Mental health champion aiming to normalise subject in the workplace

Published on
23 December 2021
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Lisa is one of The Cumberland’s team of mental health and wellbeing champions.

Their mission is to be a first point of contact, support and information for any of the team facing a life crisis or mental health difficulties.

MHWC - Lisa Birdsall.jpg

There are nine in the team, and all are ordinary employees who have had some special training for their extra voluntary role.

“We were originally called mental health first aiders,” says Lisa who is an operations assistant working in the mortgages department at the building society’s Carlisle headquarters.

We are trying to normalise the subject of mental health and get a culture within the business where people feel they can open up and ask for help.

The champions undertake training through Carlisle and Eden Mind and Mental Health First Aid England.

Lisa was drawn to the role because of her own experiences with mental illness.

“I personally have suffered with mental health issues since my late teens,” she says. “I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder] aged 31 in 2014.”

Lisa also survived the suicide of her brother Stephen in 2015.

Today she has a successful career with The Cumberland. She lives in Harraby with her husband Jonny and their two children aged 10 and 11.

She understands how to manage both her own mental health issue, and the trauma of her loss. And she has built up strategies to maintain her wellbeing.

These are hard won achievements. Now she wants to make sure others facing mental illness, trauma, and bereavement have help close at hand – and feel empowered to ask for it.

Lisa grew up in Cleator Moor and says she struggled with self confidence as a child.

“When I was 16 my best friend and her mum and dad died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in their home,” she says.

“I was always on the edge. My moods were always erratic and when that happened it really sent me into a spiral of depression. That had a knock-on effect on my self-image and I developed an eating disorder. It was a massive trigger for things that were underlying already.”

Lisa saw a counsellor but continued to be unwell.

“When I was 19, I actually made an attempt on my own life,” she says. Counselling failed to prevent her becoming more insular and cut off from others.

“I would get invited to places and cancel at the last minute. The thought of actually having to get ready and go out and put a face on takes so much energy, and I didn’t have that. So, it becomes a vicious circle. At that point I was diagnosed with normal depression.”

Periods of relative wellness followed but when Lisa was 26 the birth of her daughter brought on post-natal depression.

“It went on forever and in the end I said, this is not post-natal depression. It went on for two years.

“When hormones get involved when you are already chemically unbalanced in your mind it can be a catalyst.”

It was another five years before Lisa was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type two.

She explains: “With bipolar [disorder] type one you have more manic episodes. I have only had one episode of mania and psychosis – that is a scary place to be.

“With bipolar [disorder] two, you are more depressive. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed with having two kids under two.

“My midwife came round and said I was completely out of character, and she was really worried, and she got me to the doctor and got me onto antidepressants.

“I was frightened more because of the kids, because I knew how dark I had been in the past.”

When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lisa says; “At first I thought right, brilliant. I now had answers to all of these issues I had been having.

“But it was also overwhelming at the time, because I thought where do I go now, what do I do, what does this mean for me?”

Lisa was treated with a series of medications which she says were very sedating.

“It’s difficult to get a good balance and I found that I was numbed. I put on a lot of weight.

“It took all sense of my personality and who I was, away. I slept all the time. I was missing turning up to collect the kids from school because I was comatose, it was scary.”

A year after her diagnosis, and while she was still very ill, Lisa’s brother Stephen took his own life aged 34. He was her only sibling.

“There was just the two of us,” she says. “He struggled as well with his mental health. He was on anti-depressants when he died and was going to a counselling service but wasn’t getting much out of it.

“I was deeply entrenched in my illness. And when that happened it pulled the rug out from under me again.

“It was very sudden. We knew he was struggling, we just didn’t know to what extent. He wasn’t as open about it as I am, he didn’t like talking about this stuff.”

A change in her normally well-groomed brother rang alarm bells.

“I remember really clearly the last time I saw him. It was two weeks before he died. He didn’t look like himself at all. He was very proud of his appearance, but he just looked different,” she says.

I remember saying to him, I’m always here if you ever need to talk about anything. I didn’t push it. Who’s to say, if I had pushed it, would he be here now? It’s a regret that will live with me for the rest of my life.

“He didn’t leave a note so there are lots of unanswered questions that you have to learn to make peace with, otherwise it will torture you for the rest of your life.

“It took me three years to begin to come out of that deep dark hole after he died.”

In 2018 Lisa took the decision to come off her bipolar disorder medication.

“I had a really good support network,” she says. “I wondered if a lot of grief would hit me because I had been numbed for so long. I didn’t know where I would end up without it, but I tapered it off.”

The move was a success and now Lisa uses a variety of techniques including some from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to keep well.

They include using a journal to help stay aware of how she is doing.

“It’s on the Mind website and it adds a level of self-awareness. I will think, ok I’m struggling today, why is that? When you see it down in black and white, you can see where you need to work. It’s a good tool.”

She also uses a red, amber and green ‘temperature check’ system.

“On green everything is fine, through to red which is being in crisis and you need to take stock and reach out.

“A little sign that I’m getting to amber is if I’m easily irritable. Red for me is really despondent, and I don’t care. I try not to let myself get to that feeling. When I get to the irritable stage, I catch it there.”

Lisa has a toolkit of remedies, to put herself back on track.

“For me, it can be reading a book because that takes me into another realm or sticking my headphones on and singing. They are distraction techniques.

“You just need to know when you are getting to that point and need to take action, and to know what works for you.”

Having made huge progress with her mental health, Lisa applied for her current job.

“I wanted to challenge myself and get a full-time role again. I saw this job with The Cumberland and thought, I’m going to go for it.”

In the interview she was asked a question which presented her with a dilemma – to be open about mental illness or not.

“I didn’t mention it on the application form but in the interview my now line manager asked me – what’s the most impressive thing you have done in the last 12 months?

“Being totally honest I said, being sat here in this interview. And I mentioned my brother. I walked out thinking I haven’t got that job.”

But she did get the job, and later when she needed to tell her manager about her own illness, that was also positively received.

“I needed to go on a medication for my back and my GP said there was a risk it could make me a bit manic.

“I had to tell my line manager in case people started wondering, what’s happened to Lisa. It was scary but honestly, he gave me the best response ever. He just said, ok, tell me what manic looks like for you so we can recognise what’s happening.”

In fact Lisa suffered no adverse reaction, but the incident convinced her even more strongly of the value of acceptance and awareness in the workplace.

Now she is using everything she has learned and experienced to help others. As a mental health and wellbeing champion she is available to meet and talk with colleagues at work.

“I never offer advice or share pain,” she says. “We can signpost to professional help. But it’s mostly about listening openly and without judgement. And they know they are not going to be judged by me.”

MHWC - Vicky Mills (Left) - Lisa Birdsall (Right).jpg

The Cumberland team decided to call themselves mental health and wellbeing champions rather than mental health first aiders. “We felt the term ‘first aid’ sent the wrong message – that we were just there for people who have reached crisis point,” says Lisa. “We want to be there for people at any point they need support.”

As for herself, Lisa says she is ‘in recovery’ or ‘in management’ – the latter when she’s struggling and having to use her wellness techniques more.

“I feel like I’m on top of things,” she says. “I have so much more self-awareness now than I did 10 years ago. I do have bad days. In the past I would perpetuate it and it would turn into a week and then a month. Now I can park it.”

Lisa is committed to helping develop a supportive and accepting environment about mental health at The Cumberland, but she would also like to see these changes becoming widespread.

“I have a pipe dream; by law businesses must have a physical first aider for every 50 employees. I would like to see the same law brought in for mental health first aiders,” she says.

“The more we talk the more it is normalised. I want to smash that stigma away, then people will feel safe to open up and ask for help.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues in this article, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk

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