We were promised an Indian summer and there have been hours of warm autumn sunshine this September. It was one of those sunny September afternoons the other day and myself and Eric Mc Allister, our head of product at Mental Snapp, were flyering in Spitalfields Market in London. We were giving out leaflets to advertise our free video diary app which helps people manage their mental health. We were also promoting the fact that we have a series of focus groups coming up on Tuesday nights in October where people can gather to talk mental health, tell us what they want from the new version of Mental Snapp that is coming out at the end of the year, and grab some free delicious food.
The thing I realised as I watched people rushing by on their lunch break, was that we had a problem. How do you go and approach a stranger about the issue of mental health? What do you say? I started working in mental health at the start of my career in the 90’s. At least things have come on since then. There’s no way back then I would have stood on a street corner and asked people to talk about mental health. I wouldn’t have had the courage to raise such a dirty word, and no one would have stopped for me. I’ve got over a load of my own self stigma since then and am comfortable talking about the subject myself, it’s not a dirty word for me anymore. But would it be still in 2017 for our passers by?
The opening gambit is all in stopping people in the street. I tried several. “Are you interested in mental health?” met with several nos, even from people who appeared to pause to consider it. “Can I talk to you about mental health?” was even worse. That’s an easy one to say no to. Eventually I switched to a bit of a shock tactic one – something to pull them up short and maybe spark a response. I went for ‘How do you manage your mental health?” And then we started to get somewhere.
The first person I talked to was having a cigarette and I thought that I would build up my confidence by picking on someone who could hardly run away. However he was a good choice. His answer to the question was ‘reading’, but when the conversation developed a bit further, he said that he was managing a diagnosis and also holding down a pressurised job in a global bank. That day he was dressed down as he was on a course, ordinarily he’d be in a suit and tie. He was interested in the app and in joining our group. So we had one. We were off the mark.
The range of responses to the question was interesting. “Alcohol” was a popular answer, sometimes, but not always, as a brushoff, always delivered with a laugh. “I don’t” or “It manages me” or “It manages itself” also came up a few times. Those people didn’t want to stop or consider further, and sometimes I knew I wasn’t going to get an answer out of someone, but I asked the question anyway in the hope it would make them think. Some people seemed to find the question invasive, and I wondered if they thought, like I had in the 90’s, that mental health was a dirty word. Eric said to me afterwards that on his patch there had been a number of guys suited and booted, maybe from my conversationalist’s bank, who rushed by and grimaced at the mention of mental health, as if to say that feelings were not for the likes of them. There is still stigma, we discovered.
But people stopped, kept stopping, and stopped again. One pair of girls I asked later in the afternoon were strolling somewhere together, and kept walking, slowing their pace until one of them turned around and said with a laugh “I’ve just got to answer that question”. Both of them were or had been in therapy and were managing their mental health actively and consciously. I gave them leaflets so they could use Mental Snapp for free to help them in that process.
The most striking conversation I had that day was when I asked a couple of women walking with a dog how they managed their mental health and one of them started and with tears in her eyes said “Well, quite clearly, I don’t”. We stood and talked about mental health and shared some stories of how we dealt with it – well no, not quite, it was more the empathy we shared that I hope made a difference to her afternoon. If you are going through a mental health moment, you are not alone, though sometimes it feels so. I hope it helped her to know from a stranger that she could share a common experience.
Would I say that one in four of the people I encountered were touched by mental health? I would say that it was all of them. Definitely. I would also say that for those of them who are more conscious of managing it, they are living more artfully than those who pretend that it doesn’t affect them. Life is after all an art form, and living well the most important lesson we can learn.
If you want to contribute to our focus group, we want to hear your thoughts. This is a long shot, but if you are available on Tuesday nights for the month of October starting on World Mental Health Day October 10th in Spitalfields – 6.30 – 8 – email me. There’ll be free food and good conversation.
If you want to try Mental Snapp and record video diaries to actively manage your mental health, it is free to download on the App Store and Google Play. Get in touch with your feedback.
At Mental Snapp we believe that you already have the skills you need to actively manage your mental health. Using Mental Snapp helps draw them out. Join us. Visit www.mentalsnapp.com and stay in touch on our mailing list.
Also published on Medium.