You should be wary of people without qualifications who 'dabble' in mental health. Or should you?
by Jonathan Phelan, Evenhood ©2021
I read an article recently, written by a psychologist, warning of the dangers of you getting online support for your mental health from unqualified people who dabble in mental health.
As someone without any medical or therapeutic qualifications, who runs a mental health business, I totally agree. Does that sound strange? If so, let me explain.
I'm a solicitor by profession, with a leadership role in a financial services organisation. So, I'm the first to concede that I have no particular mental health qualifications. Yes, I have a mental health condition (which happens to be post traumatic stress and, when that's really bad, I suffer from depression). So I have lived experience which came from a trauma, in the form of an horrendous series of events surrounding the stillbirth of the first child that my wife and I were expecting.
In the height of my difficulties, I had access to a range of therapeutic and medical support which included access to a GP, to counselling, to cognitive behavioural therapy and to EMDR. All of this was good and supportive. I know how supportive therapy can be from trained specialists.
However, (and here's the problem statement) no matter how much access I could have realistically had to this sort of support, it would never take up more than a matter of hours, spread over a number of weeks or months. So what about the other 360-something days a year? I needed support on those days from unqualified individuals - my friends, family, colleagues and boss? How could I talk about my condition in a way that enabled them to give me the support I needed, when I didn't have qualifications either to enable me to know what to say and they didn't have the qualification to enable them to know what to do?
Finding the answers to these questions became my Holy Grail. The motivation to find the answers and the resilience to keep trying until I succeeded was driven by the appalling response I got from certain individuals when I tried to get their help.
And when I found the answers to those questions, it was such a revelation that I gave up half my career and started to 'dabble' in mental health and wellbeing through the organisation that I call "Evenhood". I called it Evenhood because one of the discoveries I made was that if you treat other people with a sense of evenhood, you have one half of what it takes to support someone with their wellbeing.
I'm still dabbling several years later. I've been around the UK - to workplaces, universities and schools - to share my holy grail of how we all can have mentally healthy conversations to give and get support, despite not having any therapeutic or medical qualifications.
The answer that I came up with is that for the unqualified in society to give and get support for mental health we actually don't need to talk about complex conditions, symptoms and so on to friends, colleagues, our boss and loved ones. I agree that we should leave discussions about complex conditions, the signs, symptoms, treatments and medications to the highly trained professionals.
I discovered that, for you to help me, you don't need to know that I have post-traumatic stress and that, when it's really bad, I suffer from depression. You don’t need to understand what this means and how it affects me on a daily basis. You don't need to know the ins and outs of what it's like to experience a stillbirth. You can't help me with these things. You don't have the qualifications. And I don't think you should have to try and get those qualifications.
Isn't that wonderfully liberating? You don't need to talk about these complex conditions, symptoms and outcomes. I know how liberating this is from the hundreds of people I've spoken to who might adopt the label 'confused listeners'. These wonderful people want to help. They try to help. But they can't help with these complex neurological conditions because they don't understand them, let alone know what to do.
What you do need to know as my colleague, my boss, my friend or family member is what makes me comfortable? And that is wonderfully non-scientific. What sort of situations lead me to have a bad wellbeing day? What sort of situations lead me to have a good wellbeing day? What keeps me resilient? What keeps my post traumatic mind under control?
These are things you CAN help me with. As my boss, colleague, family member or friend you ARE able to help me have the things that mean I feel comfortable at work or at home. So that I can be myself and feel valued for who I am. So that I don't have to push myself to pretend to be something that I am not. So that I can perform and be effective. The only thing now stopping you from giving me the things I need, to be comfortable at work, is just whether you want to or not.
And if you can now do these things for me. Then I can do it for you. And you can all do it for each other. There a mindset involved in this which I call 'evenhood'. And it’s a mindset that supports positive wellbeing because evenhood offers the same sort of togetherness that we get from brother-hood, sister-hood and neighbour-hood. Except with even-hood that togetherness means we are all equally valued and valuable. We are all entitled to be ourselves and to be valued for who we are.
So, I now go around workplaces, universities and schools passing on this simple message. That mentally healthy conversations can be wonderfully easy. We should, of course, continue to talk about complex conditions with those are qualified to deal with them therapeutically. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about our wellbeing with everyone else.
We can. And we need to, so we get support every day that we need it. We just need to do it in a different way. A way which is more likely to result in support, rather than stigma.
So, if you’re not sitting comfortably now; let the people around you know what your uncomfortable looks like. Let them know what they can do to help you feel more comfortable. That’s the art of a mentally healthy conversation. It can be an art. It doesn’t have to be about science.
What makes you feel comfortable? Ask for it.
What makes others feel comfortable? Give it to them.
About Jonathan Phelan