Here at Joules, our employees’ mental health is one of our top priorities – it’s why we have appointed Mental Health First Aiders to work with our team to provide support and companionship in times of need. To find out about how we can all prioritise self care and mental wellbeing, our copywriter Olivia Holder spoke with Bryony Gordon, Founder of our partner Mental Health Mates.
When I sat down to speak with Bryony Gordon about our partnership with Mental Health Mates, she was recovering from running a half marathon just the day before – something you would have never guessed by her upbeat, positive demeanour. I was excited to find out how somebody so busy could find the time to prioritise her mental health, especially as a trainee Joules Mental Health First Aider myself. Bryony is well known for her five books and she speaks very candidly about her struggles with mental illness and addiction. But I wanted to discover more about how she came up with the idea to create such an amazing community project that enables so many people to open up about their mental health.
Bryony Gordon: So, my name is Bryony. I am a writer, journalist, author, mental health campaigner, a mum. I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’m many different things! And six years ago, I founded a community project called Mental Health Mates, which was born out of my own experience of not having anyone to talk to about my mental illness.
Bryony Gordon: Mental Health Mates started in 2016 and at the time I was really unwell with obsessive compulsive disorder, which was something I had suffered on and off with since I was a child. I’d gotten to the point where I really needed to talk to people like me. I kept reading this statistic: ‘1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue this year’ – but I’d never spoken to another person who was experiencing the same thing as me. One day I was out running on my local common, listening to a documentary about Carson McCullers, who wrote a lot about loneliness. There’s this audio clip of her saying “sometimes it feels like everyone is part of a ‘we’ except me”, and this really summed up what mental illness felt like for me. I had this idea to get those 1 in 4 people with a mental illness together for a walk where we can all get outside and talk about it. So I arranged a meetup in the park, advertised it on social media and asked people to come along. 20 people turned up, and that’s where Mental Health Mates began. Now we run walks across the country, offering support groups for people to get walking, get outdoors and get talking about mental illness.
Bryony Gordon: I think there are so many ways it helps. For one, your mental illness wants you to stay inside, and forcing yourself to get outside really does help. You’re going against every grain of what that mental illness wants, and that’s powerful – even if it doesn’t feel particularly powerful, it’s taking a stand against it. Also, when you’re out in nature, there’s a lot to look at and for your brain to absorb, to see that the world is still spinning, your brain is being distracted in a way that you don’t have when you’re alone in your bedroom, which I have been in some of my darkest days. Something I’ve found as well is that it’s much easier to talk to someone when you’re side to side rather than face to face. You can ease into the conversation by talking about what you can see around you, and from that you can start talking about other things. What we see so often is that by the end of our walks people will then say “let’s go for a coffee” so they can then talk face to face, but the walks are a way of gently easing people into it and making it less frightening.
Bryony Gordon: It is so important, because mental health and physical health should be treated the same – I would love it if one day we could just talk about ‘health’ as a whole. We know that a huge amount of work days are lost due to mental illness, and we all benefit from knowing that we’re supported by the company we work for, and it benefits the company as well. I think it’s really crucial to have it in the fabric of a company’s DNA, so that people know if they have a problem there are ways that they can go and get help and support.
Bryony Gordon: First of all, thank you! The beauty of Mental Health Mates is that it doesn’t need much money to run it – we never charge, we are always free to join because we want it to be accessible to everybody. So any donations go back to our central office (at the moment three people working from their bedrooms!) so that we can help to spread the word, facilitate questions and run training for our walk leaders. All sorts of things like that are required to be able to give this opportunity for free to the thousands of people that we reach. My dream is that we can be everywhere, in every village and every town in the UK! So basically, the donation enables us to bring our work to more people, to spread our message across the country at a time when it is especially needed right now.
Bryony Gordon: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure if I have the answer! For me, everything is a learning curve and a learning opportunity. I’ve gotten much better at prioritising my mental health by setting boundaries and realising that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Every day I do commit to my mental health, and that’s in a more fundamental way than just giving myself time to myself – it’s things like trying to eat well, not fill myself with rubbish, get a good night’s sleep and exercise regularly. I always try to make sure there’s something fun in my diary too, because there has to be joy in what you’re doing or there’s no point in doing it! I’m also really good at putting my feet up. That’s definitely important as well!
Thank you so much to Bryony for sharing your story and your tips! If you’d like to find out more about Mental Health Mates and to find your nearest walk, just head to their website or follow their Facebook Group for regular updates.