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