In this episode of OTMO, we talk to Simon Blake, Deputy Chair of Stonewall UK and the CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, a social enterprise built to create a society where everyone’s mental health matters and has the same consideration as our physical health.
Simon has been the CEO of Mental Health First Aid England since 2008, joining there from the National Union of Students, where he’d also been chief executive since 2015. In the years before that, Simon held leadership roles at the Sex Education Forum, National Children’s Bureau and the Sexual Health Wellbeing Charity Brook. He received an OBE in 2011 for his services in the voluntary sector and to young people and was recognised as a 2020 global diversity champion in the global diversity list.
With their core on-site training program My Whole Self, due to be launched just has the pandemic started, Simon shares the challenges and mindset changes needed to translate a 2-day office-based training course into the digital world, not least with timings (no-one wants to sit on a Zoom call for 2 days!). We also talk about how the pandemic has had its benefits to the organisation – stripping everything back (people no longer being just their job descriptions), how much tighter some of the systems and processes became, and the impressiveness of people’s creativity and responses to the many challenges.
We hear sound advice for our mental health – how a holiday is not just about going away but is about our wellbeing and you still need that time, even when you can’t go away. Accepting that it’s ok to feel disappointed when we can’t do the fun things that we wanted to do and being honest, as a leader, when talking about how you’re feeling in tough times “hanging on, but hanging on well”. Simon also talks about why it isn’t possible to just say the good things and nor is it sensible to just say the bad things. This leads us into consideration of Simon’s honesty around loss and struggles and how there is strength in vulnerability.
Other topics include being a gloom bag in the winter, borrowing the farmer’s pony, how when you start second-guessing yourself, you’re nowhere near as good as when you just trust your instincts and putting your brave pants on.
Simon’s life has always been about wanting all children and young people to grow up in a safe, emotionally literate world, whatever their ability, disability, sexuality, gender. From his own experience, he has learned to claim his own sense of masculinity to be as good as any other form. For the future he hopes to turn the culture of strength that stops people talking about grief, loss and mental health struggles the right way up (rather than upside down) and for it to be accepted that vulnerability and courage, sadness and joy, disappointment and hope can and do all sit alongside each other.
Looking to the future (while reflecting on the past) Simon tells us there are (and will always have been) people in positions of power who want to push back women’s rights, to make sure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people don’t have visibility within society and those who would rather we didn’t talk about death and dying or about domestic violence. Having been through a few rounds himself and still standing, Simon believes that going forward the charity sector and individuals need to be brave. If you aren’t getting any negative reaction, then you probably aren’t being brave enough. When you’re doing the right thing, there will be people that get mad and angry at you and you just have to keep on going.
Ultimately Simon has hope for the future – not least due to the courage that people have shown this year – the adaptability, the resilience, the ability to make an impact when things are tough and the flexibility to do things completely differently.
Date of Conversation – 11/12/2020
The Key Takeaways From This Episode[02.15] Interview Begins
[03.42] What do we collectively have to do as a civil society?
[05.04] How personal challenges are also leadership challenges
[08.04] Dealing with an office-based product (My Whole Self) being due to launch as offices closed
[12.24] How as a training organisation, clarify and focus enabled the move online
[14:04] Adapting easily but being patient with those who do not
[16:29] Homemade agile
[18:44] Conversation, conversation, conversation, conversation
[29:08] Turning the world back the right way up
[38:19] The sense of masculinity from growing up in the late 70s/80s as a gay man – as opposed to now
[39.55] Learning that difference can be the source of cruelty
[42:41] The many kinds and levels of privilege
[47:38] Moving from a state of being to a state of action in ally-ship
[49:04] Accused of being responsible for the breakdown of sexual morality for running a young person’s sexual health charity
[49:37] Getting it wrong – acknowledge it, work out how to correct it and then just get back up
[51:20] How the current model of getting things right creates structural inequality and perpetuates it
[55:33] If we were not having these reactions, then we are probably not being brave enough
[58:44] Ripping up the lane ropes and swimming across all the lanes
[01:04:02] Passion and determination drives real change
Resources From This Episode
- MHFA England – mhfaengland.org
- My Whole Self Campaign – mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/
- Guidance on the health and well being of Black/PoC – mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/news/mhfa-england-guidance-supporting-black-poc-colleagues/
- Moving the Dial from the Chartered Management Institute https://www.managers.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/moving-the-dial-on-race-practical-guidance-cmi-race-2020.pdf
- Sisters and Brothers – simonablake36.blogspot.com/2020/12/proud-to-launch-sisters-and-brothers.html
- Amazon – Sisters & Brothers : Stories about the death of a sibling
- Stonewall UK – stonewall.org.uk
- Sex Education Forum – sexeducationforum.org.uk
- National Children’s Bureau – ncb.org.uk
- Simon’s Huffington Post articles
- Poppy Jaman – one of the founders of Mental Health First Aid England –
- Brené Brown – brenebrown.com/podcast/introducing-unlocking-us
- Jules Hillier – chief exec of Pause – pause.org.uk
- Brook – linkedin.com/company/brook
- Barnardos – barnardos.org.uk
- National Trust report into colonialism and historic slavery – nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust
- National Union of Students – nus.org.uk
- Marcus Rashford’s petition to the UK parliament that no child should go hungry