Mark Flannagan: The sector has a problem - a mental health problem

Mental illness is not talked about enough as an issue in our sector, writes our columnist, who recently battled depression and anxiety

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

The coming out of Prince Harry earlier this year on the subject of mental health will encourage many others to be open and honest about the issue. I hope we can do this in our sector without fear of the consequences. With this in mind, I have something to share with you: I have in the recent past been through a period of depression and anxiety. I am going public because my hope is that it will encourage others to share any similar experiences so that we can break down the stigma in our sector around this kind of ill health.

When I was chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, I dealt every day with what I used to call one of our last taboos. I advised people not to be shy or scared and to get help as soon as possible. I thought we should all talk about bowel cancer and its symptoms if we were to break the stigma and help others. It is the same with mental health, but it is the mind that has temporarily failed rather than another part of the body. The embarrassment and fear about speaking out on this illness might come because there is a perception that others will rush to judgement and that past achievements and future capability will be judged against this illness.

I describe my recent illness as a mental heart attack. If I had suffered a heart attack, being off work and talking to people about it would have been easier. There would be pretty much automatic understanding that these things happen and that time is needed to recover and get well again. People would ask how things are and understand if time is needed to help look after a "dodgy ticker". Sadly, with mental health, sufferers worry about what and how to tell people, even though there can be a great deal of sympathy and support out there.

To be honest, I had to fight to get better. My mind was not well, and the body joined in and delivered physical symptoms that took some effort to deal with each day. The mind and the body didn’t always want to get going some mornings. It could be an effort just to get dressed. With the depression came anxiety. This delivered strong heart palpitations, sometimes when I felt I was otherwise quite well. The mind played some tricks and produced some illogical thoughts. To help my recovery I literally got on my bike to help regain better health. Regular and long rides worked wonders to relieve anxiety and create head space.

Looking forward, I now feel strong and energetic, ready to take on new challenges. If my illness tries to make a reappearance I am ready for it and know how to head it off. Throughout my illness I took heart that there are significant high-profile individuals out there who have also experienced their own mental health problems. I admire Alastair Campbell, the journalist and broadcaster, for being open and honest about his own battle. The illness of such well-known names did not define them, and their battle with depression is just part of who they are and does not limit their abilities. They will continue to be successful people despite it.

I believe that mental illness has not been talked about enough in our sector, if at all. I don't think I've ever heard anything about a charity chief executive who has been ill in this way. We are supposed to thrive on stress and lead in all circumstances. We are not meant to show weakness. I don’t know what my being open about this will do to others’ perceptions of me. I fervently hope that those in our sector who have also suffered will share their stories, especially those at a senior level. We need to show that this illness hits everyone, whatever their role and in all parts of our sector. Will others come forward to help the one in four people who experience some form of mental illness? I hope it will lead to our sector taking a proactive approach.

As someone who was the chief executive of a cancer charity, I am particularly sensitive to an illness that stigmatises, one that is feared and whispered about. Depression isn’t cancer, but it can arrive unexpectedly and be a real shock to the system. People do get better in most cases. For my part I have learned a lot about myself, those around me and what is important. I am grateful for the friendship and support of my colleagues across the sector. I wish all power to charities such as Mind, Rethink and Heads Together and the brilliant work they do to destigmatise mental health issues. I hope that we can talk more openly about this illness. Don’t be scared to share. It is time to break this taboo.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is a former charity chief executive who now works in the NHS.

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