Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 here in the UK and the theme is kindness. I put together some thoughts ahead of a great programme of events we're hosting at BenevolentAI next week. It struck me over and over again that kindness doesn't have to come in big packages; the words I continue to come back to are Small Things, Great Impact.
When I think of the ultimate act of kindness, I always think back to January 2006, to the paramedics and medics that fought for my life, a life on which I had given up.
I didn’t understand, at that point, that I had been living with serious mental illness for at least fifteen years. All I could see was wilderness, a burden on and hurt caused to others. All I felt was pain and guilt at that hurt, bewilderment at how life was unravelling around me, at how I could feel like multiple people in the same breath. That had been my life with Bipolar Disorder, untreated and undiagnosed by doctors, and isolated from friends who could make even less sense of my life than I.
As a mental health campaigner, I have learnt over the years that suicide is very rarely the act of selfishness that we imagine. It is often the act of total exhaustion and despair and one designed to free loved ones from the perceived burden.
So back to that Saturday morning in 2006. Some might say that those in the medical profession have an advantage in the kindness stakes… they save lives for a living, and don’t we know that right now? However, that ultimate act of kindness stretched far beyond just keeping me alive physically. It was that act which was a catalyst for me wanting to be alive; if these strangers cared enough to pull me from the precipice, if they thought my life was worth living, then I was going to live it.
Of course, my story has a happy ending. 14 years on and I have a wonderfully special marriage, am a mental health campaigner, and have a successful career. I’m never smug about that because I remember where I came from, and I value every step of the journey.
The road, since then, has not been without bumps, and it certainly isn’t at the moment although most of my friends seem envious of the calm disposition I’ve had during the current crisis. They put it down to my past experiences… I just think I’m a deep introvert who enjoys not having to see people!!! There’s probably truth in both.
Away from being a husband and HR leader, my life has very much had a focus of mental health awareness. During the time I was ill, mental health was something we didn’t speak about, especially as a bloke. Vulnerability was not in the vocabulary, manning up certainly was. I love how we’ve changed that narrative as a society although there is still work to be done.
As a campaigner and advocate, I never assume I will change lives. I share my story openly because I hope it can bring hope to those even in their darkest moments and perhaps comfort to those who are grieving. I know I haven’t the power and influence to change the world, but I do know that even the smallest things can touch others in impactful ways.
Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is kindness. That we even have an awareness week is a huge indication of the steps forward that we’ve made. If you look on LinkedIn, there’s a proliferation of posts about mental wellbeing, some probably more useful than others I might add! The reality is that the landscape around mental health has been transformed in the last decade and we are able to have open conversations and I can write this note to you without fear of being judged.
Kindness doesn’t have to be a life saving act. Mental health does not have to be spoken about in terms of serious illness.
Kindness is a sum of the small things we do to bring life to those around us, family and strangers, a smile and a thank you. Our mental wellbeing thrives on being loved and valued. Just as those medics valued me enough to save my life, I value the stranger in the shop (at 2 metre distance of course!) to ask how they are, to smile and to give them a moment of my life.
So next week for Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s a great opportunity for us all to show each other those small acts of kindness which make such a big difference, a chance to remind ourselves that it’s great to be ok, but it’s also absolutely fine not to be ok too.