Making Prevention Happen: Our Conversation with Mark Rowland, CEO, Mental Health Foundation

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Prevention of poor mental health is not only possible, but urgently needed.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to celebrate 70 years of the Mental Health Foundation, whose CEO, Mark Rowland, participated in our annual Mental Health panel discussion earlier this year. The presentations last week were both moving and positive: determined in their new strategy ‘Making Prevention Happen.’ For me, the most powerful message in this year’s Mental Health Day campaign was that suicide is preventableThat is, in my view, quite a difficult idea to comprehend, particularly if you have been bereaved by suicide or had a close friend or family member attempt suicide. In a workplace environment, the impact of suicide or a suicide attempt on a team or a business can also be deep and long-lasting.

Mental health is not an easy subject to talk about. Whether as a theoretical discussion, an awareness raising activity, you are worried about someone in your life, or someone is considering suicide personally, starting the conversation with anyone about this subject remains taboo and incredibly difficult. Often this is because people are worried about how others will react, or because it is difficult to know what to say.

Eton Bridge Partners have been heavily focused on mental health and workplace wellbeing over the last few years, both from an internal and external perspective, and I like to think that we have done a lot as a business to break down the stigma and isolation felt by anyone living with a mental health condition.

In October, we took the opportunity to talk specifically about suicide, raising awareness not only of risk factors, but also of how to support someone who feels suicidal. Our whole business stopped for a couple of hours to hold a  ‘Tea & Talk’ at our Windsor and London offices, raising money for the Mental Health Foundation, but also undoubtedly strengthening the bonds we have as a team, reminding our people that they are surrounded by colleagues who care about them.

Mental Health Foundation’s view is that prevention should happen long before people end up in crisis, and the workplace is a key part of this, along with schools, community groups and social service provision. I’m delighted that Mark agreed to talk to me about their strategy and share his reflections on mental health as we approach 2020.

OS: Mark, could you share your reflections on where we are now? World Mental Health Day this year felt very different from last, why do you think that is?

MR: Every year, the mental health message is getting stronger and more defined. For us, World Mental Health Day in October, and Mental Health Awareness Week which we coordinate each May are key opportunities to put across key messages whilst attention is on the topic. It perhaps felt different because despite attitudes changing on mental health, suicide is still a subject shrouded in stigma – it isn’t a comfortable subject.

This year we also pushed ourselves – and set-up a media event in Trafalgar Square. We invited a hundred supporters, many of whom had been affected by suicide, to join us to make a giant green ribbon of committed allies holding green umbrellas. After negotiating a clear space with Extinction Rebellion (who were happy to help) we got the shot, and the media attention we wanted. Critically though, we also invited some of those supporters to share their stories, and used the springboard to promote our W.A.I.T tips for supporting someone experiencing suicidal thoughts; .

All of our awareness activities are accompanied by evidence-based calls to action, but this was perhaps more direct, more urgent and more sensitive.

OS: How do you think UK plc is performing on the mental health agenda right now? How much progress is truly being made?

MR: We are at a critical phase for mental health. Put simply, without addressing mental health, lives are at stake, the health of the nation is at risk, and the productivity of the economy and the public services that rely on it are at risk.

We need to see more commitment to action – it is comparatively easy to signal alliance for a cause, but harder to make the changes required to see a difference. If we are to achieve a paradigm shift in mental health – to prevent distress, protect and protect mental health, and achieve social justice for people who experience distress then we need sustained action at every level, all year round. We also need to find better ways to develop and mobilise evidence so that the most effective interventions are taken to scale.

As we come to the end of a general election campaign it’s great to see that every major party has discussed mental health and made manifesto pledges to improve mental health. It’s a sign of progress that mental health is now a mainstream political issue – and we look forward to working with colleagues in the sector to ensure that prevention in mental health continues to be a government priority across the UK.

At the organisational level, we know the evidence supports the development of sustained programmes which become business as usual. Our programmes support businesses where they are – developing bespoke solutions that work with business from first exploratory steps to scale.

OS: In your opinion, what is the direction of travel for mental health? What do you think 2020 will hold?

MR: Naturally, we hope that the focus on mental health continues, and that prevention becomes a clearer part of the narrative. We are at a time when the idea of authenticity is starting to gain traction – and that’s very interesting in mental health terms. In the context of working lives, we’ve seen authors and commentators like Brene Brown, and Professor Amy Edmondson talk more about the value of psychological safety, and of showing appropriate vulnerability. That’s exciting for us – because we need to move the dial on mental health discussions from talking of mental health only as a problem, to a discussion about assets. In a business, mental health is both an individual and organisational asset.

We want to hear more mental health stories – evidence tells us that social contact is critical for addressing stigma – but alongside stories of personal recovery from mental illness, we need to hear stories from people about how they face wider adversities, the things that help, and the things that allow them to stay well. We need to make spaces where the wider, arguably less sterile mental health stories can be heard and appreciated.

We’ve just set the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week for 2020 –Sleep. We last covered sleep in 2011, and the world we live in today is very different than the one we were in then. Sleep is universal – we all do it – and the impact on our mental health of sleep disturbance, and the potential of improved sleep to improve mental health is huge. We’ll be looking at the whole picture this coming May and we look forward to seeing the research results.

OS: The Foundation has just celebrated its 70th anniversary, and what stands out for me in your strategy is the focus on making prevention happen. Could you talk a little about your future strategy?

MR: Absolutely. Effective and widespread prevention in mental health would be a big revolution. It means encouraging and developing the things that protect and improve mental health, whilst reducing and addressing the things that place us at risk of developing mental health problems. These risk and protective factors underpin our ability to manage day to day challenges. It’s relatively easy to talk about personal resilience and the things we can do to improve our own mental health, but the levers that control our chances of good, and poor mental health also lie with organisations, and with government. That’s why we are committed to developing solutions at all levels – scaling programmes informed by evidence, and campaigning for changes in policy and practice that make the difference.

The workplace is a great example of a setting which matters. Prevention is key for everyone, for those at risk, and for those with existing or emerging mental health problems.

A prevention led approach to workplace mental health will work at all of those levels. It’s key that employers support the roughly on in six people who experience mental health problems at any given time – but it is arguably more pressing that workplaces recognise and mitigate psychological hazards, and ensure that the nature of work as a whole protects and promotes wellbeing. We have a checklist that can help guide development of a mental health programme at work, and we are able to put together bespoke programmes through Mental Health at Work.

OS: You are a small organisation – you employ a similar number of people to Eton Bridge Partners – how possible is it for such a small group to drive impactful change?

MR: In one word, partnership.  One of the things that has kept us going for 70 years is our ability to provide the missing link in research, policy or practice. We’ve been the critical component ins some major initiatives throughout the years and effective partnership and alliance building is a key aspect of our ambitions going forward.

We are also in a position to grow our reach and influence. We’ve been hugely fortunate to benefit from legacy income which will allow us to fundamentally change the way we operate, building on the work we’ve done so far to highlight prevention. With increased resource, greater focus, and a climate where more and more people see the value of prevention we’re optimistic that we can chart a bold course over the next five years – so that prevention in mental health is the key focus going forward.

Thank you Mark for taking the time to talk to us about the future of the Mental Health conversation.

You can find out more about the Mental Health Foundation, its strategy, its work and how to support it, here.


Mental Health Foundation

How To Support Mental Health at Work

Tea & Talk – Get involved