In this guest blog, Nikki Llewellyn gives a personal perspective on mental health issues and the importance of opening up about them, and on her role at the recent Stereo-Hype Festival.
I have a history of clinical depression that started when I was 13 years old. I didn’t tell anyone for 10 years. Back then I led a double life: I’d go to school, then later college and be bubbly and outgoing. But when I came home I’d go to my room, stare at the walls and cry.
I took my first overdose when I was 13 and over the years I took another two. I didn’t tell anyone due to the stigma attached. I was worried about what people would think and how they would react. My dad suffered from clinical depression as well. He went from being a pastor in his church to being a recluse. It seemed that people their back on him, except my mum. I didn’t want to add to their burden.
African and Caribbean people are very private. We don’t like to air our ‘dirty linen’ in public. Yet research shows that having conversations about mental health changes people’s perceptions, behaviours and negative attitudes that lead to stigma.
I joined the Time to Change campaign 18 months ago to encourage black people to talk about mental health issues and to challenge the stigma. Since becoming a Time to Change Champion, and opening up about my own mental health, I have grown as a person.
I used this experience as a volunteer coordinator at the recent Stereo-Hype Festival on African and Caribbean mental health at Stratford Circus, east London. A partnership between Mellow, an east London mental health programme, and Time to Change, I was recruited to look after the festival’s 50 volunteers, many of whom had a lived experience of mental illness.
The volunteers’ role was to use social contact to engage visitors in conversations about mental health. They weren’t thrown in at the deep end, but received group training before the event. This included telling them about the Time to Change campaign, explaining the concept and purpose of social contact and why the festival was focusing on African and Caribbean communities.
Volunteers were also shown different ways of opening up a conversation, and how to deal with difficult ones, aided by training videos. They didn’t have to disclose their own mental health status as part of the conversation unless they wanted to. I always stress to volunteers that we are not counsellors; our role is to open up the conversation.
During the two-day festival, which attracted more than 500 visitors, volunteers had access to volunteer coordinators as a safety net. If they needed help we would discreetly give them the option to continue with the conversation or for us to take over.
Having singers and award-winning poets perform alongside public figures such as British boxing champion Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham and former Chelsea footballer Paul Canoville, who shared their stories of mental illness on stage, helped to open people up.
During the event, most of the volunteers were astounded to discover that when you open up about your own mental health it encourages others to do the same. Some had very meaningful conversations with visitors. Many were overwhelmed by it all, but in a good way. Most had no idea that doing something like this would literally change someone’s attitude right in front of their face.
Events like the Stereo-Hype Festival help to create a situation where people can come, sit down and have a chat with a volunteer who understands where they are coming from. This can make a world of difference to a person’s life.
Nikki Llewellyn is a Time to Change Champion and was a volunteer coordinator at the Stereo-Hype Festival on 25-26 January.
For more information on the Stereo-Hype Festival go to: www.time-to-change.org.uk/stereohype or follow on Twitter: @StereoHype2013