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Mental Health Awareness Month: Storytelling

As the consumer marketing lead for Bing and Microsoft Rewards in Australia, and someone with twenty years marketing experience, I know the power of storytelling, but it has taken me a long time to find my own voice. Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to share my own mental health story at an internal Microsoft Advertising meeting, as one of several initiatives that are running at Microsoft in May for Mental Health Awareness Month. With the challenges and uncertainty we’re currently experiencing, it seems like a particularly important time to be discussing this topic. Some of my colleagues kindly encouraged me to share my story beyond an internal audience and gave me the opportunity to write this blog post.
 
I had my first major panic attack in my late teens. Since then, there have been periods in my life when I’ve felt absolutely fine and lived the life I’d always dreamed of, and other periods of acute anxiety and associated depression, which I largely kept to myself. My story isn’t unique — a quick glance at the statistics in the U.S. and Australia, for example, shows that 1 in 2 people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime, which means that we’re all affected either directly or indirectly. Interestingly, a recent study from Australia suggests that those who work in the media, marketing and creative industry are “considerably more likely to show mild to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to the national data, with 20% more participants showing symptoms of depression, and 29% more showing symptoms of anxiety.”
 
A little over two years ago, I finally sought proper help for my anxiety and this, combined with lifestyle changes and a decision to be more open about my lived experience, has made a hugely positive impact on my wellbeing. There were many catalysts for change along the way and one of the most significant has been storytelling. One of the first times I shared what I was really experiencing with another person was after listening to the mental health experience of a former colleague, Mitch Wallis, in 2017. I’d worked with Mitch at Microsoft back in 2008 and there’s not enough room to tell his incredible story here, but you can read about the mental health movement that he started at Heart on my Sleeve. Something about that conversation and that connection left me empowered to start talking, and from there I haven’t looked back.
 
More recently, I was inspired by some stories which were shared by Australian leaders in the media, marketing, and creative industry, following the publication of the results from the mental health study above. You can read about their experiences here, but what I love is how open and authentic everyone is, and how they recognize that to reduce the stigma that still unfortunately exists around mental health in our industry and beyond, they need to lead from the front.
 
I feel extremely fortunate that I work for a company like Microsoft, which recognizes that mental health is like physical health — we all have it and it is better at some periods than at others. At Microsoft, we have a culture where authenticity and vulnerability are valued, and we also have access to many resources to support our mental health and wellbeing. This culture also played a large part not just in me finally seeking proper help, but also to realize that I have a passion for positive mental health that extends beyond just looking after myself. Now, I’m lucky enough to be managing a peer support program at Microsoft Australia called REAL Mates (from Heart on my Sleeve), to be studying a degree in psychology part-time and to have a platform like this to advocate for the power and importance of storytelling about mental health.
 
Regardless of where we work though, my experience has taught me that two things above all else can improve our own situation. The first is that sharing our mental health experiences with people we trust helps us to make sense of what we’re going through and to get the help we need. The second is that by sharing our own stories, we help to reduce the stigma around mental health and make it easier for others to share their stories. 

Learn more

Mental Health Awareness Month - https://www.mhanational.org/mental-health-month
Mentally Healthy 2018 Research (Australia) - https://www.mentally-healthy.org/resources-collection/mentally-healthy-2018
Heart on my Sleeve - https://heartonmysleeve.org/
Insights with Microsoft podcasts - Apple, Google, Spotify
Contact me on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-walkden-969b5711/