Interviews, stigma and Time to Talk.

‘Tell us what your strengths and weaknesses are’ – an interview question i’ve asked and i’ve answered in many forms over the last 15 years or so. A nice ‘settler’ question i’ve always thought when i’m asking it.  Far nicer to let someone talk about themselves for a few minutes than sit them down in question one with what someone I know used to refer to as a ‘laxative’ question about some complex safeguarding issue.

I hate the ‘strengths’ thing because the more you answer it the more rehearsed you are.  I start with my Gold Merit Swimming Award – I can inflate my pyjamas into a float, save a family of bricks from drowning and swim underwater for 20m to avoid jetsam and flotsam (I remember than from the syllabus, and not understanding aged 11 what flotsam and jetsam are – not a common occurrence in a school pool in Bolton).  I progress through my GSCE Grade D in Religious Education  – a protest against being forced to do it in Catholic secondary school, zero coursework submitted- then move through to my visit to Downing St where I inadvertently called Lord Falconer ‘pal’ in the toilets.  I end with a selection of highlights of where, having talked myself into nearly being battered by violent teenagers I’ve worked with, i’ve managed to talk myself out of it and preserved my good looks.  We can ALL do the strengths question, its a fluffy one.

The weaknesses, you get to the point where you have ‘safe’ weaknesses to admit. People say things like ‘I sometimes have a tendency to be distracted by the dynamic things that happen and lose focus on the longer term work’ and other such crap.  It’s a facade.  A safe one, you just always give a weakness that could be a strength too (…ooh he gets distracted but only by fire fighting and we need fire fighters).  Or ‘I struggle to maintain work life balance’ or stuff like that.

Anyhow, recently I had a painful experience where, through admitting my own weaknesses, they were collected, formed into a tight ball and thrown back at me. I won’t go into it hugely, it’s best left alone on the cliched term of ‘rising above it’. Not that ‘rising above it’ changes the future for others.

However, what it showed was the continuing huge stigmatisation of any mental health issue.  Yes, I’ve had a few weeks in the late summer where depression put me on my arse and reminded me that i’m not as much of an Iron Man as I would have hoped.  For me it’s a neutral issue ; I understand it on the basis that I have, over 4 years or more, been running out of ways to manage the sadness and pressure that having a child with a life long, life limiting disability can have and i’d lost sight to some extent of life beyond that sadness.  I did however talk about it. Well, write about it – blogs and facebook (i’m no longer on there, mainly to do with this) I perhaps naively thought that by being open then I was opening the doors to talking.  I never thought of the stigmatisation you open yourself up to.

I’m not generally naive  –  my profession makes me constantly probe, reflect and re-question myself and others.  I genuinely did not realise that once you say you’re affected by a mental health issue like depression then you lift some people out of their frames of reference. Result – people start making some very weird assumptions about your state of mind and think that they can decide what’s best for you next.

By comparison, 3 years ago I had a multi-ligament knee reconstruction. 10 weeks in a hinged brace. Not once did anyone say anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances offer an opinion on how I should best recover.

But when it’s a mental illness it’s like everyone has an opinion on how that illness works. Depressed? Then in a lot of peoples views you’ll be about to throw yourself under a train every day, clearly.  You’ll be best left alone until you’ve ‘come out of this illness’ or snap out of it.

All sorts of useless views come forth based on little other than the face that those not affected by mental illness think that they have a ‘sound mind’.  If only that was the case.

In blokes ‘groups’ this is worse than probably all others.  Blokes who haven’t had an episodes of mental illness think they are ‘Ten men’ as the saying goes – nothing will get to them so only the weak succumb. Well those blokes I have to admit I really, strongly dislike.  I was one of them.  I had no warning how my sub conscious wouldn’t bear up to the pressure. The problem for those blokes is that if life takes a twist where sh*t happens and they can’t cope they will feel that they can’t wave a white flag or ask for help and this is the sort of cycle that kills blokes.

I am pretty gobby ; I’ll speak my mind and one bad experience of ignorance won’t change that because I genuinely feel that if ONE other guy feels a bit empowered to ask for support when they need it then it’s all worthwhile. What should be the position though is that all blokes should feel they can talk about mental health without fear of other people jumping to conclusions – in affect stigmatising and stereotyping.  I support every effort that the Time to Change campaign is making to get there to be openness about mental health, there is a huge amount to do but lives will depend on reaching a tipping point where ignorance is swamped by awareness.

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