top of page

Mentally UNhealthy Conversations

Mental health conversations often don't go well - at work, university, school and often at home. Here's why these conversations often go wrong and produce stigma, rather than support.

When we talk about physical illness, we tend to talk about:

#1 what's wrong (I have a broken leg, arthritis, the flu, cancer)

#2 how it happened (a fall, a diagnosis, symptoms, tests)

#3 what the impact is - I need to be off work, I need rest, I need medication, I need an operation

This Label, Story & Impact approach works well for physical health.

Now let's see how it works for mental health. Let me tell you about me.

#1 Label

I have post traumatic stress disorder. And when that's really bad, I get depression too.

#2 Story

My story starts with an umbilical cord.

This flexible straw is vital to get human reproductive life off the ground carrying essential nutrients from mother to baby. Each year in the UK up to a million babies are delivered. In 2010, one of them had a faulty umbilical cord. It was on the thin side. It was big enough to allow the baby to grow to a perfectly good size. He was practically ready to be delivered. But it was thin enough so that when a small clot travelled through it, it got blocked, like a pea getting stuck in a straw.

And that's where my son, Theo, comes in. Because Theo was that one-in-a-million baby.

His death was sudden, it was traumatic and it was tragic.

It turned our lives upside down. In the following days I was with my wife when she delivered Theo. We had just four hours with him before he had to be taken away for a post-mortem. Four hours. That was our whole life with Theo. The impact was shockingly severe both for me and of course, for my wife.

I have two caring paternal interactions with Theo in my memory, which I treasure. The first is getting home from London one night after being away for a few days for work, bending down to my wife's pregnant bump and talking to Theo. I then placed my ear against the bump, as if Theo was going to talk back to me. It was just a piece of comedy to make my wife smile. But the last laugh was on me. Because as soon as I pressed my ear against the bump I received an excitable kick in the head. I cannot begin to explain how thrilling that interaction with Theo was. It was a joy and a delight. It makes my heart leap now, just to think about it, as it does every time I think about it.

It was my only, ever, living interaction with Theo. In some moments of madness, I am even jealous of my wife for having the pleasure of such interactions on a daily basis. While I got just this one chance.

My only other caring paternal interactions with him were after he died. I stroked his cheek. Held his tiny hand. And stroked his hair.

Seven weeks later I gave his eulogy and carried him in his little white coffin down the aisle of the church, into the funeral car and on to be buried. I had to do this, because I realised that it was the only thing I was ever going to be able to do for Theo.

Shortly after the funeral I returned to work. I didn't realise it until the day I went back to work. But that day I realised I was different. Over the coming weeks and months I came to understand that my brain had rewired itself.

#3 Impact

The result for me was a hyper-vigilant mind which is constantly hard at work on the look-out for new tragedies coming my way.

My hyper-vigilant mind wanted to protect me from feeling the same hurt that I had felt when Theo died. And so it went into overdrive; firstly making me relive his death, and then trying to anticipate new tragedies at home, at work and particularly to my family to help me avoid a new trauma.

My other children are particular candidates for these flashforwards. I have watched, heard, felt them die hundreds of times - from household accidents with knives, tools, falling furniture, broken glass, car accidents, crushings, drownings. Countless times I've given them the kiss of life, watched their lives ebb away, felt their warm blood as they bleed out until their lifeless bodies are cold.

This is awful stuff. You'll think this is insane. These things are so improbable that I'm nuts to be wasting time worrying about them.

This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A mental health condition.

Imagine, as a PTSD sufferer I'm always, always hyper-vigilant. Constantly scanning my surroundings for anything bad that could possibly happen. My sleep is disturbed. And, at its very worst, I suffer additionally from depression.

Once I realised this; I had to re-learn how to be normal. This has been a massive struggle - and it exposed the fact that I need support from those around me at home and at work.

My experience has led me to gain an in-depth understanding of what life is like in the workplace for people like me, with a mental health condition.  And the biggest thing I learned is that pretty much all of what I've just written doesn't help me get the support I need.  I've just given you the Label for my condition. The Story of how I got my condition.  And the Impact of my condition on me.

If you're feeling emotional right now. Just think about how others would feel if I went to them with all of this and asked for their support.  They would feel out of their competent depth.  They'd feel emotional, negative and confused by the complexity of the situation.  How on earth would they be able to help?

My greatest learning is that this isn't the right framework for a Mentally Healthy Conversation. This is only the right framework to tell an emotional story, to gain a sympathetic ear, and to offload. All of this has positive aspects. So I'm not saying don't do it.  What I am saying though is that you may need to take a different approach to this, if you want to get the support you need for your condition.

I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan

About Jonathan Phelan

Jonathan 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.


bottom of page