Mental health ‘champions’ are breaking the silence in Wales

One of the challenges for people experiencing mental health problems is the stigma attached to it, and talking about mental health can be a particular problem for a lot of men.

Time to Change Wales (TTCW) is a campaign to encourage more people to share their stories about mental health. Started in 2012, the campaign is run by mental health charities Gofal, Hafal and Mind Cymru, and is partly funded by the Welsh government.

Among its key activities is training its Time to Change ‘champions’, volunteers with lived experience of mental health problems. One of their key roles is sharing their personal stories in order to break down the taboo of talking about mental health.

Beth Elliott, 22, from Faringdon in Oxfordshire, is a Psychology student at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Beth has Borderline Personality Disorder, and says she remembers experiencing mental health problems from a young age.

She decided to become a Time to Change Champion so she could turn her experience into a way of helping other people.

“I’ve got to turn it into something positive. I went through this and now I’m using it to do good,” said Beth.

Beth has now taken part in several events, including helping to run a stall at the recent Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival.

“We have our personal story to tell and [TTCW] ask us to make presentations,” said Beth. “It’s all just about getting it out there.”

She said that simply talking openly about mental health is a powerful tool to change the way it is perceived.

“It will reduce stigma if it’s seen as normal, just like if you talked about dislocating your shoulder,” said Beth.

For Beth, breaking the cycle of silence about mental health is especially important for men.

She said: “It’s seen as a weakness, which is why you have such a high suicide rate in men, so to normalise it does the world of good.

“It [suicide] is a real epidemic in men, which is heart-breaking because as a female it’s difficult enough to come out and say ‘I’m really not having a great time’.”

According to the latest data by Samaritans, suicide rates have gradually decreased for men and women in Wales over the last thirty years. However, men in Wales are still over three times more likely to commit suicide compared with women.

At the events that she helps run, Beth said men are often more reluctant to approach her and talk. But when they do, she feels it makes a real difference.  

“One man told me about being in the Falklands war. He was telling me he had really bad Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and he was opening up about that. He said that he didn’t feel like he could talk to anyone about it. It was such a taboo thing.

“Since I’ve started being open, it helps to stop the isolation for people who do have mental health problems.”  

Russell Workman, 48, is Training and Development Co-ordinator at TTCW, and is responsible for recruiting, training and mentoring the Champions.

He said: “The strength of the campaign is very much the champions. When they step up and talk, it busts that myth of people with mental health problems sitting at home and hiding under the duvet. It really gives a face to mental illness.”

However, Russell said that it was more difficult to recruit male champions.

“Probably about 25 percent of our champions are men. Men are a far more difficult audience to reach in terms of any aspect of their health, but especially mental health,” he said.

According to Russell, the fact that much of Wales is rural poses a particular challenge in terms of men’s mental health.

“You have got the problem of men working in things like farming that can be quite isolated,” he said.

But he added that the male volunteers are still having a positive impact.

He said: “The fact that we have male champions talking about their mental health to other men is great.”

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