How I became a Mental Health Champion
England Athletics’ (EA) #Runandtalk programme was created with the aim of improving mental health through running in England. Supported by Mind the mental health charity, to get people talking about mental health, sharing their experiences and removing stigma. The focus extends to supporting people experiencing mental health problems to be physically active through running, be it to support them to start running, returning to or continuing to run.
In order to deliver this programme at grassroots level EA invited affiliated clubs to participate through appointing a Mental Health Champion who would on behalf of a club; register and organise runs to coincide with #Timetotalk Day each February and World Mental Health Day in September; provide crisis contacts for club members; encourage and promote conversations about mental health; make links with mental health organisations in the community and actively promote wellbeing and running.
In 2016 when I retired, I began to look to become involved in activities which would be a challenge, provide a source for personal growth and involve forms of exercise in a group setting. A friend suggested that I give Hanley Parkrun a try. The promise of cheese and bacon oatcakes afterwards did the trick, and I was soon hooked on the Saturday morning outing. I quickly got the running bug.
Not long afterwards another friend suggested I might enjoy joining Stafford Harriers where I would get the opportunity to get some coaching and build stamina to do longer runs. I have to admit doubt started to set in, what would a running club offer a 66-year-old, surely, it’s for more athletically minded people I thought. After a while I put these doubts to the back of my mind and decided to give it a go.
Soon I realised I couldn’t be in a more supportive group. I was made to feel very welcome from the start. Initial anxiety over. After a three-week period where I attended different training sessions, I joined Stafford Harriers.
What’s worth mentioning here is that over 30 years previously I had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and burnout. However, for much of that time I felt unable to talk about my mental health experience, even now it feels at times a risky thing to do.
During the summer of 2018 I started to become aware of the work EA were doing with mental health. After discussion with a few members of the club I realised that they didn’t have a Mental Health Champion.
During this period, I delved further into EA’s website and subsequently made contact with their Inclusion Manager, the person with responsibility for the Programme. After discussion and a few email exchanges, I thought the role of Mental Health Champion was just possibly right for me.
By pure coincidence I happened to be discussing my thoughts with the Chair of the Staffordshire Athletics Network, John Finney, when marshalling at an event in Stoke. In expressing some concern about knowing where to start he helped me by introducing me to Stone Master Marathoners’ Mental Health Champion, Michael Beasley. We had a few chats over the phone and eventually met up at a mental health workshop he was holding at his club. Michael was really helpful in sharing ideas and the plans his club had for the #Runandtalk campaign which gave me reassurance and a good foundation to start from.
Michael said “It is well recognised that the coordinated efforts of many can accomplish more than the efforts of one or a few separately and if we can achieve this in some small way, we will begin to break down the stigma attached to mental health illness, so when I was approached by Peter, I was very happy to help.”
So, I decided to give it a go and in January gave a presentation on the role of Mental Health Champion to the Stafford Harriers Committee, explaining why I felt I would be suitable for the role, I discussed what ideas I had around promoting the benefit of running for wellbeing and addressing stigma. I also discussed support I would need from the club.
I found doing the presentation quite emotional for me as this was the first time, I had spoken openly to a group of people about my mental health experiences in over 30 years, particularly around how I felt that self-stigma was a major contributor to my own mental health condition. It felt really risky but, there was no need to be, I came away from the meeting feeling fully supported by the committee and relieved to be able to share my experiences with them.
I was appointed as Mental Health Champion by the club and an application to EA was made to participate in the February 2019 #Runandtalk campaign and a date for our run was agreed by the committee.
I gained full backing from the clubs Head Coach who has responsibility for organising club runs. This is a really important aspect as any run has to be led by an accredited Run Leader.
EA provided me with an incredibly useful pack on how to proceed and what to do to organise the event; with promotional material; guidelines for the event; Handbook for Mental Health Champion which contained lots of practical guidance; online training and support services. I felt fully equipped to take on my roles and responsibilities for both the up and coming #Runandtalk event and going forward for the rest of the year.
The #Runandtalk event was held to coincide with a Club night and was followed by having a drink and chat at the club house. There were some really lively chats about mental health and some good ideas for future events. Overall it was agreed that the night was successful and there was some good learning by those involved to hold future events of this kind.
I found this involvement in the club has massively improved my confidence in talking about my own experiences of mental health, understanding more about the effects of self-stigma and how running helps with wellbeing.