EN guest editor Simon Parker talks to Clarion’s Tom Fisher about mental health
As many of you will be aware this week sees focus on a massively important area for all of us. While one could argue that every week should be Mental Health Awareness Week, this week will see a range of initiatives and activities that bring this subject to the fore. Like most issues the more we discuss mental health the greater awareness it gets leading to a better understanding of its impact and nuances. While the subject has had massive exposure in a wide range of professions and across society generally, I would like to focus on how it applies to us in our highly pressurised world of event organising.
The impact is far reaching and is both deeply personal and also needs to be approached at an organisational level. I initially tried to meld these two perspectives together by discussing it with Aceel Dear, head of marketing at the NEC Group and to Tom Fisher at Clarion. What I quickly discovered is that the two perspectives deserve separate attention.
While the discussions have many common themes and are obviously interrelated, the way this impacts us personally and the way we deal with it in the context of the workplace are distinct and different. I have therefore decided to introduce another ‘two-parter’ this week sees an incredibly powerful discussion with Tom and next week an insightful view of how the NEC Group are dealing with the subject (and winning awards for it).
For those of you that don’t know Tom he is group marketing ops manager for Clarion and has written very candidly about his own experiences of Mental Health on social media. I start with asking Tom what mental health means to him.
TF: “I was diagnosed with depression aged 15. I have been through various treatment methods in my life – cognitive behavioral therapy, counselling, courses of anti-depressants and self-medication which bled into substance abuse. As I became more secure in my position within our industry I came out of my shell and started speaking out about mental health and being less afraid of saying the wrong thing as I think this is not just an issue that needs solving in our industry, but the world over.
“Mental health means pretty much everything to me – it has defined who I am as a person. I have lost close friends to it and on several occasions have had that struggle myself. I have what I call my demon that comes to me more than I’d like it to, telling me I’m nothing. In reality this is Bipolar Disorder – something I’m learning more about and comfortable telling people I have. With Bipolar, you can be in the pits of hell, but you can also feel mania – a feeling you cannot be stopped and instances of heightened intelligence and concentration. As great as that sounds, it’s actually incredibly dangerous as no one is unstoppable and at some point, something has got to give.
“During COVID I decided to put some positive news posts on LinkedIn because all I saw was negative news, despite brilliant stuff happening all around us. People reacted to it in their hundreds. I think we’re all in the same boat, or we know or love someone that these emotions I was talking about spoke to. I put something about recently being diagnosed with Bipolar and what that meant for me and saw the post was exposed to over 15,000 people. That’s a lot of people seeing something I’ve written – it’s a start.
“As a result, I’ve already had a handful of conversations directing people to the right medical help / people I know they can speak to. For once I’m not looking to boost my profile, but I am looking to make it normal to have this conversation about who we are and what makes us stay awake at night and troubles people.”
Tom expresses himself with an honesty that is Incredibly powerful, his decision to deal with this issue so publicly is both brave and incredibly helpful to those that find themselves in a similar situation. I ask him what are the most common misconceptions of mental health?
“Bluntly? That people with mental health conditions are weaker. In my experience it’s the contrary. Some people I have met in my mental health journey are the strongest people I’ll ever know. I have often been told that I shouldn’t put my thoughts on the internet as they are “career limiting” if a future employer would see them. I find it quite ironic and hypocritical that someone can break their leg playing 5-a-side and need a week off and it gets laughed off … but if someone were to need a day off on a rare occasion for personal reasons, they’re a potential liability.”
I point out that in my experience this view is changing but welcome his view on how we should approach it in the workplace and what should employers do to promote best practice?
“I believe as an individual it can be quite an intimidating, lonely place on your own. But if you know there’s people in a similar situation to you and help is available, it can empower you. I’m quite passionate that we need to open up this conversation and arm our ‘leaders of tomorrow’ with inventory of how to manage this and help our colleagues conduct their day-to-day work.”
And does he think in our industry there are specific circumstances that make our profession susceptible to poor mental health?
“Events are a high stress environment. I’ve worked as a copper during the London riots and also been onsite at 7am on event opening morning when an exhibitor is screaming because they’re missing a stool … The two are not far off each other! Long hours and some weekends are to be expected but anecdotally, I know some employers forget their side of the bargain when it comes to time off in lieu. This work/life balance has come to the fore during Covid and I hope it’s something that gets serious looking at as we return to some normality.
“As someone that lives on their own the long evenings of lockdown have been particularly hard and I know I am not alone in that – I know a lot of people are in this boat. I would argue we’ve experienced the most turbulent year of a generation and ought to cut ourselves some slack.”
Doing more to promote
Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) takes place this week with five ways of wellbeing – Connect, Take Notice, Give, Be Active and Keep Learning – does Tom feel we should do more to promote it?
“I am proud to see the work of the AEO in association with Heads Up are doing as well as various other initiatives. I also think if people haven’t looked into them to look into and support EventWell. You never know when you may need their help.”
Given that the aim of the week is to spread awareness what should we do if we suspect one of our colleagues is suffering how should we support and help them?
“I can only speak to my experiences of the huge spectrum that is mental health and in particular that speaks to depression. My advice is simply to ask that question ‘is everything alright?’ and offer a cuppa see what is said back. Remember, you are not a counsellor but the number of times I have built up an issue in my head and diffused it from talking it through with a mate has saved me spiraling. That being said, I’m a firm believer if the matter is more prominent and you have immediate fears for someone’s safety you have a responsibility to report it.”
So, some sound advice on the power of conversation and how a relatively simple act like asking someone if hey are OK can really have an impact, Tom goes on to say:
“In 2020 I had a life-changing conversation with a black colleague in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. I’m a white male with English/Irish heritage and could only listen as all I could offer was empathy and support from my perspective. As the conversation developed, in return I offered my situation with where I was with my mental health. The person I was speaking with didn’t have much experience with mental health but listened. We were both going through hell but shows you the power of listening to one another and spending ten minutes in another’s shoes. We were in entirely different mental states … but we both left our conversation with some of the weight off our shoulders and I’m pleased to say have developed a friendship since.”
Tom concludes our conversation by pointing to the fact that as in many aspects of life appreciating difference and trying to view things from alternative perspectives help in understanding the complexities of mental health.
Mental Health Awareness Week will not solve all the problems associated with this issue although as Tom points out talking about it helps enormously. Next week I will outline how the NEC have really embraced this challenge by raising awareness and creating systems and processes to deal with the issue and offer help and assistance were necessary.