Safe space, great sharpies

I like getting feedback, it helps me calibrate and assess myself. It requires me to be continually objective about what I do and the impact I have. I tend to say that it keeps me “honest”. My work is almost entirely by recommendation which is another form of feedback. I openly state to prospective employers that I’m only as good as my last piece of work. That way I’m driven to do my best every time, no lazy formulaic approaches or coasting on content.

Working mainly in the field of emotional resilience and health I’m used to tears in the training room. I’m able to sit with others in their distress and feel no need to fix them or solve their issues. Even when its a room full of people all being affected at once I can cope with that, even if that sometimes means I shed a tear myself. It’s about being human.

Which leads me to the title of this blog post. That title was my feedback after a recent course. This was a training which involved some pretty challenging material and was about peer support. When everyone arrived I could sense the apprehension, the distrust and the defensiveness of the delegates. As we got to work I asked them what they wanted to get from the course, what classic trainer methods I should avoid (they were relieved to find no powerpoint or role-plays) and what they wanted to give to the course and their colleagues.

That was when the change started, suddenly they realised that they had “agency”, the power to act for themselves.

As the day went on, conversations ebbed and flowed, exercises were completed and the room took on a different feel. Where there had been apprehension there was now anticipation, distrust changed to trust and defence disappeared to be replaced by warmth. The delegates spoke openly about their challenges and how they could support, indeed wanted to support their colleagues.

So what did I bring to the day? Well I certainly didn’t bring much content or any specific expectations. I’d say I brought some positive assumptions about the delegates being able to cope and support each other. They said I provided a safe space and great sharpies – I’ll settle for that.

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Still

It’s ten years ago,  I didn’t even realise until late tonight that it’s the anniversary.

I remember rocking, my head banging against the wall, I recall the hysterical crying, the blurred vision and the noises in my head. I know I was taken to visit a doctor and that I was sedated. Apparently I didn’t put up much resistance, I just wanted everything to stop.

For the next few days I can retrieve odd snatches of memory but mainly it was a time of medicated calm. I slept 16/18 hours a day over that week. My body shutting down to protect my mind. The drugs made me feel like my head was full of cotton wool. Soft and cosy apart from a slight pressure behind my eyes.

I was back at work inside three weeks. Too much, too soon but I wasn’t about to let anyone know that. My boss was constructive and considerate. He pushed for me to get assistance from the company and for once I accepted help. It wasn’t really about a situation at work (which was the white lie he told Occupational Health) and though there was an issue, the truth was I had the accumulated pressure of years of poor decisions, of a diagnosis that I couldn’t cope with, confront or actually even acknowledge to the world at large. Something inside me snapped and I’ve never been quite the same since.

Some of that  not “quite the same” is negative, I lost a part of myself that day which I’ve never really regained, the self belief that gave me confidence in the bleakest of situations. Whilst perhaps that was founded on delusion and certainly became more pronounced in hypomanic episodes it was always there to keep me moving. I don’t have that any more.

On the positive side though I gained insight in to myself. I learned to accept my limitations. I became more considerate of others and certainly more empathic. My emotional intelligence was much more in evidence and now used kindly rather than manipulatively.

Much of that summer was spent being very still, the medication did that to me but also I used the time to think about how I wanted to be in the world. In October the flood gates opened and I cried 15 years worth of tears. I cried in remorse and guilt, I cried for lost opportunities and for the kindness of others.

The last ten years have seen much change, a lot of reflection and a continuing effort to regulate and improve my mental health. I’ve not always been successful (and at this time I’m back on medication to help me stabilise) but I haven’t failed, I’m still here, something I didn’t think would be the case in 2006.

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Mechanical, Industrial… Personal?

These days I’m predominantly known for my work in the area of Emotional Health for organisations and their staff. However I continue to do large chunks of work in the heavy industrial world of railway operations. I tend to get a call for subjects such as Incident Management or Accident Investigation. Subjects which might traditionally fall within the remit of Health and Safety or Quality / Environment professionals.

Except they are missing something.

Most of the people I train are superb engineers, they have years of experience and are technical specialists within their individual disciplines.  They can solve problems and provide solutions in a heartbeat.

Until they get to interviewing people as  part of their investigation.

Here they struggle to step away from the industrial and focus on the personal. To leave behind the technical and see the human in front of them. To separate the person from the behaviour.

Which to me is a crucial part of what leadership is about. To find out what motivates people, what holds them back and what they want to do about it. I’ve investigated numerous incidents and accidents and it was only in a handful of cases where any of the actions could be described as malicious or negligent. Often it’s decent people trying to do a good job whilst contending with all the other things that life throws at them. Be that domestic life in all it’s maddening, confusing glory or perhaps restrictive management practice or even whilst being bullied or discriminated against.

It would be easy to dismiss my observation as a specific criticism of an existing sector which is known to have issues but let me share my experience from last week. I checked in at a hotel and the member of staff only had “Trainee” on their name badge. I was running late and they were very helpful so I asked their name so that I could let their boss know of how impressed I was. The staff member replied giving their name and sadly explained that they weren’t allowed to have their name on a badge until after completing three months in the business. I was dumbstruck. This was meant to be the hospitality industry after all. Based on service to the public and yet they can’t look after their own people in a way that motivates them.

I know this isn’t news to those most likely to read my blog, be they HR / L&D colleagues or mental health advocates / service users. At some level we are all used to being looked past or ignored, to having those in authority or positions of power fail to consider our humanity. Can I suggest we all make a small start in these last hectic weeks of the year. Speak to the frazzled checkout worker, thank the busy receptionist or if you’re a manager, bother to speak to your staff humanely, find out about them. It may be business but let’s make it personal too.

  

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Space and time

Recently I took on a new challenge. Neil Usher requested speakers for “Workstock” – nothing unusual in that except the format. It was to be a pecha kucha segment so 20 slides on a timed release every 20 seconds. This limitation intrigued me so I volunteered.

I enjoyed the rigour of developing such a short presentation. I decided early on to use my own images throughout the talk which made sourcing much easier. Next came the series of decisions about what content I wanted to share. As the brief was around health and wellbeing it made sense for me to talk about emotional and mental health. With such a small amount of time available I wanted something impactful and I realised that actually less is more in such a situation. Accordingly I wrote a talk which had plenty of room for reflection rather than bombarding people with content. In the end the running order also played in to my hands as I was the last speaker so it was appropriate for the audience to slow down and consider my presentation thoughtfully.

Luckily (or perhaps not) the session was recorded for posterity. I’ve turned my segment in to a YouTube clip. The audio and video sync is a little shaky but I hope it gives you a good idea of what I delivered.

 

 

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When all is said and done

The Community Psychiatric Nurse was very friendly. We chatted backwards and forwards about how I was and what help they could offer right now. We talked about the level and type of medication I am on and whether it is working. We had a brief discussion on various options for sleep medication and how I might best use them.

She was kind, compassionate and didn’t assume anything about me. She didn’t need my life story or diagnosis history in order to listen and care.

We talked about how I’m in a period of far reaching change right now (both personally and professionally) and the potential impact that could be having. We spoke about the seasonal effect and if that might be contributing. We even spoke about how my health seems to run in three year cycles and maybe I’m just due a change of mood.

We talk about self care and my plans to get out in nature more. I admit that my lack of concentration has meant I’m fearful of being on the bike. We chat more easily about a couple of great walks I’ve done recently, the photos I’ve taken and the mental space created by being in good company, accepted for who I am.

Just as she is accepting me right now.

How ironic then to get a letter the very same afternoon from the psychiatrist I saw most recently. In it I’m described as being “abrupt” and showing my “displeasure”. Obviously whatever my GP wrote last week has stung the psychiatrist in to some sort of action as I’m told that my case will be put to the “referral meeting for a discussion” – whatever that actually means.

Image by permission of Jo Burt and Rouleur magazine.

Image by permission of Jo Burt and Rouleur magazine.

The CPN could do nothing practical in the call though we agreed that a medical review with a consultant was worthwhile and that she would make enquiries about the best way to do that. It will hopefully mean that my notes leave this trust in good (and something approaching accurate) order as I seek better care in the future.

You see that’s the point. I understand that when all is said and done sometimes the NHS staff can’t do much in the moment to help. It’s down to self care and doing what you can (or accepting what you can’t). The difference in this moment was that the person cared. I didn’t need to try to hold the mask on, to appear like I’m coping when I’m hanging on.

 

A quick note about the image in this blog. It is used by kind permission of the artist Jo Burt and was originally used to illustrate an article about eating disorders in the November  2015 edition of Rouleur magazine.

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Insomnia

It creeps insidiously about me,

Like a fog, real but somehow distant, intangible. 

I reach out, trying to grab on to the dreamworld,

Desperate for the warm embrace. 

Instead I’m left in the dark,

Alone with the rush of thoughts and emotions. 

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From humble beginnings….

They say a week is a long time in showbusiness and I’m inclined to agree as we near a year since myself and Keely launched The Mental Blocks. Even being able to name Keely is a huge step forward from when we started out. The very real threat of discrimination for her hung over our initial attempts to create an interesting way to view mental health stigmatisation.

As we approach our anniversary I think it’s a good time to reflect not just on what we have done but also how it has evolved and how it has changed and supported us.

B5ebA4zCIAA81W8.jpg-largeWhilst our work is a webcomic, each issue isn’t a strip of images but rather one single image with which to drive our narrative forward. There are exceptions to that (the Christmas party for example) but generally we try to get everything in one picture. This obviously leads to a certain amount of tension around available space and also the amount of dialogue.

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It’s fair to say that certain images have had too much exposition but in others (such as Amy’s nightmares about entering a psychiatric hospital) we have managed to use no words beyond a title. The intellectual rigour required for that has been both a source of joy and frustration for the two of us. I think the most rewarding images are the ones where the picture says everything.

 

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We don’t tend to plan too far ahead in the story. Whilst we have a broad idea of direction we tend to shoot the images weekly so that they stay fresh. The exception to that is when we are working with other organisations.

 

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Our partnerships with Time to Change and Mental Health First Aid England both required the storyline to build towards them  and final pieces were shot in advance so we could plot backwards. To their credit both organisations trusted us to involve them and didn’t try to change our way of working.

 

So how do we do it? It’s pretty simple yet also quite challenging. At the start of a week we will speak on the phone (we rarely meet) and discuss the images. As Keely talks through our ideas I will adjust our standard sets (the office, Amy or Nick’s home for example) and begin to put the characters in. I will take pictures on my iPad and send them to Keely by photo stream. She will suggest any changes and I will reshoot as needed. Then I will import the images in to a cartoon app and begin work. If we have a tweet going out that day then we will do the words over the phone but often we will exchange ideas on the photo stream and I will send Keely amended images as we go. We rarely talk after the photoshoot with all communication happening via text.

The beauty of this system is that we can drop in to it when needed, there is no time pressure as such and we also get space to reflect. It allows for our own self care and also for us to support each other if one of us isn’t so well that week. When we started we thought we would do 2/3 images a week. Sometimes we manage that, other times we don’t manage anything for a fortnight but our supporters have been very understanding. We don’t constantly retweet or trail our images. We publish them and they take on a life of their own. Images we think are great disappear without trace, others we weren’t sure about are endlessly shared.

We’ve often been asked if we use photoshop but the reality is that each image is as seen. A picture of a model set. We use and reuse standard Lego sets and build some areas ourselves (Keely’s husband is a master builder and designed our office and training room).  The only exception is the Time to Change and MHFA England storylines when we got bespoke items such as manuals and promotional materials printed by our good friends at Minifigs.me.

We are aware that our timeline is read by everyone from people with lived experience through to psychologists with plenty of variety in-between so our aim is to make the images honest without triggering the viewers, interesting without spelling out everything. We deliberately leave the images open to interpretation. Our audience will take what they need to and we don’t try to enforce one particular world view on anyone. Our work has been described as a “good medium for gently getting strong messages across” and certainly the Lego allows us to lighten a serious subject without being inappropriate.

Recently we were shortlisted for the Mind Media Awards – which is incredibly humbling, honouring and exciting for us both. Please bear in mind that we didn’t start out with any specific outcome or plan so to get national recognition is amazing to us. Thank you to those who nominated us. It has helped us reflect and actually realise just how much creative effort goes in to making the images each week. Both Keely and I have worked throughout the last year and The Mental Blocks is a side project we do in addition to our jobs. No one pays us but we feel that the content is valuable and useful. We hope you do too.

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