A few weeks ago I posted a blog talking about my battle with my mental health. I was nervous about it, but ultimately hoped that my story would help others realise that they are not alone. But since posting it, a couple of people have mentioned that some might see this admission as a sign of weakness, particularly if I ever wanted to go into leadership and this has rankled on me. It’s rankled on me a lot; it’s made me angry and it’s brought me down and feel those feelings of worthlessness. But in a moment of clarity, I thought I would answer those critics, and write about why my illness and the life I’ve led has made me far from weak, and why actually, those perceived ‘faults’ can actually be strong leadership qualities.
- She must have had/need lots of time off work? No, actually I’ve had relatively little time off work, the odd day here and there. Instead I have learnt to balance my mental health and my work day. In fact I’m an expert at balancing the two. Actually, I’m so good at it, that I can help others think about how they can balance their time, give advice on how to prioritise what is important, but still make sure that wellbeing is taken into consideration.
- She must be an emotional wreck. Funnily enough no. Like anyone I’ve occasionally had a little cry, but normally in private and because, like most, I’ve allowed something to get on top of me a bit and also, hang on, it’s ok to release a little emotion sometimes. But what my illness has allowed me to do, is spot in others when they might be slipping. I can notice when people are feeling over-stressed, tired or just generally a bit low, and I know the right thing to say, the thing that will make it better.
- But she needs therapy to cope. At times, yes, but what is that to anyone else, it doesn’t affect my work. The therapy has actually taught me some valuable lessons. I’ve tried therapies such as Compassion Therapy, CBT and holistic approaches such as Mindfulness, all of which a few years ago I would have laughed at and scorned. But I tried them, and they worked and I don’t really care if other people think it’s funny and ridiculous. I’ve learnt to try things, to take out the good bits, the things that work and take out what doesn’t. I’ve learnt that you can never say never and that things that you never thought in a million years would work, sometimes do. I’ve learnt about trial and error and learning to look at problems from a new and different perspective and I’ve come to understand that ‘we’ve always done it this way’ can be a damaging mindset to have. And I’ve learnt how to communicate, I’ve learnt how to express clearly and effectively what I think and feel.
- I’ve learnt the importance of support. I know where I felt supported and where I didn’t. If someone else felt like I had at my lowest, then I would know what strategies could be put in place to make sure that the colleague felt that they were understood and that foundations could be laid to help that colleague keep working, but with compassion and understanding of their needs.
- She’s a single mum too; virtually unemployable. I trained to be a teacher whilst supporting two children. I learnt how to balance a hectic work life with children’s needs. I can manage a budget alone, making sure the essentials are paid for, whilst ensuring that everyone is happy and comfortable. I’ve had to be the one who shows care and love and encourages fun, whilst also being able to discipline and discuss serious issues when required. I’ve learnt to have a different face for different times, but to balance them so that neither one takes over the other. I have managed strict routines whilst also encouraging ambition and individuality. And I’ve done all that pretty much single handed.
- But the single mum thing means she’s flighty. I’ve stuck at it and made the best of a bad situation, and actually, I think I’ve done the right thing, I’ve not kept struggling on in relationships in a desperate attempt to hold it together, like so many do. I’ve realised that life would be calmer and happier for me and my children if we were out of that situation. Children are happier in any family unit where there is calm and happiness – my daughter told me that. So, to me that’s a great skill, weighing up the options and deciding what is best in the long run – not what people perceive to be right. I’ve one at university and one on the way to university. I did that. That’s resilience.
- But it’s easy to use mental illness as an excuse. I’ve never once used it as an excuse and in fact because of the general stigma about mental illness, I’ve almost had to battle that bit harder. At times when it has been hard, I’ve had to adapt. My children and I have become more of a team, we do what is best to hold the unit up, not worry that an individual might be having difficulties. We help them on their way, we help them to get themselves back up again. I’m glad that my own kids have that understanding within them, and every great leader should know the old saying, ‘you are only as good as the team that you lead.’ Strong leaders encourage and support, they understand they are nowhere without the team they are there to help mould, to hold up high and be there for.
So, please don’t ever tell me I am weak. Don’t ever tell me I shouldn’t admit to having a mental illness, or being a single mother, or all the things that are perceived to be weaknesses, because in many ways they make me stronger and more of a natural leader than others. The best leaders admit their failings and show what they have done to overcome them, to become who they are. They support others through the bad times, they encourage new ideas and communication.
When I wrote about my mental illness, I had many, many messages from people in a similar position. Some of these people were themselves leaders and yes, I had messages from people who were very high up in the food chain. What I found sad, was that they couldn’t talk about their illness, because of the perceived weakness in having it. I’m personally astounded that in this day and age, there is still this stigma from supposed intelligent people.
Life isn’t a straight line, and there are many unexpected curves. It’s what you do to move on and the skills you learn along the way that matter. Maybe one day I will want to be a school leader, because actually, it’s something I think I would be good at and I hope that my many strengths and abilities would be taken into consideration far more than the word ‘mental illness.’….and let’s be honest it shouldn’t even be a factor in the first place.