The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, Comic Relief and the Royal Commonwealth Society bought us together for a week in London to help us establish a long-lasting network of support around the commonwealth and strengthen our leadership skills to give us the confidence, knowledge and enthusiasm to tackle new challenges as our work develops. Over the week I met Her Majesty the Queen, quizzed David Cameron about early intervention for mental health, took part in an amazing leadership training programme at Cambridge University, visited the Royal Society and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and talked about mental health in the LGBTQIA+ community at the Metro Charity on the day that USA supreme court ruled that same-sex marriage is a legal right! For me the week achieved all it set out to do, and much more, but more than anything encouraged me to reflect again the way we talk about mental health.
I was the only Young Leader working explicitly on issues of mental health. I spoke with many Young Leaders from countries where disclosing mental health difficulties may still mean complete social exclusion. I was startled to learn that many of my new friends look at the UK for an example of how society and health services need to treat mental health. Our responsibility, in the UK, to normalise conversation about mental health, stretches far beyond our own shores: the world is watching and waiting for a viable template.
I spent the week talking about the work that Student Minds does and about why it is important to give students the skills, knowledge and confidence to talk about mental health. I also spent the week listening. In every conversation I heard the same pattern of response. Everyone had a thought or experience to share about mental health; they had or were struggling through their own difficulties, they had friends or family who had experiences difficult times or they recognised the impact that stressful environments have on their own mental wellbeing. These were quiet conversation, elicited because my confidence in talking about my own mental health difficulties, said “it is okay to talk about this.” These conversations reminded me that while we need to shout about mental health from the roof tops and bold examples of personal experience from respected celebrities, we also need to listen. Sharing personal experiences of mental health difficulties can create space for others to fill.