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Celebrating International Men’s Day – personal stories from some of our team

In recognition of International Men’s Day on November 19th, to help raise awareness of men’s mental health, we thought it would be interesting to hear the stories from three of our male team members. Here we learn more about them and how they came to work in the workplace mental health space. Read below for their thoughts and experiences….

George Hodgson – Facilitator and Digital Lead

40 weeks.

That’s how long I was told I’d have to wait for help. I was just 16 at the time, experiencing severe anxiety, panic attacks and OCD. All this combined led to intrusive suicidal thoughts. And yet, 40 weeks was the length of time I was told I would have to wait to get help.

I was in the very fortunate position that I could be sent privately, and I was. For three years of my teens, I was in private therapy, first I saw an adolescent psychiatrist who used hypnotherapy to tackle my panic attacks, he also put me on medication. After a year and a half, he referred me to a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) Therapist to work on my anxiety and OCD. This was for another year and a half. I gradually got better and learned the coping mechanisms to manage my mental health and was eventually weaned off the medication.

As I came out the other side of my three years of therapy, I had a realisation. What do young people do that can’t afford to go privately?

I decided to set out to help those young people who couldn’t get help. I didn’t know how at the time, but during my darkest period I use to write down and draw all my thoughts and feelings in notebooks. I later came up with the idea of using these designs and placing them on clothing to raise awareness in a subtle, non-triggering way. The brand became successful for several years but during the covid pandemic it suffered, and I suffered with it.

However, from starting the brand came opportunities to do public speaking, and someone once suggested that I tell my story to others. I began delivering my story to audiences and realised that by just using my voice and telling my story I was able to encourage others that it’s ok to open-up and talk about their own mental health, but that it’s also ok not to be ok.

I fell in love with campaigning for better mental health and started working with YoungMinds Charity, first as an activist and then as a paid Youth Advisor on their Amplified Programme which gave me opportunities to co-chair NHS meetings on CYP (Child Young People) mental health services.

During the pandemic, I decided and felt it was the right time to take my story into a professional capacity and enrolled on a part-time three-year psychotherapeutic counselling course whereupon I would learn hypnotherapy and counselling and become qualified to work with others.

Opening-up and talking about our mental health is one of the most difficult but important parts of recovery when we experience poor mental health. My passion is now deep rooted in encouraging the conversation, raising awareness, and driving the cultural change forward in relation to breaking down the stigma.

My current role is Facilitator and Digital Product Lead at Mental Health at Work and being part of an organisation that shares the same vision, mission, and views on driving that cultural change is incredibly important to me. It means I still have the platform to be able to be part of and create positive change, but also be surrounded by people on the same mission, creating a force-multiplier. When a team of people are on the same journey to sharing and embedding messages surrounding a subject, it becomes a catalyst in other areas of not only individuals’ mental health but also how organisations view mental health as a topic too. Being at the centre and heart of that is the calling I would have asked for.

Arjun Kumar – Facilitator

“There is nothing noble being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Winston Churchill

As I sit down to write this there is the sense of hesitation about the way I articulate my story. I have shared it via various channels before and openly talk about my mental health issues where appropriate, so it’s less about the sharing but more now coming to terms with ‘my story’ being simply just that: ‘a story.’

This is not to lessen the significance of my journey or anybody else who’s travelled the depths battling for positive mental health, for me it’s finally the recognition that I can let go of it – it’s been a heavyweight to carry for so long and really became the lens through which I viewed everything else…

It seems relevant given this International Men’s Day, to start with my father – who left my mother, brother and I when I was five years old. Of course this did not happen overnight, we grew in an environment filled with anger, stress, fear, worry, sometimes domestic violence or abuse, insecurity….there were money issues, my father’s playing away and other shady dealings. My mum was left to bring up 2 young boys with no support – she had her own personal issues too, like any young woman of mid-late 20’s.

My father and I had a scattered relationship since then and he passed when I was 30 from various things but mainly triggered by a terrible relationship to alcohol, cigarettes, food and ultimately, himself. I’d forgiven him by then, coming to terms that we all do our best with what we have. His father also passed from alcohol related problems. The old saying ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’ is true and now firmly backed up by neuroscience and epigenetics.

For many years I too was just like my father. I looked up to him – he was charming, drove nice cars, had businesses and was always the life of the party – subconsciously I was wired to mirroring his behaviours and habits.

And over the years, the behaviours served me – I wanted to just go out and have fun without any regard for my health, career, wellbeing or anyone around me. I’d regularly get into fights or debt or miss work or let people down. The word ‘narcissist’ seems fair. University was a blur of excess and upon graduating in 2009 I went to Ibiza for the summer. Four months of battering myself…thinking it was what I wanted for fun, all the while pushing away and distracting myself from myself.

I went back the next summer, 11 friends, a beautiful villa and an abundance of drugs waiting for our arrival – we hit it hard. It was during this week that it all got too much for me. My life was out of control and for the first time, in an Ibiza super club, I asked the question ‘why’ and the answer was ‘me.’

Since then, it has been a slow and painful process of coming to terms with the fact that I had been the architect of the mess I was living – that my dominant thoughts, feelings and emotions are directly linked to my external world – for so long I played the victim card, but it was becoming more agonisingly apparent that I had responsibility over my conduct and situation. This was heavy and caused a lot of turbulence within for so long.

Eventually making peace with myself, at least in short bursts, and with anyone that I’d hurt knowingly or unknowingly, was helpful to do this inner work. For days and weeks I’d not see anybody for fear of being judged, mainly by myself. It seemed like I’d take 2 steps forward and 3 steps back as I’d uncover another truth or memory of my actions that were so visceral and real in the moment.

Becoming aware of the nature of the mind that got me into the chaos I was living, allowed me to begin making small changes, to start choosing what to think about. Noticing my reactivity albeit after the situation, enabled me to put into practice new responses. This became supportive in living with a little more intention, to be a little better than I was before.

And this has been going on since 2010. Talking has helped. Books, podcasts, retreats, meditation and contemplation. Journaling I feel has been the most important tool for me, along with meditation. Talking and sharing the story. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and not trying to be perfect has meant that I live life a bit more freely now, less self-judgment and criticising or blaming myself.

I decided in 2018 that I wanted, rather needed to be in the space of mental wellbeing in some capacity. Given meditation and mindfulness have been the tools for my recovery and provided me some peace of mind, I trained as a mindfulness-based stress reduction facilitator – which aims to help people learn about their relationship to stress and eventually change it.

I supported people trying to quit smoking, mainly through the pandemic – it was eye-opening and the conversations often went past behaviour change techniques to general mental health challenges that came with lockdown and everything else going on. I knew at that point that I wanted to work more directly within mental health. So, I am thankful to be part of the MHaW facilitation team on many levels – the desire to support and serve people, to be able to talk about mental health and be part of an organisation with a mission to touch the hearts and minds of the many.

Alejandro Goiri Landaeta – Facilitator

The first vivid memory I have of my interest in psychology dates from somewhere around 25 years ago in middle school. My school back in Maracaibo (Venezuela) had recently rehashed the curriculum to add French and Psychology as subjects and I was very excited about that.

Looking back, I guess that gave young Alejandro the opportunity to look inward and try to understand the world and the people around him. Once I entered that world, I could not go back.

Eventually, psychology became the glasses through which I decided to view the world around me.

When I was 16 I bought my first biography of Freud and at age 17 I was accepted to Rafael Urdaneta University to study Psychology. To this date, the news of having passed the admission exams is one of my happiest memories.

Two things caught my attention immediately on day one in university. Firstly, there were only five men in a classroom of over 60 women. I can’t say I complained, but I was quickly aware that, for my gender, the place I was in was uncommon. Secondly, I could recognise a broad set of drivers to become a psychologist. Most expressed a wish to “help people”, but I was part of another group. I needed to understand the human mind and why we behave the way we do. My mission was intellectual for the most part. I wanted to put my arms around all of it, seize it.

Like every novel psychology student, it was not long until I started diagnosing everything around me, seeing defense mechanisms in every corner. Looking back, I would love to give that guy a big hug.

Only with time I figured that the psyche is best understood when observed from a place of genuine empathy for each individual human experience. 

After graduation and after having completed all my credits in Clinical Psychology, plus hours of practice on the field with patients, I was ready to be a Psychotherapist. But, as a son of European descendants, I was very aware that there was a larger world beyond my beautiful Venezuela. I decided to do a year of Masters in France and then moved to Spain to continue my studies. Little did I know the complexities of having your education homologated in the European Union. More than complex, it was impossible to have the same degree I had in Venezuela recognised in Europe without a time and financial investment that I was not in a position to make.

It is cliché, I know, but at that time when a door closed up for me, a huge window opened. I applied to a job in recruitment and in no time was working in a corporate environment where my career went into hyper drive. This transition gave me the opportunity to move cities three more times after Barcelona, and brought me all the way to Berlin.

I was given the unique opportunity to also develop in other areas of the People Experience such as Leadership, Learning & Development, Psychological Safety, Applied Improvisation or TA Operations. Seizing the opportunity to change allowed me to work in big and small firms; established or start ups. I recruited and trained people from all five continents and was blessed with being nurtured by a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

All of that without losing the glasses with which I decided to see the world almost 20 years ago.

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