I ask this question a lot. I haven’t counted, but I suspect if I did I’d reach triple figures in an average week. Naturally people ask it of me too, and more often than not, I reply “not bad, thanks.” It’s a social ritual, and – if you think about it – quite a nice one: we’re registering to each other that we’re not just concerned about ourselves.
Much of the time, if I actually thought about it I’d answer differently. I might say, “I’m finding today a bit of a struggle.” Or perhaps I’d say, “truth be told, I’d rather be somewhere else than here.” Like most people, I sometimes find life stressful and draining, and for various periods over the years it’s become a serious problem. But unless I’m talking to my closest friends, I don’t comment on it that often.
According to the mental health campaign Time to Change (which is led by the charities Mind and Rethink), I'm not alone. Its aim is to end discrimination against those experiencing mental health problems, and remove the stigma that accompanies them. Today, it's organising a day of events under the banner of “time to talk”, to persuade more people to have conversations about mental health.
You might know the figure (oft-cited but worth repeating) that one in four people are likely to experience mental illness in any given year; equally, though (as RSA Trustee Andy Gibson, who runs Mindapples, is fond of saying), we all have mental health, even if we don't think of it that way. So, in that spirit, we marked the day at the RSA by having a drop-in breakfast this morning, where staff could find out more about the campaign and have a chat about their week.
Working here, I've always found it a very supportive environment, and there was lots of positivity about the campaign. At the same time, I spoke to one colleague about how difficult it can be to start a conversation about mental health — particularly with someone you don't know closely — without feeling that it's an imposition, or somehow inappropriate.
One of the things I like about Time to Change is that it addresses that challenge by inviting us to focus on the small things: like checking in with friends or colleagues to ask them how they are. It’s about recognising that we can be open about the difficulties that we face going about our lives, and that this openness means we can support each other better. It also helps combat the stigma that currently exists around mental health problems, which my late colleague Emma Lindley wrote about powerfully on this blog.
And giving support doesn’t mean that when someone tells you they’re having a bad day, you have to reply with helpful advice, or try and make them feel better. In fact, often that can be unhelpful. It can just mean acknowledging what they’ve said. (I can offer no better illustration of how important this can be than Brené Brown’s recent RSA Short on the difference between empathy and sympathy).
Of course, great idea though it is to have a day of conversations, what really matters is talking about mental health all through the year. At the RSA, my colleague Becca recently has been organising Randomised Coffee Trials for staff (an idea that originated at NESTA). Each week, everyone participating agrees to meet with someone, drawn at random, for a coffee to talk about anything they like.
This week my match is Theresa, our HR manager. We get on really well, so it won’t be difficult finding things to talk about. All the same, I’ll try and remember to listen carefully when I ask her how she’s doing – and be honest in return. If you try doing the same, why not let Time to Change know how you get on?
Sam Thomas is the RSA's project engagement manager. He's @iamsamthomas on Twitter. For more information on how to get support with mental health problems, visit Time To Change's list of help and support services.