrutiny of my possible shaking hands. The examination of my face for Brian Clough-esque signs of heavy boozing. The thoughts that flash through the head of my fellow conversationalists that I must have been a big drinker who kept falling over, blacking out or staggering from Birkdale bar to bar.

    I never was a big drinker. I took a drink. I liked a drink. I enjoyed the craic that went with drink and like many people of my age, background and heritage, drink played a significant part in my social life. But I drank moderately. Sometimes a glass of wine with dinner. A few beers watching the match. A glass or two of prosecco with Dr J to toast the weekend. My problem was not too much drink but too much anxiety and darkness that followed the drink. 

    It got to the point for me that even one beer could leave me edgy, tense and worried for two or three days afterwards. It was for me the effect that drink had on my already fragile mental health and the impact it had on my confidence, levels of calm and my sense of myself that hit me hard. It made my anxiety and depression worse. It left me feeling rubbish. It left me regretting ever having raise a glass and said slainte in the first place.

    So I gave it up. Two years ago. I just stopped and haven’t looked back. That I know is much easier to do when you don’t have an addiction or a predisposition to addiction. I did have a few wobbles at the start but in truth it has been easy to do and the early temptations passed fairly quickly. Not because I have such great will power or self control but because I noticed the positive results straight away.

    Gone went the fear. The guilt. The nervousness. The extra layer of worry. The turbo boost to my dark moods. The helping hand to my depression. 

    The purpose of this post is not to pat myself on the back for my sobriety – as I have said, it wasn’t too difficult to achieve – but to float the idea that those who have anxiety and/or depression should give giving up some thought. I’m not saying that everyone who has any form of anxiety and/or depression should take the pledge and give up the demon drink. I’m not saying it solved all my problems and that it will solve yours. But I am saying that is has been a big help to me; with my mental health; for my wellbeing. 

    I encounter so many people with similar stories to mine who know that drink is something that doesn’t help them. It brings with it further depressive tendencies. It’s takes them lower. It makes life harder not easier. For me, it did all of this and acted as something of a false medication from the stresses and pressures of my work and a hindrance to my efforts to achieve the work-life balance I needed. It hid from me the truth of how I was feeling, cruelly kidding me that I was enjoying life because I was happy when in drink after a stressful day or busy week.

    I know from personal experience and from talking to many, many people who are prone to anxiety, depression, self esteem issues, grief and a wide range of mental health issues from the mild to the major, that a) there are no solutions to those issues found at the bottom of a glass or bottle and, more importantly, b) the days(s) after drink very rarely do anything but make their original issues feel much worse. It’s not just the hangover but the stimulation that alcohol provides to your darkest concerns and issues – the edginess; the paranoia; the regret; the memory loss; the self consciousness; the nervousness; the downer; the physical damage and the knock on effect it has on your state of mind. Put simply, drink is a mood changer and, more often than not, a mood killer. It is a depressant. 

    I am not preaching; I am not judging; I am not telling people what to do. I am simply saying this: I am yet to meet someone, myself included, who experiences a positive difference from alcohol in their attempt to get on top of depression or anxiety. I am yet to see what good it does beyond a short term high or hit. I am yet to see the benefit from taking a drink as much as I benefit from not taking it. I am calmer now; I sleep better; I feel sharper; I have more energy; my skin is clearer; I can run further and faster; I weigh less; I like myself more; I am me all the time, not me wearing a mask; I never wake regretting what I drank, said or did the night before through drink; I never lose a day at the weekend because I am too rough to move.

    I have reflected on this before and some of my words above I wrote when eight months sober. I went back over them to compare the feelings I had then with now to see whether I had changed my mind, or to see if my view had shifted or softened. If anything, it has hardened. I am more certain now that giving up alcohol has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I don’t regret it for a second and I have no intentions of going back. I recommend it. Highly.

    I feel I should end by explaining one other part of my story that also leads to confusion and despair. I can confirm that I gave up another bad habit a while ago. I stopped being a Tory. They haven’t received my vote since long before I stopped drinking. And again, I have no intention of going back. There is no u-turn in sight. No prospect of a polling day conversion. No chance of me voting blue. I’d have to be pretty drunk to think that was a good idea.