Last week I spent six days at a residential campaign training. I was surrounded by people from across the world, from different causes and backgrounds, to explore what makes a successful campaign and to learn from our varied experiences.
I was there as part of a mental health campaign, bringing together those with lived experiences of mental illness to support young people to share their story and to tackle stigma. A stigma that often prevents many people from seeking help. Throughout the training we talked, we listened, we were questionned, we were made to think and we shared. It’s this focus on sharing, that made me think more than any of the other content that was covered.
From the first meal, sitting down with people who I’d only just met, I mostly listened. I heard stories of campaigns I knew little about, I felt their passion and eventually I began to explain why I was there. When I started to talk about my mental health, people listened and then began to open up to me about their own mental health experiences too. And this was powerful.
We often view life through a lens as we see it, spent in a bubble, with no real understanding of what goes on outside our world, other than what we see on the news, read on social media or hear from friends and family. Until one day, when you sit down with people who have been there and hear their story. The saying “walk a mile in their shoes” stuck with me throughout the week because I know we can’t, we can’t live other peoples experiences, but we can listen and create a platform to share. Its hard for most people to really know what it’s like to be dyspraxic or how lonely mental illness can feel, unless of course you have been there yourself. Similarly I can’t begin to understand what it’s like to flee persecution in your country or to feel threatened because of your identity. We can learn so much from one another. It is often successful campaigns that bring to our attention issues beyond our world and the causes important to others. Some of these campaigns make us realise that we are affected too, encouraging more people to share their stories. In the days when I didn’t talk about my mental health or dyspraxia, I would read. Sometimes it was self help books, that I mostly found overwhelming and disheartening when I realised they didn’t help at all, but sometimes it was articles written by people who had been there too. It was these articles that really resonated and spoke to me.
The week reminded me of my time in India, when aged 21 I got on a plane to spend three months with 47 people I’d only just met. We lived on a camp in the middle of the Thar desert, and had ample opportunity to share why we’d decided to spend such a long time, miles away from home. We also learned more from the locals than you can ever read. The stories of the market traders, tuc tuc drivers, shop owners, school teachers and street children will always stay with me. I often wonder how one particular tuc tuc driver is doing, where he is now and if he is still driving tourists around Jaisalmer. I realise I will never know, unless I go back to find those people who I met eight years ago. Their stories will have changed so much with time. We described living on camp in the middle of the desert as a bubble, even likened to Eastenders or a reality TV show. You couldn’t escape people knowing things about you and we began to forget what the outside world felt, smelt and sounded like. I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock when leaving India and returning home. There is certainly something to say about how an experience as profound as that can affect your mental health, both good and bad. Maybe I’ll write about it one day. Similarly, I didn’t prepare myself for how I would feel on leaving campaign bootcamp. As someone who naturally ruminates over everything, I have probably reflected on all that is possible, in the week I’ve been home.
Two weeks ago I shared my story in a secondary school, I told the young people in assembly of the times when it felt impossible for me to share. When I was consumed with feelings of fear about admitting that I really wasn’t okay. The young people responded with a round of applause at the end, something I didn’t want or expect. An applause that I hope encouraged at least one other person in that hall to stand up and say they have a mental illness too. Whether it is tomorrow or ten years time. I really hope they do. I want young people to be able to talk about the thoughts in their head, that are often easier to write down than express verbally. During times when I was ill, writing and language was a massive comfort to me. It became my safety blanket and I realised that I could at least share with myself those feelings, if no one else would read it.
The weeks training concluded with a session exploring sharing your personal story, appropriately bringing together the thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head from our first meal. Why do we share? Who does it help? What are the difficulties? How can we share? Does it even help campaigning? we pondered. I talked about the power I felt when I share, the feelings of unity and knowing you can empower those around you. I trained as a journalist last year because I was fascinated by the stories of others and I knew how powerful words can be. Last week has affirmed how true this is. Through language we can explain our story, educate where necessary and listen when our friends, colleagues and family are ready to share too.