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Period Story Podcast, Episode 41: Emma Mainoo, It’s Courageous To Reach Out And Get The Help That You Need

On today’s episode of Period Story, I am so pleased to share my conversation with Emma Mainoo, the founder of Surviving Sundays.

We had a fantastic conversation about mental health, how to get help and how to help anyone around you you think may be in need. And of course, Emma shared the story of her first period! I can’t wait for you to hear this episode!

Emma shared the story of her first period, which coincided with her time at an all girls Catholic convent school.  She said that she really wanted to get her period because for her, it meant that she wasn’t a little girl anymore.

When her period arrived, her feelings towards it changed. She says she finds her periods very limiting, heavy and painful. She says that pain has always been a part of the conversation between her and her friends about periods, so she internalised the message that this was normal.

Emma shared the story of starting Surviving Sundays. She says Sundays used to be the worst day of the week for her. Listen to hear why Emma decided to make Sundays sacred, her best day of the week.

Emma talks about her story of mental health and shares her advice for others who feel as through they’re at their breaking point.  She says that we all have mental health,  so we can all have mental health challenges.

If you know someone going through a mental health challenge, Emma says the most important thing you can do is to go into any conversation with a lack of judgement  and a willingness to listen. Emma says that it’s a strong and courageous thing to reach out and get the help you need. Thank you, Emma!

Get in touch with Emma:

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EMMA’S BIO

Emma is the head of the mental health practice at Utopia, a culture change business that creates more purposeful, inclusive and entrepreneurial cultures for clients.

Emma worked at senior level with global brands for a number of years, which brought great professional reward, but also anxiety and depression. In 2012, she began a healing journey through therapy, self care practices and alternative healing; and in 2018, she decided to share her story of hope and survival through the creation of Surviving Sundays, a storytelling platform that offers hope and inspiration to anyone who is experiencing poor mental health.

In 2019, Emma became a qualified Mental Health First Aid Instructor, and now teaches people to spot the signs of poor mental health and offer solutions within the workplace.

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SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Le’Nise: Welcome to the show.

Emma: Thank you for having me. So really excited to be here.

Le’Nise: Yeah, I’m really excited to have you here. So let’s get started off by getting into the story of your first period. Can you share with us what happened?

Emma: Yeah. So it’s something of a hazy memory now, which is kind of surprising because my periods are always something that are quite memorable, even to this day. I was 14 years old. I remember thinking at the time that I was a late bloomer. I was an all girls very kind of religious Catholic convent school, and everybody kind of led me to believe, I now look back and think, was it true that they had that period? And I had been so wanting my period because then it meant that I wasn’t a little girl anymore. That’s kind of like how I thought about it at the time. Like I was just like really wanting to have my period. And I at this girls school, I remember somebody coming in, might have been a representative from like Tampax or something, giving us tampons, I’ve got a whole story around that. And that was like, we used to wear these purse belts that we put a change in these brown belt with like a zipper. You’d put your change. And there was like a hole that you could click on to your purse belt. It was like in a bright colour, like a pink or yellow. And then you put your tampons into this plastic, kind of like a holder. And I remember walking around with the holder attached to my purse belt like ages, like wanting people to think that I already had my period. Little did I know my period would actually become something that I dreaded, not something that I look forward to. And as often happens, it came on a day where I was at school and it was summertime. 

And we used to wear like there was a summer and the winter uniforms. The summer uniform was like a cotton dress.

It was like an orangey gingham check that allowed my period to kind of spread in full flow. And this was something that we often noticed with girls in school. We might poke fun. We’ll be like, oh, you know, alarmed by the sight of this period. And that’s what happened to me. That was my first period. So on one hand, I was like, yeah, I’ve got my period now. But at the same time, like, it was kind of like shock and like embarrassment around it at the time as well. 

Le’Nise: You got your first period when you were at school. What do you do?

Emma: I can’t really remember.

 I remember going home and telling my mom and just kind of having a conversation around, we’d had it before, but like sanitary pads and what was next. I just remember feeling, like, really quite messy and quite dirty. I don’t remember, those years for me at school were really difficult years where I was bullied at school and ended up changing like in a really important exam year for me. And I do find that with a lot of memories around that time, they’re either really, really memorable or I block them out. So I don’t remember a lot of like dialogue with girls in class around that time, but I do remember getting it. And then like getting like home and being like just wanting to get clean and then using sanitary pads. 

Le’Nise: Why do you think you associated having your period with this feeling of being unclean?

Emma: I don’t know, like I think it’s like there was a smell that was blood, it was visible, I felt sticky, like the whole thing to me just was an age anywhere where your hormones are developing and your body’s changing and you’ve got hair and you’re smelling and you’re having odours where you didn’t really have odours like, you know, a couple of years before. And I just really felt like unclean in that moment. And I guess that’s something really that to this day, like, I obviously accept the fact and expect the fact that I have a period, I’m extra kind of hygienic around it.

Like I’m not somebody that like, I have a relative who embraces and is very kind of like forward thinking when she comes to her period and she loves it and all the things that that it represents for her. But for me is a time where I don’t feel particularly like clean and I want to be extra hygienic.

Le’Nise: OK, so you carry those feelings all through your life.

Emma: Yeah.

Le’Nise: And you mentioned in the beginning that your period was something that you were really looking forward to and then those feelings changed after you got your period.

Can you talk a little bit more on why those feelings changed? 

Emma: Yeah, I mean, for me, both then and now, my periods are incredibly painful, heavy. They’ve been quite limiting in terms of it doesn’t matter what protection is out there. And you see all these adverts with people like rollerblading or like dancing and like you can do everything. Like, that’s not been my experience in, you know, it’s not something that’s got better over time. As I’ve got older, my periods have definitely become heavier. And but the pain that’s associated with them, I know a lot of people have pain, but for me, there have been times when I’ve vomited. I’ve been in quite like careers that have been very performance driven up until recent years. And there have been times where I’ve been like, you know, feeling like I could be on my deathbed, either mentally or physically with different things, whether that’s tonsillitis, whether that, you know, and I would still work even if that was working from home. 

When my period comes, there have been times where that’s just not been possible. Like the pain has been so incredible that I’ve been in very awkward positions in my bed trying to get comfortable, hot water bottles, bath, ibuprofen, all of it. And just not being you know, I had to just, like, wait for it to like end, to cancel plans. I had, I had even last year, like a really important meeting in the City. I had to be at like 9:00 a.m. and I woke up at 5:00 a.m, with like the most incredible pain and nausea. I had a message, my colleague, and say, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it to this meeting. You know, my period is just so painful this morning. I feel really sick. And I don’t know if I can get in yet. I did get there like after a few hours of doing all the things I know I needed to do. But, you know, that has been a big thing for me, the pain.

Le’Nise: And what have you done? You’ve mentioned some of the things that you’ve you’ve done to manage the pain, so hot water bottles being in certain body positions, painkillers. What what have you explored in terms of conversations with doctors about why this pain might be happening for you?

Emma: And this is where I tell you that, you know, unless it’s been about, you know, like a gynae visit or I’ve been to get the contraceptive pill, I’ve never just been to a doctor and said, this pain is so unbearable. What do I do? It’s like it happens. It will happen. I’ll get pain for about a week before the rumblings of pain that tell me it’s coming. I’ll get it the day I get it. It’s unreal. Maybe the second day and then it’s gone and it’s almost like for a month. OK, that’s just what happens. At one point, a doctor suggested the contraceptive pill may help with that. It never did. To be completely honest with you, it didn’t. And a friend I mean, there’s another friend, she and I like our bond, like our common bond is how bad our periods are. A couple of years ago told me about something she’d heard about, which specifically describe the pain. But I’ve never been a big fan of, like, taking medication unless I, I needed to. So it’s not something I’ve explored.

Le’Nise: Why do you think that you haven’t explored it, because if you’ve had these situations where you’ve potentially had to cancel big meetings, you’ve been vomiting, I just wonder sometimes what I’ve what I’ve heard one guest say in the past is like she almost has selective memory when it comes to her period where if you get, for her, she had really bad mood symptoms and she would get through it and then it would just be like her mind would just forget until her next menstrual cycle. What do you think it is for you?

Emma: Yeah, and I mean, I wouldn’t say that mood like my mood definitely alters. It’s really weird, like at this point in my life as well, you know, so many years of having periods. And I still feel like it’s like this week before and go, I feel really sad, like, you know, then I’ll go, oh, it’s my period. Like, it’s some big surprise. It’s not even a selective memory. It’s just, I think, a culture of just going, that’s what happens. And you chat to your friends, they have period pain too, that’s it. And then it’s gone. And then it comes back, you know, in some, it’s not consistently been at the level where, you know, I might need to cancel a meeting, but I’m definitely not going to the gym. I’m definitely not doing anything on the day I get my period this strenuous. And I, you know, by the evening, it’s not an all day, all night. It’s probably like, you know, about five, six hours of a day sometimes, you know, that I would have it from like early morning. And I just kind of go, OK, that’s it, it’s gone now. Get on with whatever I’m doing.

Le’Nise: Where do you think you got this message from that pain was, is a normal part of having a period?

Emma: All around me, all around me, you know, I would I would talk to friends about it and just say my period pain is like unreal. And I would have other friends going, yeah, I have probably two friends that, like, really suffer like I do. But everyone would say they had pain. I’ve never had anybody go, ‘I don’t have any pain’. They either have pain or a really heavy flow. And it’s just something that just seems to be like that is what it is. You know.

Le’Nise: That’s interesting.

Emma: You know, all around me, like that’s always been the conversation. Like my mom had an early kind of hysterectomy because of like the horrendous, like, periods that she was experiencing. And it’s just something I’ve, I expect to accept it as part of, you know, having a period.

Le’Nise: That period having a period means pain. 

Emma: Yeah, yeah.

Le’Nise: A part of my work is, you know, looking at these cultural norms that we, we accept. And it is so common to hear women talk about how much pain they experience. And something I was talking about earlier in the, in the summer was if you look at all of the, so if you look if you say I have two days of period pain every, every cycle, and let’s say you have 12 days, 12 periods a year, that means that across the year you have 24 days where you’re in a lot of pain. 

And I often think that if this was any other condition, we wouldn’t necessarily accept it as much as we do with periods, because we’ve been told that, well, this is normal.

 Women are supposed to have, people with periods are supposed to feel like this when they when they’re on their period because, you know, that’s just what happens. And I just think that if we, if this was any other condition, then, you know, it wouldn’t be accepted. But so many of us, so many women have internalised this message that pain is normal, pain is just, it’s part, it’s our lot. 

Emma: Yeah, yeah, and I think, like when you get a pain, I completely agree with what you’re saying and I’ve heard you say that before and when you say it like that, you’re like, wow. Yeah. You know, if I had a stabbing pain in my leg for 24 days every year, I’d have dealt with that, I think, because it’s almost like, you know what it is. Right. The things that I would go to the doctor for are either the unexplained things or like with my mental health, if I know I need help with that and I could identify it, I would go and see a doctor. With my period, you’re kind of going, OK, I understand this. My body, you know, the uterus. I’m shedding some lining. It’s pushing through. I get it. So I’m not frightened by where is this pain coming from? And therefore, it’s just, you know, I’m able to go, OK, that’s what that is. That’s what that is.

Until in recent years, I must be honest, when I started to think about, you know, becoming a mother and going to see all the specialists I’ve needed to see around those conversations, that’s where I’ve started to get more education and to understand my fertility more and my periods more and what they represent, like that’s the place where I’ve got the most knowledge, but it’s because I’m on my own education and fertility journey.

Le’Nise What areas did you feel like you needed to get education around?

Emma: I think my education has been very poor. I don’t want to, like, look back and point fingers, but I can give context. So I went to a an all girls school, as I’ve said, that was, you know, there were other teachers that weren’t nuns, but there were a lot of you know, it was a convent. So the school was led by by nuns. Principles, the ethos, a lot of the education, the teachers were taught by nuns. And then I lived in a home where my stepfather was much older than my mother, from quite a traditional background. And my mum, again, was Catholic. But again, from an era where things were like not spoken about, really. Definitely sex, reproduction and hormonal health is just not something that we would we would talk about in my house. In fact, you know, if you talked about sex, it was something almost shameful. And the labels around being like sin and bad girl versus good girl and all those things kind of came out. The environment that I was in, I didn’t have sisters.

And so, you know, feelings like, my education about my period came from perhaps magazines or, you know, we had a reproductive health session in school where where we talked about it. But I remember when it came to like, when I started to socialise with people that were at my school, I met other girls and they were talking about tampons. And I very clearly remember conversations about tampons, both in my household and at school, where I was told if I used a tampon, I would no longer be a virgin in the eyes of the Lord, my hymen would be broken and I wouldn’t be a virgin.

And all this kind of inference that it was not, that it was a sexualised thing to have a tampon. So again, even though they’re going, OK, use sanitary pads, because that is like a kind of a more acceptable thing. It still clouds the whole subject in this kind of it’s not a safe or open thing that we talk about and explore options around, if that makes sense to you.

Le’Nise: And also to this, conflating the idea of periods and sex and, yeah, making the tampon seem like a sexual thing. It adds that additional level of shame.

Emma: Yeah. And, you know, we had some, somebody for sure come in as a representative from a, you know, like Tampax or whatever, because I remember having these tampons given to us. But then, you know, whether that was kind of like a school like teacher thing versus a convent thing, because I remember having to, going into Sick Bay is a memory I have quite clearly because my periods were quite bad and painful. There was a thing I don’t know if they still have this in school called Sick Bay, right where you would go, there was a nun and their sister, Dolores, she was really sweet and they were like bunk beds in there and a radiator. And I would often be going into that bunk beds, going into these big feathery duvets, put my back, my bottom against the hot radiator had just to, like, try and beat this pain. But also, you know, just saying and I, you know, just saying like my period so bad and like having these conversations with a couple of nuns around the fact that, you know, tampons were like, we shouldn’t be using them. And also at home, that was a message that was kind of like supported as well. So, you know, this idea that vagina is period and it is sex. Means that actually my, like my sexual organs weren’t something that I kind of got familiar with until my 20s, really. 

Le’Nise: It’s amazing to me that you had the school telling you that tampons were or something to be used because they are connected with sex, I just think that that’s just unbelievable. Actually, it isn’t unbelievable because you hear all these stories about different things that people learn about their bodies and how, you know, there’s just this education that happens so, so often. So as you got older, you left school and you continued to have these these painful periods and this trouble with your, with menstruation. How did you explore what was happening to you?

Emma: I just honestly, I didn’t, it’s just something that became for me, like I knew that I would have some downtime every time that my period came. I remember a girlfriend I’d become quite close to. She was at boarding school and she was so fun. And like we used to hanging out when she came back, like she was the person that said to me, just use a tampon like, I use them. And I remember she coached me. She was sat outside. We were on a weekend in Wales. I think we’d gone with my parents and they’d gone out and she bought me these Tampax minis, which I don’t really see anymore and I would never be using now, like these mini ones, because I couldn’t get a regular tampon in because my, I was just so anxious. She was outside the bathroom door as I was like in the bathroom, like my foot up on the bath. She was like coaching me through using this tampon because I was so anxious, because obviously this was like a naughty thing to be doing. I think I must have been if I was friends with her, I think I met her around about the age of 16, 17. So, you know, I kind of like grew up with this friend. She kind of taught me things about sex and periods. And I wasn’t supposed to know, obviously. And yeah, I mean, that was it. Like in terms of education and exploring periods, I don’t think I’m alone in just knowing that these two just things that happen to us and we just get on and that’s an awful thing to say. But like the pain, the bleeding, that was just it like I didn’t explore it. Like I’m 41. Not a lot of people realise that, some people think I look younger than I am. So I’m 41. I’m 42 this year. There wasn’t an Internet of things then that we went into. There weren’t Instagrammers, you know, you’ve got Smash Hits magazine, maybe you’ve got Just 17 or whatever. And there would be things in there, but there wasn’t a world of information that in fact, it was quite the opposite. It was something you don’t talk about. That was certainly my experience.

Le’Nise: And it’s interesting if you compare what you’ve just been saying about, you know, you don’t talk about, you didn’t talk about these things with actually the work that you do now around mental health and how there’s this greater openness around mental health and more people are willing to talk about their mental health struggles, whether it’s anxiety, depression or anything beyond that. And I’d like you to talk a little bit about your, your step into this area. I know on your website you have a post where you talk about why you started Surviving Sundays. But could you just tell us a little bit more about that for listeners who aren’t familiar with your story?

Emma: Yes. So firstly, I think just to talk about the name Surviving Sundays, I don’t know, people kind of go there thinking it’s about hangovers maybe. And also because today I also talk about sobriety.

But Sunday for me was once the worst day of the week. And that wasn’t just about like workload. It was because I was in recovery from a breakdown I’d experienced. And Sunday represented a day where I’d either spent the day alone because I just couldn’t face being the third wheel with my couple friends or the fifth wheel if they had kids or even just hanging out with friends who were like on their own and just thriving like, life was just really difficult. And I knew that I was going into the office on Monday morning. I worked for a really friendly company then. I was kind of hiding what I’d been through and I knew people would ask me how I felt at the teapoint and I would say, fine, and just try and move the conversation on. So Surviving Sundays represents to me a journey where I went on to make Sundays something sacred. And now that journey and that connection between what was once my worst thing, becoming now my best thing like Sunday, my most favourite. I hear people say they hate Sundays.

I love Sunday, like I love Sundays and I’m protective of them. So that’s, Surviving Sundays is about the journey that I went on. But also, you know, it’s not just about me. It’s a space where I came forward and said, look, you know, I had a breakdown. I had a breakdown in 2012. I came forward, told my story, and I’ve now created a place where other people can share theirs. But like the potted story is that I spent around 20 years of my career working in marketing, whether that’s media or PR or marketing. I worked in that area and anyone who knows and that worked in that world knows that it is performance driven.

That is, you’re not just kind of like delivering the work, whatever that may be, you’re performing yourself, like it’s all about engaging clients, engaging hearts and minds through the work that you’re doing. And that meant me working hard but also playing hard. And what I didn’t know, because I didn’t have the emotional language then or the education was that probably I can identify now like my first mental health problems beginning about the age of 14. I’d had some difficult years in my formative years, in my school years, and this manifested in me, you know, feeling incredibly unhappy, very, very anxious, I then might have just said I was a worrier, but, I mean, I was worrying about big stuff and I was thinking about ways to not be here anymore, ways to harm myself, to not go to school, to not feel the way that I did. And I controlled my food. That was the thing that I did that made me feel like I had some sense of control. That was my only thing. And I ran away from that girl for about 20 years, like, you know, through toxic relationships that kept me distracted from the work on myself. Through work, achievement, work was the place where I knew that I was doing something good because I was, you know, a people pleaser. I threw myself at something and I would achieve and also through going out and like playing that happens in that world. And I thrived on all fronts. But ultimately, I was just suppressing feelings that needed to be addressed. And 20 years later, age 34, a break up that was unexpected in a very serious relationship led to a breakdown. And it wasn’t just about that relationship. It was literally 20 years of demons, switch being flicked and everything coming to me in one moment that I tried to run away from. 

So I had a breakdown. I was out of work for three months, and it meant that when I went into my new job, people there didn’t know me. They didn’t know what I’d been through. They didn’t know that I was coming from a breakdown and I could hide again, which I did for a number of years. So Surviving Sundays was the place where two and a half years ago, I came out really and just said I have had a debilitating breakdown. I was in recovery mode when I stood on the door at 10 Downing Street on an impressive project that to all the world looked like I was like just killing it, you know, and I felt like I was dying inside, you know, I was dying inside on Instagram when I was high kicking my way through, you know, members clubs and bars and parties in Ibiza and all of that, you know. And I just wanted to create a very normal dialogue around what mental health problems can look like and tell my story and be authentic. So that’s, that’s what I’ve done because I felt so incredibly alone. And I was tired of feeling that way and ashamed of the feelings that I had. So that’s why I came out and told my story.

Le’Nise: So having worked in in media marketing as well, so I kind of connected, connect with what you’re saying around it being a job that’s very much about an industry, that’s very much about performance. You perform for your clients. You have to be yourself. You have to be on all the time because, you know, God forbid, you know, your client doesn’t see you at your best. The drinking, the partying, the dinners, the jollies, all of it. And it’s exhausting and I don’t think, I think it’s changed in the last couple of years. But to say that you were depressed or anxious in the time that I was working in, in media, it’s just not a conversation that you would have. And I have seen changes. I don’t work in that industry anymore, but I have seen changes over the last couple of years, in terms of in the trade press and what my friends who still work in the industry talk about. But I just want to talk a little bit more about how you felt like you had to hide it because you had to perform. And I think that people listening who are experiencing the same thing would connect with that. And what would you say to someone who is in the same position and just going through real turmoil inside but feeling like they’re at the breaking point?

Emma: I would say that like a lot of the reason I didn’t reach out when I look back now, wasn’t necessarily because of the perceptions of me that others held, it was me not wanting to acknowledge my problems and having an internalised shame around my feelings. When I did have a conversation at some point with one of my bosses in my media agency, he was so kind, so supportive and recommended, you know, that I went and spoke to somebody, which I did. 

But then knowing that I had great health care plan, I was still frightened of like having therapy through my work plan because I felt like people might know what it was like then, like far more of a serious thing. And I didn’t want to be seen to not do my job. I know that it’s confidential now, obviously. I think at the time I did. I just didn’t trust it enough.

And I think the like the change for me has been, you know, I had a breakdown. It doesn’t mean I don’t have mental health challenges now. And we all can, we all have mental health, so we can all have mental health challenges. Depression and anxiety aren’t just things that happen to those other people out there, who ever those other people might be. We can all be at risk of it. And I think we’re all experiencing it as a result of the pandemic that we’re going through and the crises and conversations around racism. Everybody’s anxious, but I think, you know, saying reach out is really like a big thing to ask of people to reach out at work. Like, you might not be ready to do that, you know. But what I would say is reach out to someone and that someone may be a therapist, that someone may be a trusted friend. I really would recommend, you know, if it’s within your capability. And I say that because I know that therapy can be expensive, although there are more providers and solutions coming along that are better, to get some professional support. It has been the most life defining and life changing thing that I ever did. A friend can hold space for you, a friend can hear you, but friends can become exhausted and also not have the answers or the skills to support you in the right way. So I would say get honest with yourself.

You know, if you’re having days, multiple days where you’re feeling really low and life feels pointless and you feel hopeless, like that is not to be ignored by going out and just going, OK, that’s that’s how I feel, like going out and drinking or working harder or, you know, get honest with yourself is the first thing I would say and find the help that you need.

You know, I don’t believe in, like, people preaching to you that, you know, if you’re drinking too much, like stop drinking immediately, like you got to do things in your own time, in your own way. 

So that’s what I would say.

Le’Nise: Find the help that you need. What are some resources that someone who feels that they are ready to seek that first step of help, what are some resources that they can access? 

Emma: Well, the first thing that I would say is that it’s been a great comfort to me and it still is today to find myself in the stories of others. That might be the first place that you start. So if you have a problem with alcohol, you don’t need to be an alcoholic. Like that’s such a myth to you know, Alcoholics Anonymous is there for people who define themselves as alcoholics. That is true. And there is a thing around admission of that. But you might go and sit in a room where people reflect your experiences, whether that’s eating, whether that’s co-dependency. I went to a help group for some of my co-dependent behaviours. It might be AA. It might be you know, some of these sober circles are coming up. It might be a mental health support group. It might be blogs and places like Mind, the Mind website, I think is phenomenal. It has an A to Z, a comprehensive A to Z guide of all the different mental health conditions that people might experience, plus a blog where stories are shared, Surviving Sundays. You know, I don’t, I’m not plugging it because it doesn’t make me any money. It’s not that to make me famous. It’s there because stories are shared with the hope that somebody might read them, go, wow, that that reflects my experience. So leaning into spaces where you might be seen is a great place to start. That could be that you follow an influencer that kind of speaks your language on a topic, that could be a really good place to start. The other thing that I would say is not to be afraid, especially if you’re starting to experience suicidal thoughts, of reaching out. The Samaritans is there for a reason. It’s a confidential support service with highly trained people who are really warm, really empathetic, who can who can hear you. There are great services like the Samaritans there to support people. So looking into organisations where you can start to have a conversation about the way that you feel by people that might be able to listen and support you.

Le’Nise: And what about the flip side of it, where you might have someone in your life who you can see that there is an issue, but they might be kind of putting on that facade where, you know, you, you on your blog, you use the term high kicking their ways through life on Instagram. That’s what they’re doing by high kicking their way through life. But you know that, you can see that there’s something going on. What would you say to someone who is in that position? How can they have a really sensitive, tender, calm conversation with someone in their life who hasn’t actually acknowledged that they might be there might be an issue?

Emma: Yeah, I mean, I’m in this position now, both as a friend and as a teacher, so in my day to day life, like my whole work life has changed. Now I’m now a Head of Mental Health, at a culture change business called Utopia, where we work with clients every day, teaching employees how to have supportive conversations with each other. 

And the first thing I will say is the most important thing that you can go into any conversation with is a lack of judgement and a willingness to listen. We so often think when we go into a conversation about what we’re going to say next, what we’re hearing when actually listening, thinking about the next smart thing we’re going to say, the facts we can give the experience we’ve had that similar to theirs, what they should do, rather than actually just going into a conversation and saying, how are you feeling? And sitting and listening in even if it’s uncomfortable for us. The reason we want to fix things often so we don’t want our friend to be in pain and it makes us feel uncomfortable. Now, sometimes what somebody needs is simply to be held and to be seen. And we can do that by saying thank you for sharing that with me. That’s really, really tough and I appreciate you sharing that with me, how can I help? Rather than saying you’ll be fine, it’s OK. You’ll get through this. But we want to be positive. We want to encourage hope and positivity. But sometimes we can shut people down if that’s all they’re hearing from us. If 90 percent of the message is you’ll get through this or what I did when I was depressed was this, the conversation that isn’t about them.

So really just being prepared to listen rather than doling out advice and judging and trying to fix is one of the simplest things that we can do. But honestly, I’m also, you know, aware of the fact that often people don’t have the tools or experience to support people with mental health problems. More support is needed. So that’s where things like Mental Health First Aid come in on are really valuable. I teach that course, it is a course where people are taught how to spot the signs of poor mental health. Also, it’s all about signposting, knowing when the time is to not try and be a therapist. Just say, OK, this, this and this resource could be really, really good for you and try to guide that person towards the help that they need.

Le’Nise: Talk a little bit about being a Mental Health First Aider, because I had never, I had never heard of that before. So if someone’s interested in that, in exploring that kind of training. Talk a little bit more about what it is.

Emma: Yes. So Mental Health First Aid is like 13 years old now, originated in Australia, but it’s been in the UK since, I think, about the last five years.

And really it came about because the creators of it realised that, you know, if you had an injury in the workplace now, if you fell over, if you had heart pains, if you know, if anything happened, you’re going to have a First Aider in your business is a legal requirement. Who knows how to put a plaster on you or how to call for emergency help and how to preserve your life until professional help arrives. The likelihood is the reality is and statistics show you’re far more likely to connect with somebody that is experiencing a mental health problem than you are with somebody who is having a heart attack. And so Mental Health First Aid came about as a training course that could help people to learn to spot the signs of things like depression and anxiety. We even explore psychosis, eating disorders, self-harm, and not so that they can diagnose, but so that they have some awareness and so that they can then support, preserve life, you know, talk, talk and support somebody who’s having, let’s say, for example, psychosis or a panic attack and help them get to professional help. So it used to be a two day course in a classroom that has now changed at the moment because of current circumstances. And it’s now an online course, which is two hours, 4 two hour sessions and some homework. And I teach this each week alongside the brilliant courses that I teach that we do at Utopia, because Mental Health First Aid isn’t for everyone. Like in some organisations, they like people to do it, to have First Aider in the business. But really, you know, deeper, strategic, more kind of influential courses need to happen that mean the workplace isn’t a place where you might need so many mental health facilities. And that’s kind of the work that I do with Utopia. But Mental Health First Aid is a really great course for people to come to learn some skills that they can support others and also be more mindful of their own wellbeing.

Le’Nise: Where can they contact you to find out about going on one of these courses?

Emma: Great, so you can contact me about, you know, any kind of like mental health questions or submissions, I’m always looking for people to write for Surviving Sundays and share their story. Or if you got enquiries about Mental Health First Aid, you can contact me by email via hello@survivingsundays.com. And you can check us out on Instagram at @surviving_sundays or visit the website, as well as some information on that by MHFA Mental Health First Aid, which is Survivingsundays.com.

Le’Nise: And if listeners were to take one thing from everything you’ve shared in our conversation, what would you want that to be? 

Emma: I would just say, like on this topic of periods, like there’s a connection to the way that I felt about my mental health and the way that I thought about who I was for a long time. And that thread is shame. Decisions, relationships, a lot of things, most of the things I did were guided by shame and the fear of being discovered or seen for who I really was. And I would just say that, you know, now the decisions I made based on kind of like my hopes and dreams, not my fears around shame. And I think that, you know, just getting good with who you are and getting honest with who you are and accepting that if you need help, that’s not a shameful thing. It’s a strong and courageous thing to reach out and acknowledge that and get the help that you need. That’s a wonderful thing. 

Le’Nise: Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been so wonderful to hear your story and to have a conversation with you.

Emma:Thank you, Le’Nise. Thanks for having me. And, you know, I’ve got to say, that beyond my best friends, I don’t really talk about my period, so it’s good to talk about it with you, you know. I look forward to kind of knowing you more and following you more and getting more education from you around something that I certainly am open to getting support with. 

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