A few years ago I ran the London Marathon. First and foremost I wanted to take on a physical challenge, and in doing so to raise money for charity. With friends, family and colleagues who had experienced mental health problems, Mind stood out as the charity that I wanted to support. I didn’t realise, however, that running the marathon for Mind would have other consequences.
During my marathon training an old friend used to send me motivational emails in advance of my gruelling long runs. One week she sent her usual email, but its content completely shifted my motivation for putting on my running shoes.
Her email explained that the previous weekend she and some of her good friends had met up for lunch, during which they started talking about the fact I was running the marathon for Mind. That in turn led to them talking about their own mental health, past and present – a conversation that, in their many years of friendship, they had never previously had. She told me that it didn’t matter how my training run went, or how things went on marathon day itself because I had caused people to have a conversation about mental health, a conversation that made them realise they weren’t alone, and which left them feeling more supported than ever before.
“It’s not just the money you are raising, you’re promoting awareness and getting people talking. And people are actually opening up and learning to trust each other more. You running the marathon has been a conversation starter. The awareness you’re promoting is making people realise they are not alone or “odd” because they have certain feelings and thoughts. You did that and something like that is priceless.”
Ambitious finish times and fundraising targets were sharply put into perspective. I realised that my real achievement in running the marathon was in getting people talking and opening up about mental health.
In the years since the marathon I’ve tried to continue promoting conversations like the one had by my friend, and to raise awareness about mental health. With the deaths of my friends Jenny and Troy this has become even more important to me, and I want to use my walk to Rome to engage in more conversations about mental health and to get others talking.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that one conversation won’t make a difference, or that we aren’t equipped to embark on it in the first place. But I would encourage you to think otherwise. A conversation, whether long or short, can help to reduce the stigma that currently surrounds something that is entirely natural and normal. It can give someone the support they need, maybe even the courage to speak up or to seek professional help. And, what I’ve seen to be incredibly powerful, it can help people to realise they aren’t alone and that others around them have experienced similar thoughts and feelings.
I am no expert, and I’m not a mental health professional. But the conversations I’ve had to date – be it with friends, family, colleagues or strangers – have led me to understand that you don’t need to be either to lend someone your ear or to initiate a conversation. It’s only by talking openly that we can promote a better understanding of mental health problems and create a world where ignorance and judgement don’t prejudice those who struggle with them.
In my conversations about mental health I’ve discovered a number of valuable resources, which may be of help to you or your family, friends or colleagues. You can read more about these resources here.