Andy Ratcliffe: What a mental health breakdown taught me about being a charity leader

After my mental health collapsed while working at the helm of a charity, I learned some important lessons about my role and the wider sector

Andy Ratcliffe

A couple of years ago, when I was chief executive of the social mobility charity Impetus, I had a breakdown. I woke up in the middle of the night crying, and kept crying for six hours. 

I took a week off work then came back, but by the summer things got worse again and I needed to take two months off at short notice. 

I decided to be open about what was going on with my board and my colleagues. I was incredibly well-supported and got professional help as well. But I never talked about my experience more widely. 

In the past few months, four different charity leaders got in touch with me because they were struggling with different mental health challenges, so I wanted to share a few things that I had learned in case they were useful to anyone grappling with similar stuff.

First, people are great. I was really scared of telling my board about my mental health breakdown, particularly those from the tough finance world.

But, without exception, people were brilliant. I ended up with deeper relationships than before because people started opening up about their own challenges. 

My experience also taught me that I wasnt as important as I thought I was.

There is too much of a cult of chief executives and supporters telling us: “Im investing in you.” Its easy to buy into this culture and think everything falls over when you are not there.

But this did not happen. People stepped up and led, and I learned a lot about my team.

I also found that mental illness or ill-health has a very weird relationship to performance at work.

People often assume that when we are struggling with mental health, we will not be on top form at work. For me it was a lot more complicated. 

I did one of my biggest, most stressful work commitments right at the peak of my illness.

I delivered large public events when I had been crying two hours before. Then I would struggle to get through an apparently simple one-to-one meeting. 

When I first got ill, I was terrified that Id never be able to do a big job again, so it helped my resilience to know that I could still do good stuff while I was struggling.

But although creating an open culture around mental health is undeniably important, I dont think we should create an expectation that every leader has to share their experiences. 

Clearly, we need some people to talk about this stuff. And since I had my breakdown, a lot of leaders in the social sector have told me they have gone through similar experiences.

But it would be ironic and unhelpful if people felt pressure to do so. 

I also realised that it is a lot easier for me to be open about this stuff than it might be for others.

This is because I fit the stereotype of a leader, with all the advantages that come with that.

As a 6ft tall, white, Oxford-educated man, people are more likely to interpret my candour as coming from a position of strength. If I was none of those things, I think it could be interpreted very differently.

Finally, I learned that things do get better. I was scared I'd never be able to get or do a “big” job that I cared about again.

But I was lucky enough to find Guys & St Thomas’ Foundation. It hired me knowing about my mental health struggles and it provides brilliant support.

I hope that sharing this makes it easier for other people to take care of themselves better.

I have seen too many leaders in the social sector treat themselves terribly because they are so driven by wanting to achieve positive change. 

If this is you, please speak to someone about it.

The chances are that you, and the people you lead, will be better for it.

Andy Ratcliffe is the executive director of Impact on Urban Health, part of Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation

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