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Mentally healthy conversations - the solution from film

Have you seen The Fisher King? A great film. In my view it provides the solution to a worldwide problem for schools, universities and workplaces.

This is not just a menial problem. It’s a problem of significant proportions. So large, in fact, that I refer to it as “the greatest organisational failure of the present day”. And that is — the failure to manage the both the stigma in the language attached to mental health, and the failure to provide support to employees with mental health.

In The Fisher King, Robin Williams plays the lead role of Parry. Parry is a very odd character. A mad tramp. Sleeping rough. Constantly having visions of a red knight on horseback — breathing fire. Parry is the sort of character you wouldn’t want contact with. Because he’s . . . well . . . a nutter.

But the film doesn’t start with Parry. It starts with Jack played by Jeff Bridges. A full-of-himself, know-it-all radio DJ. Jack knows all the answers. He’s the alpha male. Top of the tree. The boss.

The film starts with Jack on his Radio Programme taking calls from the public. The initial dialogue is incredibly clever. You don’t realise it at the time, but it’s effectively the whole film condensed into one minute.

This is the dialogue between Jack and a lady caller.

The Lady says: Hi. This is about my husband. Well he drives me crazy. I’ll be talking. And he’ll never let me finish a sentence. He’s always . . .

Jack: He’s always finishing your thoughts. That’s awful.

Lady: It absolutely drives . . .

Jack: It drives you crazy doesn’t it? He’s a scoundrel.

Lady: Jack. You’ve hit the . . .

Jack: Hit the nail on the head. Yeah, somebody ought to hit you on the head.”

Jack then speaks, with equal insensitivity to another caller, Edwin. Jack speaks. He doesn’t listen — because Jack has all the answers. He doesn’t need to know what Edwin wants. Jack thinks he already knows the answers to Edwin’s problems. And as a result of what Jack says to him Edwin then goes off and kills seven people in a restaurant, before turning the gun on himself.

The film picks up the story three years later when Jack is a drunk and suicidal. After a night out drinking he ends up tying two bricks to his feet and stands on the edge of a river. Before being able to throw himself in, two thugs come and beat him up until Parry — our insane tramp and lead character — turns up. Parry acts out being a knight on horseback and both comically and with demonstrable madness, saves Jack from the thugs.

Parry, clearly insane; a crazy, mad, idiot, tells Jack that the little people — that only he can see — they say that Jack is “The One” who can help him find “The Holy Grail”.

We then learn that Parry became his mad, crazy, insane self after Edwin — driven by Jack’s insensitive remarks three years earlier — blew Parry’s wife’s brains out in that restaurant.

Up to that point Parry had been married, with a job as a lecturer, living a normal life. But after that Parry didn’t speak for a year, he ended up in a mental institution before living on the streets. He went mad. He was nuts.

As the film moves on we see the full horror of Parry’s reality. We discover that the fire breathed by the red knight is not the imaginings of a mad-man, but Parry’s flashback to Edwin’s gun firing in the restaurant. Parry portrays all the characteristics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — recalling the horrific death of his wife in that restaurant, at the hands of Edwin, driven by Jack’s insensitive remarks.

And the red knight’s elaborate bright red headwear is not an hallucination brought on by Parry’s insanity, but is a flashback to when his wife got her brains blown out, all over the wall and all over Parry’s face.

That’s Parry’s flashback. The one that put him in a straight-jacket and eventually on the streets.

You’ll remember that Parry sees Jack as The One that can help him find the Holy Grail.

Jack, of course, just sees Parry as nuts. But given that he feels somewhat responsible for Parry’s situation he tries to help.

First, he offers Parry money.

Then Jack tries giving advice to Parry — telling him to not risk getting in trouble by stealing a silver cup that he thinks is the Holy Grail.

Jack even tries coaching, telling Parry, “You’re only partly insane. People like you can lead semi-normal lives.”

Of course, none of this works. Although he thinks he’s the boss — Jack’s offer of money, advice and some sort of amateur coaching don’t work. What a beautiful analogy that is. Because that’s exactly what we see in the workplace. The three tools of management: money, advice and coaching. None of them any good to support the wellbeing of a workforce!

And when. Finally. Jack listens. This is what Parry says. Parry tells Jack the story of The Fisher King. The story is about a King who was wounded in search of The Holy Grail. Over the years his wounds grew worse and his failure to find the Holy Grail persisted.

Eventually, the King became a man for whom life lost its reason. He had no faith in any men. Not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. Made sick with experience; the King began to die.

Then, a fool came to the King and asked: “what ails you my friend”. After giving him a drink of water from a cup he finds lying around the king feels better. But not only that, the King realises that the cup is the Holy Grail. “How did you find what I’ve been looking for all my life” the king asks.

The fool replies: “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”

And that’s it! For the first time in a lifetime, the King’s needs are fulfilled. And this points Jack to what Parry needs. He needs for someone to listen to him, with understanding, humanity and compassion.

The fool did just three simple things. First, he asked “what ails you my friend”. Then he listened. Then he gave the King what he needed.

It’s so SO simple. Ask them: What ails you my friend? Give them a good listening to. Then give them what they need.

The greatest organisational failure of the present day is the failure to tackle mental wellness in the workplace — both the stigma attached to the negative language, and the failure to offer adjustments to give support to staff who have mental wellbeing challenges.

If you want to be part of the solution to this, the answer is to stop being “the boss”.

As someone with a mental health problem, I don’t need a boss who will provide me with the answers to my problems, I don’t need someone who imposes their opinion on me; I don’t need someone who tries to coach me, before they understand me. I need someone who will listen to me, with humanity, compassion and understanding — who will learn what my mental health triggers are in the workplace and who will do something to support me.

If you want to be part of the solution. Ask your colleagues: “what ails you”. Give them a good listening to. Find out their mental wellbeing triggers. And then give them what they need.

I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan

About Jonathan Phelan

Jonathan runs Evenhood; a social enterprise dedicated to improving mental health outcomes in workplaces, universities and schools.

He is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned how to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.

Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.

Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing.

Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.


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