Telling your own story can be a powerful way to change opinions

Posted: 17-06-2021

Our User Engagement Co-ordinator John Gibson, wrote this wonderful piece for Time to Change and we wanted to share this with you again during men's health week. 

John talks about how vital people continue to work together to challenge the remaining stigmas around mental health, and how sharing your own story can be a powerful way to raise awareness and change opinions.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, mental health was not talked about – or, rather, if it was at all, it was as something shameful to be hidden away as quickly as possible. When I began to experience mental health issues, people who cared were often simply at a loss as to what to say or do to help. Others would take the approach of suggesting, 'Pull yourself together!' or make hurtful comments like, 'What you got to be depressed about?' I grew up wanting things to be different but also aware that a language around mental health issues that wasn't dismissive or actively harmful and stigmatising just didn't exist.

After several years of mental ill-health, I was diagnosed as bipolar and it took time to come terms with this piece of news. Back then it was still termed 'manic depression', a highly charged term that I was glad to see replaced by the gentler 'bipolar'. I gravitated towards getting involved in local Third Sector organisations in the mental health field where I felt understood and valued. Through these I heard of Time to Change – the first activity with which I was involved was the Time to Change Roadshow back in 2009, which came to my hometown just after World Mental Health Day in October. Meeting members of the public to talk about mental health was a real learning experience – some were just not interested, while others were more willing to disclose what they had gone through. I then decided to become a Time to Change Champion. Since 2014 I have taken part in the annual 'Time to Talk Day', visiting local businesses and support groups in fields other than mental health to debunk some of the myths that surround mental health issues. I've used the example of my own lived experience to raise awareness and inform different sections of the community. From doing this, I have found that the 'us' and 'them' division between people with personal experience and those without is often too rigid: people have disclosed their own struggles with a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, OCD and schizophrenia.

Through these activities and opportunities, I've gained self-confidence and gradually worked through any internalised feelings of low self-worth that surrounded the sense of identity of a 'mental health service user'. I'm happy to speak in public about my experiences and have found that there are many other people out there who can be sources of help and support. Perhaps most importantly, I have learnt to value the insights my diagnosis has brought.

Mental health is now very much in the news, which, broadly speaking, can only be a good thing. Attitudes are changing for the better and slowly people are realising that it makes sense to look after their mental health in the same way that taking care of our physical health matters. In part this is because of taking the more inclusive approach of 'mental wellbeing', something which impacts us all. In particular, more men are now talking about mental health than they were, and conversations have certainly improved. It is vital that people continue to work together to challenge the remaining stigma and prejudice in society.

There's always more work to be done moving forward. As more people feel open to disclose their experiences, it's important that there should be investment in services to support them where need be. For someone who wants to challenge stigma, my advice would be to think first about your boundaries when challenging something negative you hear or read about mental health: what would you feel comfortable talking about or not in response? Employing facts and figures about different mental health issues can be an effective way to inform without getting too personal. Everyone is different – sometimes telling your own story can also be a powerful way to change opinions as it humanises the subject. I once gave an interview in my local paper about my experiences. At the checkout at the supermarket a few days later, the cashier suddenly said, 'Thanks for doing that – it needed to be said.' It made my day.

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