This is me in the City

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My name is Richard Martin. I am 45 and a father of three. I am an employment lawyer by training, having been a partner in Jones Day and then Speechly Bircham where I led the employment team and sat on the firm’s management board. I enjoy all sorts of exercise and outdoor activity, DIY, cooking and reading. In 2011 I was hospitalised with anxiety and depression. Although Speechlys were hugely supportive and kept my position open for me, I left in 2013 as I did not feel able to return to my old role.

I now work for byrne∙dean. We deliver a wide range of training and other support to employers to help create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces. I lead our work on mental health and wellbeing and am a campaigner for greater awareness and understanding of mental health. I am also a certified Mental Health First Aider trainer.

As a result of my work I share my story freely. It took a bit of courage in the early days because I did not know how people would react, but the reaction has been hugely positive. People want to know. They sometimes think I am brave. I don’t. It is much easier to be yourself than to try to pretend you are something else. When you are really ill, it can feel like ill is all you really are – it transcends everything. If you are unable to talk about it with people, friends and family especially, then you are shutting yourself off from people almost entirely. But human connection is vital to our wellbeing, whether we are ill or well. So it is massively important to talk.

It’s a truism that there remains a huge amount of stigma around mental ill health. Stigma comes from a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge and insight. So if we inform people we can start to break the stigma. And if we can get people who have suffered problems to talk about it then we break the taboo around the subject, we give people permission to talk about it, to normalise it in the way we have done with all sorts of other conditions. The This is Me campaign is all about that – normal people telling normal stories which happen to include the fact they suffer, or have suffered, from mental health problems. By showing others that they are just ordinary people like everyone else, and that their illness is fine to talk about, we remove the fear, the stigma, the taboo.

Since I was first ill I have read and studied a lot about how we think and feel and what makes people ill. Why do some people get ill and others not? There are a whole range of factors but what I have learned more than anything else is that it is not events that cause us distress and problems but the way we react to them. And that is something we can try to understand and do something about. If I can understand the way my thinking works then I can challenge the less helpful elements and have a more balanced, a less stressful, reaction to events. And that will help me stay well. And this is something everyone can do, if only they knew about it, if only they had the information and the opportunity to think and talk about it.

I was delivering some awareness training recently to a group of senior in house counsel. At the end of the session the only question was “why didn’t we learn all this before?”. And that’s what I felt when I got ill. I did not see any of it coming. I was driving back from a holiday in France with my family and, apparently out of the blue, I had a huge panic attack. One day I am a successful lawyer, advising multinational clients and leading a team, the next I cannot leave the house, and am terrified of most things that happen in the house. Over the weeks that followed my condition got worse until I ended up spending a month at the Priory. I was a complete wreck. Emotionally, and almost physically, I crawled into the Priory, desperate to escape from the world outside that terrified me.

Since then I have realised there were warning signs, it didn’t come out of the blue, and that had I and those around me known more then it might not have happened, or at least might not have got so bad.

It is five years on from my breakdown. I still suffer with anxiety and a bit of depression. I have quite a lot of flexibility over where and when I work which helps me to manage it. I also talk about it with my colleagues – when people ask me how I am, I think about the question and answer truthfully rather than the normal “Fine”. I have also learned to be aware of and to take heed of my feelings – to recognise when I am feeling anxious and to think about why that is and what I can do about it. That’s all about awareness.

I know how awful it is to suffer. I know what it is like to think that I cannot cope being alive. I also know something of how awful it was for those around me to see me in the state I was. If just one person avoids that place because of this campaign then it will have been worth it. If we get people talking about mental health, we can start educating people about how to look after themselves and each other, to keep well and to be alive to the warning signs and risk factors. We do it in every other aspect of our overall health so why not our mental health?

Employers should get on board because they have the opportunity to make a difference, to create the environment in which this can happen. It is about creating a safe place and way to work, as well as looking after your primary assets, your people, promoting higher performance and productivity, and being kind. Why wouldn’t you?

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