By: Stuart White 01-11-2018

Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,
I was at the Emerging Leaders conference last week, sitting beside an old colleague of mine who asked if I was one of the speakers on the programme. I told her thankfully no as I get so nervous before doing presentations these days – it’s a really bad place for me. She seemed unconvinced. What, you? But you are a great speaker, your so confident. I smiled. There is a lot to people that we don’t know…
Where public speaking is concerned I have this pattern. I’ll get a request to speak at a conference and at the time it will seem like a really good idea. Then as the conference date ominously creeps up its akin to the feeling of a noose tightening around my neck as if I am about to be hanged or face a similar fate. I start to become consumed with fear and issues of low self-esteem surface, all of which are further fuelled by thoughts of failure and this all escalates in my head to create a huge, impending catastrophe. My flight response kicks in and I want to head for the hills, with the intention of never returning and I make yet another promise to myself never, ever to accept another speaking engagement. This magnum opus of self doubt miraculously plays out without anyone really knowing or noticing. Perhaps I should have considered a career on the stage? On second thoughts, what about stage fright!
And here’s the thing; I have the skill and the ability to make reasonable presentations but that’s not the issue. There is an alarm that triggers uninvited in my head which I can’t switch it off, not a voice, just a subliminal message that won’t quit. If I had to dig deep to understand the sense of panic that I am experiencing, intuitively I understand that it comes from a feeling of vulnerability, of having been exposed, adjudged not good enough.
I am long past the days of wanting to lie on the psychiatrist’s couch to understand why I am the way that I am but anyone who has done even a basic course in psychology understands the power of past experience on our present and future behaviours and attitude. Like most people I have a few significant traumas on my life’s time line that I can point to and think this is coming from that etc. I guess that’s what makes us who we are and interesting. Our past acts as our default software that drives our operation today and can’t be uninstalled. My ex colleague at the conference doesn’t know about the time that i was bullied and ostracised and felt so ashamed and didn’t tell anyone…it’s long ago…and while I can hardly remember the details, the pain of the experience is vivid. It may be why I find speaking so difficult but then again it may not.

Mega star, Lady Gaga, experienced significant bullying at school. The word ‘faggot’ was spray painted on her locker, she was mocked for her heritage and in one publicly humiliating incident she was physically picked up and put in a trash can. Opening up in an interview with Oprah Winfrey – probably the ultimate affirmation that you are nothing less than worthy – she confessed no matter of all the fame and fortune, the praise you receive, something inside of you is always scarred by those experiences and said she works everyday to become a more confident human being. But, she says, there are moments that you wonder if it’s true.
So like Lady Gaga, ‘You and I’ (yes I know that’s one of her songs) all have moments where in our heads we are not functioning optimally and are, in effect, unwell. I am not talking about a fleeting thought or feeling a little down but when these thoughts and the feeling are too heavy to bear and so painful that we can’t function as well as we need to. It’s an effort.
These are the issues of mental health that affect millions of people every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s triggered by specific past events or no identifiable flashpoint, if you don’t feel you can cope with today or your unhappiness is disabling then the condition of your health is not well. This lack of feeling that you can function reasonably (I am not even talking about optimally) can present itself in many ways. For many suffers of depression, like myself, you can simply wake up one morning and feel a mood where there is no future, everything looks bleak and you are consumed with worry. Nothing has happened, and nothing has changed except your view and your feelings. It’s like waking up in the morning with a blocked nose and a cold, despite having felt 100% fine before you went to bed.
But, unlike a cold or other health conditions, mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness and not just by others but also you yourself. I have stopped saying to myself such things as “get it together” yet this is what others will tell you if they don’t understand. You would never tell someone with breast cancer to “just get over it” or work on their willpower, but that’s the advice people with mental health issues hear all too often. People still think that it’s shameful and that ‘the mood’ is self-indulgent and a sign of personal weakness or failing. And if it’s their children who have a mental illness, they might even think it reflects their failure as parents.
I believe it’s a modern-day illness that we still have so much to learn about. It’s estimated 25% of the population, one in four adults, are believed to be diagnosable with a mental illness in any given year but that figure must be larger if you consider that the stigma of shame reduces reporting. I have read extensively on the subject and I still feel I don’t understand it all, but that will change the more people talk about it and explore.
Fortunately, it’s a subject that is now more out in the open with high profile people talking about it. Prince Harry has said that “Mental Health is a sensitive subject amongst a lot of people, but it doesn’t need to be. We need to talk about it more, get rid of the stigma.” So, it affects princes, politicians, film stars rand pop icons just the same as people like you so, know that you are not alone. It feels good to share, because then we understand each other a little better. And to those who still think it’s a case of mind over matter, you are part right – actually, it’s a case of minds do matter. Broken minds need mending, just like broken bodies to achieve what the Romans termed as state of ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Curious how it’s taken us 2000 years of medical advancements to reach the same conclusion.