Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event. Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging. This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being. The day was split into two parts.
Part 1 : Participative display
A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area. These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’. Each board had a slightly different purpose. One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society. The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health. The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues. We put up papers and articles. I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.
When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute. To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.
The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick. As the months passed, different contributions were made. The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers. Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness. The board became a catalyst for sharing.
Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing
On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us. Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser. Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties. I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.
Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive. A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology. Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’. This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness). The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'. (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’). Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:
The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things. A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties. The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.
Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people. Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’. It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions. Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.
During the session we were shown a short video: I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube). The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me. It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.
We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’ It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places. There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.
On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website). The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube). There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube). These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.
If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience? We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer. The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day. (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!) If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind? The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being? The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?
A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.
At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added. This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences. Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience. Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.
After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.