Addressing Mental Health Stigma By Raising Our Voices Together
By Alex Robertson, psychodynamic counsellor
I wanted to share this beautiful and powerful poem by Siegfried Sassoon, that spoke to me about the power of raising our voices and connecting together. I believe that sharing helps to address the power of silence, and when it comes to mental health, many voices have been silenced.
By Siegfried Sassoon
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on-on-and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
I was drawn to this poem as I experienced a breakdown during training as a psychodynamic counsellor and while working in another non-related role. This is something I have felt for a long time to be a weakness. But really something I am coming to realise is a strength and a gift. I just felt utterly alone and misunderstood and a huge sense of shame at the time. I also felt silenced. This is not to say I didn't have family and friends round me. But it was a strange place I found myself in - I felt like I didn't belong in the profession or in my job. Taking time off work, then returning to work and later training, facing people, navigating HR processes, was terrifying & humiliating. My personal psychotherapy has been important to me and helped me with positive change, but I didn’t have anyone that I could really relate to in everyday life.
I found myself on the outside - isolated and misunderstood. My internal dialogue was like “you cant be taken seriously with mental health difficulties, you can’t practice after suffering a breakdown or with depression”. I was fearful of being stigmatised as a result of opening up - however, it also felt unhealthy not to. It felt important to talk about and challenge current perceptions.
I have had different experiences, some good, some not so good and I feel there is some current dialogue around mental health that needs addressing. At one point I thought about leaving my job as I didn’t feel that I fit in - but at some point I started to question the shame I was feeling, I suspected there were a lot of others feeling like me but not connected. I decided to stay and to try to change the conversation and to try and connect. I gave some talks at some workshops that my organisation’s staff psychological and welfare team were running, and I found the more I talked the more understood I felt. Common feedback from staff, was that there was a lack of understanding around how people could feel and how that linked to behaviour. I feel there are voices missing from conversations, and conversations that need to be had, which means that only part of the story is being told. Therefore, the right outcome is not achieved for everyone. We need to talk more about mental health together.
We possess experiences that are valuable and that can be shared to help others. A reading that Natalie Kemp from in2gr8mentalhealth shared from David Gilbert’s book ‘The Patient Revolution’ got me thinking about the precious and creative jewels we possess, that can be shared with others and that we can bring to our work and practice. Really beautiful and inspiring. It has been hard to integrate what I have seen as two separate parts of myself - the part that broke and the strong part - the mental health professional. However, I’m starting to bring the two together so I’m less split. What I didn’t realise when I had a breakdown was that it was going to be the making of me. What I have come to recognise is that my experiences are part of me - me as a therapist, a peer and a person. I just couldn't see this before and was too worried to acknowledge it - for fear of being outcast and not taken seriously. This vulnerability, I now see as the strong part of me. I am a strong person, I have lived through a lot and I am beginning to thrive.
I think in these times of covid there is a growing awareness of the need for mental health support and there is a place for lived experience. There is rich experience in someone who has broken, experienced despair and recovery, many experiences that can help others recognise their own gifts and strengths. There is something about driving compassion and helping to foster this into workplace culture - we need to help break the polarising narrative of ‘us and them’ in organisational systems.
It feels good to be heard and to connect with others with similar experiences to help challenge stigmatized belief systems. I challenge the labels that have been assigned to me. I am not the label, I won't be locked into a label and kept down. The more we talk, the less power the silence holds. Stigma needs to be thought about and talked about to be dismantled.
I have certainly taken up negative aspects of my experiences whereby I have stigmatized myself. A big part of my own recovery has been to challenge stigma and this is helping me to form a more positive identity. I think the next steps are really thinking about the value that we hold and can bring to shaping services, policy making and to practice.
This is where this poem spoke to me, the importance of joining voices to address stigma, to create change in the way we see and value those with lived experience, and how we see and value ourselves.
So I guess something to leave here with, is wherever you are at, and this includes staff and colleagues who are and have been under great strain during covid, don't suffer in silence, reach out to others. Believe in yourself and use the gifts that are made available through your experiences. Recognise the strength this takes and the inner resources that you possess - they are not weaknesses.
Challenge current perceptions.
Lets not let our voices fall silent.