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08 October 2019

‘The importance of admitting when we are struggling with our mental health’: An open letter

Thursday 10 October is World Mental Health Day, an international day raising awareness of the importance of looking after our mental health, and encouraging people to talk about it, even when afraid to do so. The theme for this year's mental health day is suicide prevention.

Mental health conditions are very common. In Bristol, more than 40,000 people have a diagnosis of depression, nearly 7,000 children and young people are estimated to have a diagnosable mental health problem, and suicide rates remain significantly higher than the national average. 

University Hospitals Bristol is one of the five largest employers in Bristol employing over 11,000 people that together help provide care for the people of Bristol and beyond. Mike Sheppard is the workplace psychological wellbeing lead for the Trust and below he talks openly about his own experiences of dealing with mental health issues, and the importance of speaking out, even if you're afraid to do so:

Mike Sheppard

"We in the NHS are incredibly generous at supporting others when they struggle physically or mentally, and we encourage them to "prioritise their wellbeing", and yet how often do we grant ourselves that same necessity?

Before working in mental health, I worked for three years in HM Prison Service. Every day I would drive to work, walk through nine locked gates and sit in a room of ten sex offenders to facilitate a national programme where we unpicked every detail of their offences, to try and change their behaviours.

Very quickly the content started to have a serious impact on my mind. I felt sick at the thought of going to work, became snappy with my friends and family, and started to struggle to get thoughts out of my head about offences I had heard about.

Put simply, I felt crap, almost all the time for three years. Funny stuff stopped being funny to me. I felt disengaged from my life and uncomfortable in my skin. And it felt like my brain would never stop churning round negative thoughts, which was completely exhausting. I even had to spend £100 on a fitted mouth-guard as I would grind my teeth whilst I slept; a poor investment given I literally chewed through it in a matter of months. (I'm still proud of that!)

All the while this was going on though; I continued to take pride in being regarded by friends as 'a good support' and 'a mate who could listen to problems.' However, I was terrible at noticing when my own mood was diving down, and even worse at actually doing anything to help myself.

I felt ashamed and fearful that I would look weak, and was terrified of being seen as attention-seeking.

I had grown comfortable in my role of supporting others with their problems, and didn't want to let them down or be a burden to them by suddenly prioritising myself.

And ultimately, it just felt uncomfortable asking for help. So, like many of us, I didn't share my struggles or seek support, and this hideous situation only worsened over the next three years as I tried my best to just ignore it.

I am very pleased to say things did change.

There was no light-bulb moment for me that I can share. It was more of a gradual realisation that I wasn't happy with my head, and an acceptance that other people might just have tools, techniques and patience to help me, if I'd only give myself permission to ask.

Since that time I am proud to say I have had counselling; sitting down 1:1 with someone in a safe space to just talk through how things affected me. At first I felt stupid and selfish for "wasting the counsellor's time", but they helped me through those negative thoughts.

I've also had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT); which helped me notice negative thoughts I was having and taught me how to view them differently, as well as looking at unhelpful behaviours I was using like avoidance. Supported by my GP, I also tried different anti-depression medications for a number of years which I found helpful when used alongside CBT.

You may be asking why I am sharing my story. I leapt at the chance to write this piece and to hold my hand up as someone who has struggled with their mood; but that has taken time and effort. Working in the NHS we are so quick to support others, but it took time for me to practice what we preach and grant myself that same permission.

Ultimately, no-one in this world is immune from having struggles with their mental health. That includes you, and it includes those you idolise and look up to, regardless of their job, gender, race, or age.

Struggling; admitting things don't feel good; accepting you need support - none of these are signs of weakness. They are a demonstration of a desire for change, a hunger to improve your circumstances. That is to be praised and encouraged.

Through my own journey I believe that our experiences, both good and bad, shape who we are. As the workplace psychological wellbeing lead for an NHS Trust, some reading this may question my credibility, particularly when I reveal that I still have bad moments with my mood.

My personal feeling is that I wouldn't be doing this work now without those experiences. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this moment to share my own experience in the hope it might inspire anyone struggling to do something positive about it by prioritising yourself.

Wherever you are in your own journey, remind yourselves that you are as important as anyone else. So allow yourself the focus.

Thank you for reading."

If you would like more information or guidance on how to cope with mental health conditions, there are a range of resources online via and

There are also a range of therapy services available either face to face, over the phone, online, or in groups; use the NHS website or speak to your GP to find out more.

To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), or email