MHIB CEO Claire Russell has been speaking at events up and down the UK over the last couple of weeks and today she is sharing some thoughts on the power of our words. The power of sharing our experiences.
I started speaking about 8 years ago - at events and things, I mean, as of course I started talking long before that! I’d aspired to be a public speaker for many years- and it was something that seemed pretty unlikely, as - I was terrified of it.
I’d had a few opportunities over the years, to stand up and speak, and each time I felt intense fear and anxiety, so although it was something I really wanted to do, I wrote it off as something that was simply out of reach.
Then, I experienced a period of mental illness. After a year or so of ups and downs with acute episodes of anxiety, low mood, panic attacks and self medication with alcohol and substances, I received a diagnosis of severe depression and generalised anxiety disorder. I hit a very low point before I realised myself that I was ill. With the support of my family, I sought help- I went to see my doctor and I was referred for a mental health assessment. I was given medication, and underwent CBT and talking therapy and slowly, slowly began to recover.
During that time, I had amazing support from my family and friends, and- the thing that occurred to me is that I had to be really quite directive in order to get the professional help and support I needed.
I had to ask clearly for what I wanted, many times I had to chase up appointments, I had to push back when I felt what was being offered wasn’t right for me. Three times I went back to the doctor because I didn’t feel the medication I was taking was right for me.
When the NHS -provided counselling didn’t work for me, I sought counselling privately, which meant I had the ability to select the therapist I wanted.
I was acutely aware that, in many ways, I was in a fortunate position. You see, I had the resources to do all of the above. I had the knowledge to be able to make decisions about my recovery. I had the support in place to give me strength when I needed it. I had the financial resources to be able to find private therapy. I had a voice and I wasn’t afraid to use it to advocate for my own needs. Although this was a difficult time for me, I could plainly see that it would have been so much more difficult for anyone that had fewer resources available to them.
And this brings me back to the point of this article.
I have experienced a lot - mental illness as I have mentioned; and also physical illness, bereavement to suicide, pregnancy loss, financial challenges- a lot ! And, through all this I have learned a huge amount - about resilience and about hope.
As I recovered from the challenges I have faced; with the realisation that my position is in many ways, a fortunate one, I became more and more drawn to speak about my experiences- in the hope that by doing so, I might in some way help someone else. I got over my fear, started speaking and in time it has become one of my favourite things to do. I’ll take any opportunity to speak these days!
I feel particularly passionately about sharing my experiences of mental health, as I know this is an area where so many people struggle.
The experience of mental ill health is subjective- it will be different for anyone. Knowing this, my intention isn’t so much to advise other people in what they should do, rather to share my experiences openly in the hope that someone might hear something in what I share, that might resonate for them, that might perhaps give them hope.
As mentioned at the start of this article, I’ve been speaking at lots of events recently. In the main, I speak about organisational mental health and resilience- and within that I generally share a little of my personal experiences too.
After one of the talks I gave recently, I was asked a question about where a business should start with mental health in the workplace. I said that it needed to start with the leadership of the organisation. I said that if leaders in businesses are willing to show up and be vulnerable, to share their own experiences, it would be a great foundation for creating conditions of psychological safety in their organisation.
You see - when we share our experiences - when we admit to our vulnerability, our humanness- we give others the permission to do the same.
And this is what I mean about the power of our words. This is why I share my experiences so openly.
After one of the keynote sessions I delivered recently, someone came up to me and said that he had heard me speak somewhere else (it may have been an online session I delivered last year), and something that I had said, had landed so powerfully for him, that he was then able to open up to his wife about how he was feeling. This led to him seeking professional support and it has, quite literally, had life-changing consequences.
So, don’t under estimate the power of your words. The power and value in sharing your experiences. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable - to be human. We all are.