Image for Changing minds: 20 mental health leaders supporting the nation’s wellbeing

Changing minds: 20 mental health leaders supporting the nation’s wellbeing

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we celebrate 20 people who, in diverse ways, are making a difference to the wellbeing of millions. Discover their projects, and see which may be helpful to you

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we celebrate 20 people who, in diverse ways, are making a difference to the wellbeing of millions. Discover their projects, and see which may be helpful to you

Previous generations would have struggled to imagine it: whether on TV, social media or in the pub or the park, mental health is increasingly being discussed across society. Though much remains to be done, the once prevalent stigma around the topic is rapidly disintegrating.

It’s a positive and remarkable shift, and one that is much needed. Mental health charities report that in any given week, one in six of us will experience a common mental health problem, while one in four will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year.

But mental health isn’t just about illness, it’s also about what we can do to nurture and sustain our wellbeing; getting the crucial help we need in difficult times and crises, while also finding the insights, tools and communities that can support our resilience and personal growth.

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To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we’ve uncovered 20 inspiring people whose work is dedicated to just that. Whether it’s through apps, books and films, encouraging people to spend more time in nature, creating communities of support, leading educational campaigns, or harnessing the power of creativity, these pioneers are dedicated to helping others to thrive.

Discover their projects below

1. Walking, talking, sharing: Bryony Gordon

Convinced of the power of bringing people together so they feel connected, journalist Bryony Gordon launched Mental Health Mates, a network for people who are experiencing mental health challenges. Members meet regularly to walk and share their thoughts, without fear or judgement. The initiative was inspired by Gordon’s own experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder, bulimia, addiction and depression, all of which she talks frankly about on social media.

Image: Pal Hansen

2. Improving psychology for all: Keisha York

Ethnic ‘minoritised’ groups are underrepresented in psychiatry and psychology, and this is a missed opportunity for the profession and for patients alike, believe those at The Black and Minority Ethnics in Psychiatry and Psychology (BiPP) Network.

The body was established by Keisha York when she had this realisation during her own training as a psychologist.

Since 2019, the BiPP network has aimed to tackle the disparity by hosting events about careers in mental health, educating on how to diversify the curriculum and campaigning about racial disparities when it comes to mental health.

Image: BiPP Network

3. Birding as a way back from a breakdown: Joe Harkness

When his mental health took a dangerous turn eight years ago Joe Harkness found that, while education brought some insight and counselling was useful, nothing helped like being in nature – particularly watching birds. The special educational needs teacher began a blog, Bird Therapy, as a kind of “cathartic journaling” of his recovery and went on to release a book of the same name to help inspire others.

Image: Luke Massey

4. The nature of depression: Isabel Hardman

As a top political journalist, Hardman wrote much more about the latest manoeuvres in Westminster than the topic of mental health. That all changed in October 2016, when she opened up about a breakdown she suffered due to post-traumatic stress disorder. She credits spending time outdoors with being able to recover from the experience, and has written a book, The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind, to share what she learned.

Image: Isabel Hardman

5. Getting the community talking: Shuranjeet Singh

After experiencing mental health challenges while studying, Shuranjeet Singh did not feel confident in approaching people in his Punjabi community for help at the time. But later on, he realised that others who may be suffering were doing so without access to the support structures he benefitted from while at university.

So, Singh launched Taraki, a campaign to work with Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health and help break the stigmas around discussing such topics. The word Taraki – a verb found in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindu – means ‘to progress’.

Image: Taraki

6. Steps towards happiness, backed by research: Mark Williamson

Action for Happiness began as an idea scrawled on a piece of paper and has grown into a mass participation movement, with hundreds of thousands of members who take part in a wide range of activities. Led by Williamson, and drawing on the latest scientific research, the organisation encourages followers to take practical action to help build a happier society. Newcomers to the organisation could check out its free 10 Days of Happiness programme, or try its app, which offers daily happiness ‘nudges’.

Image: Action for Happiness 

7. Baking, broadcasting and braving anxiety: Nadiya Hussain

Nadiya Hussain stole the hearts of the nation when she won The Great British Bake Off in 2015. But behind the scenes, the mother-of-three was experiencing extreme anxiety and debilitating panic attacks, challenges she has faced since childhood. Four years later, Hussain decided to open up about her mental health issues, and filmed her treatment for a critically acclaimed documentary Nadiya: Anxiety and Me.

Image: Chris Terry 

8. A stand against suicide: Simon Gunning

Every week, 125 people in the UK take their own lives. And 75 per cent of all UK suicides are by men. These stark stats are why The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) exists. Led by Simon Gunning, it has been needed more than ever during the pandemic: taking an extra 130,000 calls to its free, confidential and anonymous helpline, as well as seeing a 100 per cent uptick in web visits. Recent features on CALM’s site include an exploration of male body image, and tips by international rugby player and CALM ambassador, Joe Marler, about finding the words to express emotion.

Image: CALM

9. Beyond the prescription pad: Dr Radha Modgil

Knowing that singing can relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and that group singing releases chemicals that can make us feel happier, Dr Radha Modgil is keenly aware of the transformative power of projects such as the Bee Vocal Choir in Manchester. Held in the city’s Bridgwater Hall, the choir offers a creative release for people who are experiencing, or have experienced, mental health challenges.

Modgil, an NHS GP, broadcaster and wellbeing campaigner, is one of the UK’s leading champions of social prescribing. This year, with the National Academy for Social Prescribing, she launched a social media campaign, #OneGoodThing, to share tips for activities in local communities that can boost people’s wellbeing.

10. Mental fitness for high-pressure situations: Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones is no stranger to high pressure situations. While serving in Afghanistan, his quick thinking saved the lives of colleagues in an aircraft disaster, which left Jones with life-changing injuries. Along with David Wiseman, he went on to set up the social enterprise Peak State, which developed the popular UK mental fitness site HeadFIT, and which has the backing of Prince Harry.

The royal has also expressed support for the pair’s more recent mental fitness toolkit created with not-for-profit Fortem Australia, which aims to lessen the impact of first responders’ high-pressure roles by building their mental resilience.

11. Empowering young minds: Emma Thomas

As the chief executive of the YoungMinds charity, Emma Thomas recognises that there has been a much-needed shift in the conversation around mental health. But, she is also keenly aware of the acute ongoing need to support children and young people’s mental health.

Support can be difficult for young people to access, which is where YoungMinds comes in. Its site includes articles such as ‘supporting a friend with their mental health’, a section about mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, and also runs a dedicated helpline for people who are worried about a young person in their care.

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12. Shedding the stigma: Mike Jenn

It’s important mental health work that’s being done behind closed doors: the doors of sheds in particular. Loneliness among older people disproportionately affects men, and this isolation can have huge knock-on impacts on both mental and physical health. So bringing together groups of men to do woodwork together – as well as chat and share experiences – is one way to tackle the issue. The men’s sheds movement began in Australia before taking off in the UK, thanks to the head of the UK Men’s Sheds Association, Mike Jenn.

Image: Men in Sheds

13. Talking to men about mental health: Alex Holmes

When Alex Holmes first had the idea for his podcast, Time To Talk with Alex Holmes, he found it a wrench to open up about his own mental health. Now, as a mental health guide and trainee therapist, he has found the words – and then some. As well as building up a bank of practical tools to support men with their mental health, Holmes released his first book, Time to Talk: How Men Think About Love, Belonging and Connection, this year.

Image: Andy Commons Images

14. Riding the parenthood rollercoaster: Sara Campin

“The transition from being a strong independent career woman, to a mother whose focus was nappies, sleep routines and night feeds, was one of the most challenging life adjustments I had ever been through,” says Sara Campin. Consumed by feelings of failure compounded by the sense she was completely alone in her turmoil, Campin went on to channel those dark days into a mental wellness app.

Nourish aims to support those who go undiagnosed and untreated or who are deemed “not ill enough” to receive tailored support from the NHS. Officially one in five women suffer perinatal mental health issues, but research suggests that 42 per cent of mental health problems in new mothers fail to be picked up by a doctor or midwife. “Even now when my kids are six and eight, I turn to the tools on the app daily, to support me through the highs and lows of parenting,” Campin tells Positive News.

Image: Nourish app

15. True insight: Beth Ingram

“We don’t save people – we help people realise they have value.” These are the words of Beth Ingram (pictured left in the centre), who founded Hearts and Minds: the UK’s only peer-led charity and service for young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Its national community is run entirely by young people with lived experience of mental health challenges. The inspiration for Hearts and Minds came from Ingram’s own experience of being unable to find support from people her own age while grappling with a mental health crises.

Image: Hearts and Minds

16. Healing in the Anthropocene: Craig Foster

How do we cope with the trauma of the climate crisis? The hit Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher goes some way to answer this question. It tells the story of the unusual bond between Craig Foster and a wild octopus he encountered while freediving, and how this experience led to Foster’s emotional and intellectual growth.

The South African documentary filmmaker and naturalist is also founder of the Sea Change Project, a community of scientists, storytellers, journalists and filmmakers who are dedicated to protecting the ocean. ‘Remember you are wild’, reads the intriguing message on the network’s homepage.

Image: Ali Abdul Rahman

17. Learning from survivors: Akiko Hart

All of the National Survivor User Network’s (NSUN) staff members and trustees have lived experience of mental ill-health – and Akiko Hart is no exception. Hart draws on her challenges of depression and intrusive thoughts in leading NSUN, which is a network of more than 5,000 people and groups who have survived trauma and want to change things for the better.

18. From the heart, to help others: Poorna Bell

When her husband tragically took his own life in 2015, the last thing Poorna Bell expected was to become a mental health campaigner. But after a powerful essay she wrote went viral, she became exactly that. In her insightful, highly personal style, Bell now works to raise awareness about topics such as suicide, addiction and mental health. In her latest book Stronger, Poorna – who is also a competitive powerlifter – explores both mental and physical empowerment in women.

Image: Alexandra Cameron

19. Black minds matter: Agnes Mwakatuma

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black people at the hands of police officers, as well as the sometimes-violent clashes at Black Lives Matter protests formed the backdrop to the creation of the Black Minds Matter UK (BMMuk) charity.

Agnes Mwakatuma and her co-founder Annie Nash envisioned: “An organisation where Black people can receive the healing that they deserve.” Following Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, the pair launched a crowdfunding campaign to allow black individuals and their families to access free mental health services run by professional black therapists. After raising nearly £550,000, they set up the charity to try to ensure that the support continues.

Image: Black Minds Matter

20. Becoming aware via facial hair: Brendan Maher

Movember – the growing of moustaches during the month of November ­– began as a fun way to raise money for charity and quickly snowballed into a global phenomenon. It has a serious side though, elevating conversations about all sorts of men’s health challenges, and Brendan Maher is leading the charge when it comes to men’s suicide awareness.

Through Movember, he leads prevention programmes around the globe, describing his “passion for stopping men from dying too young”.

Featured image: Alex Holmes, photographed by Andy Commons Images

If you’re experiencing mental health problems or need urgent support, there are lots of places you can go to for help. For details of organisations such as the Samaritans and Mind, visit this list of support services

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