Reversed polarity

I finished the resilience training and the delegate came over to talk to me. They admitted that they had been resistant to attending the course assuming that it would all be platitudes and not relevant to them. As we dug deeper it seemed that because I had disclosed a mental health condition that made me more acceptable to them as I “got it” and so they were willing to listen.

I was reminded of this exchange yesterday when I was involved in two very different experiences in the world of Mental Health (MH) advocacy. First off was the furore surrounding the new Samaritans radar app. Now honestly I don’t wish to get in to a debate around the efficacy or design of the app. Let’s just say I have my reservations about an app which reports my troubles to a possibly unconnected 3rd party about who I have no idea. I watched the MH community erupt with a list of valid and important concerns. Feeling I needed time to reflect I didn’t contribute to the conversation at that time.

Later on I attended an event organised by Action for Happiness. The guest speakers were Richard Layard and David Clark, both acknowledged experts in the field of “happiness” and the provision of MH care. Layard is an economist and Clark a psychologist. (Which is to rather understate their relative qualifications). Suffice to say that both have made a clear and recognisable contribution to government policy and provision in this field. They both spoke well with much to provoke thought and debate. Then came questions. In general the discourse was well conducted and useful (a few excursions in to climate change and neoliberalism aside). I certainly took away fresh knowledge and information I can use in my MH First Aid training delivery.

On boarding the train I decided to open up twitter and see where the Samaritans radar app conversation had got to. What was emerging was a received wisdom that the app was evil, dangerous and that Samaritans could not possibly have spoken to people who understand such matters – be they technological, medical or social. (Let’s call them group A). However I also noted that there were voices who wanted to see where the app went, who could see a broad value in the idea even if the details needed ironing out. There were fewer of these voices but I noted that some of the charities were keeping an open mind about it. (Let’s call these group B).

However I saw those open to a broader debate were being drowned out. Fair enough you might say, a majority verdict. Sadly though when I looked deeper I saw something altogether more sinister. I saw group A suggesting that group B obviously didn’t “get it” and that perhaps if Group B had more followers they would better understand the “real” risks. I saw Group A people talk disparagingly about “normals” who have no idea what it is like for “mentals” and so should just stay out of the debate. So much for parity of esteem and that’s just within the MH community!

My advocacy work centres around getting “normals” (or as I like to call them, “people”) to understand my challenges, the struggles that many “mentals” (or as I also like to call them, “people”) like me face on a daily basis. It doesn’t lead with the message “sod off and leave me alone because you couldn’t possibly understand just how crap my life is”. It took me 20 years to speak openly about my difficulties and a good part of that courage was about beginning to talk to people who I thought wouldn’t understand or care about me if they knew the truth. Did those people get it wrong? Yes. Were they clumsy and awkward? Yes. Did most of them at least try to understand and / or help? Yes.

Which is better than no one helping me.

acceptance_full_400Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a post about the radar app. It’s not a post about the event I went to. This is a post asking for increased understanding – because you know what? There actually aren’t two sides to this. There are those directly affected by MH challenges and those who have yet to be affected. It may not be them who is affected, it may be a friend, a colleague or a relative but none of us will make it through our lives without coming across someone fighting these battles. How we approach these conversations is crucial to this.

Oh and that person I mentioned at the top of this post? I went on to coach them. In time they decided that why they had listened to me was because I obviously seemed to care about my subject matter and the people in the room. That was the difference – not my diagnosis.

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Tasting the bitter edge of my tears

I’m not a trainer by trade, I’ve always been an operator who got asked to do a little delivery when they were short handed in L&D. A subject matter expert I suppose you’d call it.

Similarly I didn’t set out to become self employed, I couldn’t find work and decided to parlay all the qualifications I had acquired in to some sort of portfolio career.

I got asked last week whether I liked the route my business had taken, more and more work delivering in the area of mental health. I struggled to answer the question – after all, I’m a subject matter expert to some degree and it allows me to deploy many of the skills and qualifications I have developed over my career. For sure it’s important work and I’m glad of the chance to help others develop fresh understanding and insights.

However it’s also emotionally draining. Take last week for example. I normally deliver Mental Health First Aid with Charlotte but she is currently very unwell. Luckily our mutual friend Andy stepped in to help me out. He’s a great guy and it was our first chance to actually deliver together but it was mixed emotions straight away. It’s a long two days and I want to give it everything I have as this is all the mental health training that most delegates will ever get. This means that inevitably breaks are shortened as delegates want to ask supplementary questions or confide in you about how they are doing.

Whilst the course covers many conditions I have no direct experience in, talking about the challenges for others inevitably makes me reflect on my own health and the struggles of those close to me. I try to bring as much of myself as possible – to make it “authentic” as the current jargon has it but that comes at a cost. On Friday I found myself churning inside, struggling to talk of earlier battles around self harm. I spent much of the day on the verge of tears, holding them back whilst continuing to share. It wasn’t a comfortable day.

When all is said and done I’m proud of the job I do. It’s worthwhile work and similar to my previous career in public service I think the output will help others. I just wish it hurt a little less.


Posted in Mental Health, Work | 9 Comments

Thoughts become things

My thoughts are slippery, tricky things. Ideas come and go across my mind all the time. In clinical terms my thought patterns are described as “Knight’s move” thinking (after the chess piece), me, I tend to describe it as having a butterfly brain. It can infuriating for others and yet also leads to insights and connections that would escape me otherwise. All in all I generally consider it one of the better parts of having a mental health condition.

A number of months ago I was co-facilitating a day where we were mapping a process. In order to bring the map to life I gave each team a Lego minifigure to move around their emerging design. I noticed that people spoke more openly and confidently when they placed the figure and that everyone wanted to have a “go” with it. Which got me thinking……..

I’ve been refining some of the work I do. I never meant to move in to mental health training but it seems an inevitable side effect of coming out so I’ve embraced it. Time and again I’ve found that people devour the rich content of say Mental Health First Aid but still struggle with how to break down the stigma or challenge the discrimination. Which got me thinking……..

Mental Health is a complex, confusing and contradictory subject. Symptoms can be significantly different for two people with an identical diagnosis. Yet so often when we are portrayed in the media the accompanying image is the standard “headclutcher” picture. It’s universal and comes in all different colours, creeds, abilities, sexualities. Which got me thinking……..

Most people have a way they see themselves, a persona, an archetype. Perhaps a role they see that they fulfil in the world. Similarly in organisations, people get pigeonholed by colleagues, by their boss. It’s not all of who they are but it represents some version of some truth even if it’s not rooted in fact. Which got me thinking……..

As you can tell, I do a lot of thinking. Some would say I overthink (it’s a fair cop). I also do quite a bit of talking and so I took my series of ideas away with me when I went to visit with friends and colleagues. Chances are that if we’ve spoken in the last few months then you’ve unwittingly contributed a piece to what I’m building, helped me construct a better version. These conversations have happened in diverse places – in Royal Colleges, at kitchen tables, over a beer, out on a bike, on long walks. They’ve been both virtual and real, in England, Scotland and the USA. To all of you – thank you.

Today I’m launching a new twitter feed and website to highlight everyday stigma and discrimination. You’ll find content via @Mental_Blocks and replicated on the website Using Lego figures I am going to tell a story about how stigma and discrimination affects people. There will be several new images a week and the narrative will build, adding new characters and situations as it goes. Whilst I’m starting with a workplace narrative there will be a chance for people to suggest directions for the story or if they have specific issues they wish to see explored then I hope to be able to accommodate that too. Over time this will build in to a compelling resource highlighting good workplace practice but it won’t always be comfortable reading. My hope is that the fun and approachable nature of the Lego figures will enable anyone, from any community, to engage with the messages I am sharing.

Which brings me to my final point. Aside from all the friends who have helped I also have a co-creator. That person prefers to remain anonymous currently. Not least because of the risk of potential stigma and discrimination they may face if their involvement became public. Which is what The Mental Blocks is aiming to change…… Please follow, tweet and retweet the images widely. RSS the blog, share the links with friends and colleagues. By all means download the images and use them as starting points for conversations. All I ask is that you credit us and comment on the blog when things are useful for you.



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Three little words

As a guy who is endlessly curious about the world, one of the great joys of working for myself is the sheer variety of organisations I get to visit. I’ve blogged before about working with organisations with a real sense of heart, living by their values and trust me, it’s a real joy when you work with companies that are clear about what they stand for.

Last week I was at The National Archives at Kew. I’ve done a variety of things there, mainly around Mental Health and we were having a catch up meeting when one of the attendees gave me a copy of the in house magazine so that I could see what people had said about workshops I delivered. However, I was transfixed by the front cover – it had an address from the new “Keeper” (Chief Executive in modern parlance but they still also use the historical title). He was really clear about what he expected from people in the organisation and also what he would do to support that. Even more than that though my eyes were drawn to the values they espouse.

“Integrity, Possibilities, People”

I want to break down what intrigued me about each word.

Integrity – I guess this is fairly self explanatory but it’s interesting that it’s the first value. Absolutely clear from the start. I presume there is something about the factual nature of the work they do there which puts a heavy expectation on the ability to be correct and truthful. They hold all our records after all. During my work with the organisation though it’s been clear to me that integrity is very much apparent in the way they’ve dealt with me, even simple things like paying invoices have been done well.

Possibilities – This was one which may surprise you. As an organisation devoted to historical record the archives are actually very forward looking. They are keen to see new ways to connect and interpret their collection. They have regular “lunch and learn” sessions for staff on a wide variety of subjects. (Recently I was there on the same day as Lucy Worsley). They are also keen to connect the diversity of their knowledge with real world applications, changing how we think about the past and how that may inform the future in new and interesting ways. It reassures me that the civil service are so innovative.

People – Considering the records are in / on every conceivable type of recording device / medium – paper, canvas, audio, microfiche, computer records, photograph etc etc the archives are very aware that their work is about the people, for the people. I hear them talk with great affection about the general public who use their services. Case in point they don’t depersonalise them and use the term “service users” as so many government agencies do these days.

Internally, they are about collaboration and supporting each other but not in a stuffy way. A quote from their detailed values document “We do some serious stuff, and we do it seriously well. But it’s done a lot better when there’s a bit of laughter about.” – To give some sort of idea, their Intranet is called “Narnia”

I love that an organisation as complex as The National Archives can be really clear what it stands for. So simple and so elegant.

What would your three words be?

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Unconditional positive regard

On Sunday evening whilst you were tucked up in bed I was finishing a course I’ve helped deliver in California. There have been 3 modules of 5 days and with this commitment of time also comes the chance to really get to know the delegates. It’s been a large group of approximately 45 people so naturally there will be some you get on with better than others. It’s certainly true to say that there have been frictions and fall outs in the room. However, due to the nature of the content there is an expectation that all of us will be resourceful and work through these conflicts.

When it was time to present the certificates the lead trainer said he wanted to trial something from the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers – the idea of “unconditional positive regard”. The idea being that a therapist accepts the client for what they are, even if they disagree with their actions. By accepting the natural value of the person you provide the best chance of personal growth. The management adage of “separate the person from the behaviour” is a simple expression of this approach.

We formed a circle and as your name was called you moved in to the circle and once there everyone said a word or phrase with which they would describe you. Not one at a time but all at once. The theory being that you were underneath a shower of words as people spoke, repeated themselves, had different things to say with varying lengths. Being a slightly cynical Brit I was ready to put this down to it being California and a bit hippy dippy. I was also concerned about some of the more divisive figures in the group. However as I watched person after person hold themselves a little taller, smile a little more and become visibly emotional I was ready to accept it.

As part of the delivery team we went last and even after all that I was unprepared for what it felt like to be in the middle of 40 people who all had something good to say about you. In all honesty I couldn’t pick out everyone’s words but seeing the smiling faces around me, the warmth and positivity were amazing.

Now I don’t think I’m going to start this ritual at the end of every course I deliver but it really made me think about just how generative and affirming such a process is. It made me muse on how I can better show people that I see their intrinsic worth and value. I don’t have the answer to that, I suspect it’s a process with myriad opportunities to practice so I shall go forward and see what I find out. Anyone care to join me in this experiment?

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Self help?

I bought a book over the weekend. It was all of 10p – ex stock from my local library. Except strangely it had never been loaned, it was in perfect condition. Someone had obviously thought to buy it for the library and then perhaps someone else decided there wasn’t a use for it. The book was by the popular and respected writer Tom Rath and its subtitle is “Positive strategies for life and work”. Which you’d think is a book that might be useful to someone, somewhere. Heck this is a New York Times number 1 best seller. Oprah liked it, Deepak Chopra too and if you prefer your recommendations a little more robust then Martin Seligman is also a fan.


When I worked for London Underground I was given a 360 degree appraisal. Most people in leadership roles got one. It was a useful process for me and opened my eyes to a few things. Based on my scores the L&D team had suggested a reading list, much of which was to be found in the company library. I duly trotted down to the library after work one day. Having been assessed about halfway through the corporate programme I wasn’t too optimistic that any of the books I needed would be there. Still I thought it best to get my name on the wait list.

When I got there the librarian couldn’t have been more helpful. Absolutely the books were in stock, many of them in new editions bought by the company to support this process. I selected the first 3 on my list and flicked through. None of them had been taken out.

I moved on to some of my second choices. As I recall these were hardy standards such as Covey or Drucker – the doorstop books as I like to think of them. No new editions needed here, plenty of stock already in the company. Most of them last taken out several years before. Approximately at the date of the last big corporate initiative in leadership.

Barely used.

I guess you could account for the difference between then and now saying that these days we all prefer a snappy TED talk or a colourful infographic but I think there is also something deeper at work.

There is an assumption that most people within organisations are crying out for some investment, they want the deeper knowledge, the development that good training brings.

Do they?

I mean undoubtedly some of them do but most? I’m not so sure that’s the case. I’ve seen plenty of instances where people have acted counter to the values / aims / mission of their company. Quite a few where people have knowingly failed to discharge their legal duty. Even some where people have distinctly set out to do harm to colleagues / the organisation as revenge.

So I guess my question is should we help those who won’t help themselves?

I don’t know the answer but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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Fit for purpose

Since knee surgery I’ve made a slow but steady comeback on my bike. I’ve struggled with motivation but have inched forward bit by bit. I’ve returned to the sort of distances and speeds I used to turn out but something has still been wrong. Burning pain in my quadriceps after a ride. I’ve also felt my confidence in corners has not fully returned and I’m left wondering whether physically and mentally I’m not the same rider I was.

When I originally got my bike it was set up by a friend with a massive amount of expertise. He has built literally hundreds of bikes in his time. His previous job as a bike tour guide meant that he had constructed and adjusted bikes regularly for an ever changing cast of riders with all their varying fitment needs. So when I decided to get a commercial bike fit I was worried that this was somehow an insult to him but I knew that something wasn’t right.

I did some research around the net, spoke to a few friends. The general opinion was that the best bike fitters just “know”, that they can size you up as you walk in the door. Also there was a feeling that recent technological developments / systems may all be a bit smoke and mirrors. In the end I settled for a mixed approach.

I contacted a guy called Adam White. He offers the Retül system currently in use by many of the pro teams but that wasn’t why I chose him. It was more about his commitment to biomechanics and how he wanted to approach bike fitting – seeing it as an entirely personal thing. Certainly the questionnaire he sent me was incredibly detailed.

I arrived at his studio a little nervous and found a guy much younger than I expected (or maybe I’m just getting older). He explained how he had got in to bike fitting, how the process would work and how long it would take. First off was a physical assessment, see what my range of movement was. Adam had trained originally as a physio so knew his way around the human anatomy & I was impressed with his attention to detail. Next up I got on the bike to see if his initial suspicions were confirmed. Once we had done that then he attached a whole bunch of sensors to me and the system recorded me in 3D. From there he could make a judgement about where we needed to start.

20140714-061935-22775768.jpgIn essence I was collapsing from the pelvis and my balance was skewed. I seemed stretched on the bike to his eyes which was something I hadn’t noticed but made perfect sense. Rather than the bike he made the first adjustments to my shoes (I ride clipped to my pedals). I hopped back on the bike. There was a definite improvement. Next he tweaked the saddle up & forward a tiny amount. It helped even more. We moved it again, this time too far so we went back to the first adjustment. I was blown away by how 2mm of adjustment up and perhaps 1cm forward made such a difference. He was clear that there had likely been nothing wrong with my setup pre-injury but that as I healed, favouring my left leg I had imported weaknesses to my riding position.

I left Adam with strict instructions from him to try a couple of gentle rides first to allow myself to adjust. I went out on Saturday evening and right from the off the bike felt more agile and responsive, I felt more confident in the corners and able to apply power more smoothly and precisely.

Why am I telling you all this? Well it got me thinking about how we get used to things over time, how we cope and adjust to situations that aren’t terribly healthy for us mentally and emotionally, personally or professionally. Yet a tiny bit of adjustment (12mm on the bike and 1cm on my shoes in my case) may transform our lives.

Where have you allowed yourself to get bent out of shape? Where could you make a tiny adjustment in your life and transform your future?

P.S. All this cycling stuff is in a good cause. I’m just £40 from my target in my latest charity ride for Mind. Could your small donation help me get to the start line? Please support me.

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