International Stress Awareness Week 2018: Adrian Garcia Interview

It’s International Stress Awareness week this week (5th-9th November 2018) and we have been fortunate enough to talk to some really inspiring people in and around mental health.

In the first of our interview series we had the pleasure of speaking with Adrian Garcia about his work and involvement in a number of mental health charities and initiatives such as SANE, The Black Dog Campaign, Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma and the mental health speakers collective. A busy man! We are very grateful for his time and his thoughtful and personal words.

We hope you enjoy reading!

Tell us who you are and a little bit about yourself / career history / what you do now?



I have a bit of a dual life I guess – for the past few years I have worked in the tech industry while devoting all of my free time to working pro bono in the mental health world. It’s now been three and a half years since Marjorie Wallace (the CEO of SANE) gave me the title of Commander in Chief of the Black Dog Campaign, so in terms of mental health that has been my main role. The title comes from her having a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and essentially not wanting me to miss out on cool titles – I’m not complaining!

More recently I have also had the pleasure of being a founding member of the mental health speakers collective as well as doing some work on the side with Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma getting their initial tech set up.

 

Tell us more about SANE and the Black Dog Campaign

SANE was established in 1986 by Marjorie Wallace to improve the lives of people suffering with mental illness. It was set up following the huge public response to Marjorie’s articles in the Times titled “The Forgotten Illness” exposing society’s treatment of patients with schizophrenia.

    These days the charity has three main aims: to directly help people suffering via a crisis phone line, text care, and online forum and social media; to facilitate research into treatment of mental health issues via a centre in Oxford; and to eradicate stigma and educate people on how to talk openly about mental health and mental ill health.

    The Black Dog Campaign concentrates on the third of these aims. Someone recently described the work me and my volunteers do as “talking to anyone who will listen about mental health” which I guess sums it up pretty well.

    It is our firm belief that open conversation will lead to less suffering in people who experience mental ill health. Isolation, lack of education on the topic and stigma are the main factors in stopping conversation so we aim to tackle these. We have our own written workshops that we give in schools, universities, corporates (etc) as well as giving public speeches both on the topic at large and personal lived experience, and we organise and appear on panel discussions. As well as these there are loads of fundraising and awareness activities going on up and down the country – anything from film screenings to yoga to club nights – you name it!

    One of my main beliefs is that we need to get away from a box ticking exercise and become more embedded with the organisations that we work with, so much of the above will be part of a 2, 3, 4 etc year long project that we try and put in place. This often includes training students or employees to lead some of the above activities either in their organisations or elsewhere as we continue to expand.

    You may also see statues of black dogs (I think there are about 20 currently on display in the UK) which are very much our symbol, and much like an elephant in the room are designed to promote a conversation around mental health.

 

What is your day to day role and what is the best part of your job?

What isn’t? In truth it’s very varied. I speak publicly and give workshops as well as doing a lot of the organisation behind the scenes. Making sure volunteers are trained, where they need to be and ready for whatever project comes their way is a pretty fundamental part of it. On the other hand helping to write and approving copy for new materials as well as helping with fund applications will come to me occasionally also. I’m in a very fortunate position that as I am working pro bono I have a lot of flexibility in what i can or want to do on a day to day basis.

    In terms of the best part – the workshops are a huge part of what I love about this role. I (with help from others, I won’t take all of the credit!) have been writing and perfecting them now for three and a half years, and although every workshop will go in various different directions, we are pretty near to an excellent product with them. Beginning a morning with a group of people who realise only for the first time that even defining “mental health” is not without it’s difficulties, to chatting to the same people a few hours later about their new found knowledge and realisations is one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced. We know from our experience that we can easily change people’s perceptions and in doing so create a more aware, sensitive and knowledgeable community where people can talk openly and seek help without shame. Now to expand!


What is in the pipeline for Black Dog Campaign?

We’re in the process of reorganising a little bit so this is actually a very pertinent time to get that question. So far in building the campaign we have been working to see what works and doesn’t work and seeing how we can make the biggest difference. Now that we are some way to knowing the answers to the above, expansion is front of mind. We now have people in the positions we need them, be it heading up teams of their own or even heading up the communications side of things and funding applications etc are in progress.

So how is that going to look? A big push for us will be universities. We work with about 20 now, but we are now looking to formalise this work. This will include collaborating with staff as well as student bodies, having volunteer presence on the ground in every campus and ensuring student-led long term projects that make sure mental health is front of mind at all times during students’ university career, not just on WMHD.

Plans for secondary schools are starting to look fairly similar, as well as really looking into the best ways to inform students about transitions between educational establishments.

Watch this space also for various different events and ways to get involved I’m planning a pretty hectic calendar for the first couple of quarters 2019!


What does stress look like to you? Signs, symptoms etc.

 

Stress affects everyone uniquely so I guess I can only really talk about my experience with 100% confidence. We have a lot going on in our lives these days – some say more than we are designed for. Between family, work, constant access to emails, messages, Snapchat, Facebook as well as anything else you want or need to be doing can fill up the bucket of what you can deal with pretty quickly!

I personally suffer with issues with anxiety anyway so in my mind these two words overlap a lot. Personally – I retreat. If there are people at a party who will ask me about topics I don’t want to engage in -I don’t go. If there’s an email that will stress me out – they don’t get checked. Friends will know that I am under stress if I’m quiet (with Spanish heritage I’m normally going on about something at 100mph). None of the above is advice by the way it’s just what happens!

If I do have too much on my mind or an anxiety trigger goes off I do have relatively regular panic attacks, stress will often make me lose my appetite and I’ll either not sleep or sleep way too much (I wish I knew when each of these would happen, it would get me out of quite a lot of trouble!)


People manage stress in different ways, when you have experienced stress, how have you managed?

 

There’s no magic wand here but there are definite things that I put into practice on a day to day basis which help me manage stress.

Food is not to be underestimated. I feel that I can manage a lot more stress if I have been eating well. There is no barrier between physical and mental health and what you put in will affect the output! (Also exercise and I would like to put in here that I have long been one of the people who got annoyed by this being the advice, but it really does help me!)

I also change my environment. If I have a long list of things that need to get done and it’s getting a bit much, I’ll go work in a cafe, or go for a walk, or even just change room in my own house. I don’t know the science behind it but I definitely end up feeling more relaxed. And once I’m there – I can deal with the situation better.
    Importantly I remind myself that I can get rid of the source of some of that stress. Either get a task done or say no to something that is stressing me out. There will always be situations that I can’t control. But I start with the ones that I can and hopefully try to cross them off in any way that I can. There’s also huge benefit to just taking a time out.

Also I have a puppy and I think they should be prescribed on the NHS!


Stress can be both positive and negative. Positive stress helps us achieve, motivate, energise and can even boost memory. Tell us about a positive experience you have had with stress.

 

There’s a question I ask people sometimes when we discuss anxiety and it’s benefits: “Would you get in a car if you knew the driver had no anxiety response whatsoever?” The answer is always no, of course, but I think it’s also an important thing to consider when discussing stress. These feelings are often there for a biological reason.

As a public speaker positive stress is a big part of my life, and a reason that I can not only get through a speech but actually often think twice as fast during it and make sure that my message to an audience is on point.

It is common to see people acting incredibly efficiently and calmly when a huge amount of stress is put on them – I’m talking big dramatic events for example. At some point last year I was in Oxford Circus when thousands of people started to run screaming about a terrorist attack. Luckily at the end of the experience I found out that there had not been one, but during it me and two other colleagues were able to get pretty speedily out of the area, find a safe haven, inform everyone that needed to be informed that we were ok and discuss our next steps as we constantly checked the news. I think back to this regularly because it astounds me that I will feel incredibly heightened anxiety about very minor things quite regularly, and stress about things that don’t deserve my time – but when something that I thought at the time was going to be a huge traumatic event, me and the people around me dealt with it calmly and efficiently. The wonders of the human brain eh?



This years ‘theme’ for International Stress Awareness Week is ‘Does hi-tech cause high-stress?’ There is no doubt technology impacts on all our lives, on the one hand, the stressful effects of the 24/7 lifestyle that technology has brought, and on the other, the positive contribution that technology can make, helping us manage our lives better. What is your opinion?

 

As someone who divides their time between tech and mental health charity, you can imagine I get this question a lot. It’s important I think to start with the fact that technology is invariably there to help us not to hinder us, and so negativity around tech should be a conversation around side effects. I bring this up because I’ve heard phrases like Social Media is evil so many times, and much like all tech, no Social Media as a concept is not inherently evil.

However as I alluded to above, there is an idea that we simply aren’t designed for the amount of information that comes to us. Much like the fight or flight response creative a negative effect occasionally in a society that is unlikely to experience the attacks of wild animals very often, our stress response and natural coping mechanisms are now being flooded with data points and multiple decisions that need to be made at the same time. I think people rarely think about it but the very act of carrying a smartphone is giving you instant access to more information than older generations would have received in months – so we do need to learn to cope with this. Being available around the clock does not mean you should be and many people have lost that.

Our ways of communicating have changed. We have the opportunity to give our opinions to millions of people at the same time as well as to be relatively anonymous while doing so. Cyber bullying is huge, as is the fear of missing out caused by things people have seen online amongst a huge wave of other things that online communication has brought to the surface that can stress us. But before cyber bullying there was bullying. The fear of missing out has been a thing far longer than Instagram has, and there have always been nasty minded public figures. The issues that we see today are around the instantaneous access that we have. Everything is faster and bigger and that’s causing more stress more quickly.

On the positive side we can do so many things without stress that used to be stressful! Everything from a refrigerator to Microsoft Word to having a device in your pocket that’s a music player, camera, email checker all in one save us time and energy and therefore stress.

Online communication means that there are thousands of people from all over the world who can talk to each other, socialise and even support each other just by having a smartphone in their pocket. How easy it is to have apps like Calm on your phone for a few seconds of de-stress or even the Hub of Hope for knowing where support might be in relation to where you are at that very minute is so important for us.

I think we can see how much technology does help us in our lives the moment we don’t have access to it anymore. Imagine how stressed you become when your phone breaks!



How can technology help in promoting communication and positive change to stigma around mental health?

 

I guess there are a number of things here. Firstly we have access to so much more content than we used to. I find it very rare to walk into a room to talk about mental health to find anyone in it at all who hasn’t read dozens of articles on the subject – that’s incredibly powerful.

Secondly everybody who wants one has a voice. Be it comments sections, Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else people are educating each other, calling journalists out on stigmatising content and starting conversations. The media no longer tells us things as facts, it starts global conversations. The power of that kind of knowledge share is massive.

Thirdly and potentially most importantly, we have the ultimate choice in how we communicate. Some prefer to stay anonymous and some don’t. Some take solace in the fact they can seek help or communicate their story via text rather than phone because the phone is too stressful. Whatever it is more and more people, from celebrities to us normal people are able to speak and convey their information and opinions. As this happens conversations widen, understanding improves and slowly stigma is eroded. We’re still at the foothills of the mountain, but we are climbing!


What do you think needs to change in workplace culture in order to protect mental health and prevent ill-health?

To an extent the same as anywhere. If there was no mental health stigma in the workplace I think general suffering would decrease hugely. Imagine a world where everybody found it normal to call into work on a Tuesday morning and say to be honest my anxiety is getting in the way of my commute, I’ll work from home today! Workplaces are high stress environments so what management should be concentrating on is acknowledging that different people have different needs, and creating an environment where people are happy to disclose them.

Technology has changed the way we work. Nobody needs to be in the same chair in the same office for 8-10 hours a day in order to complete the work that they are doing. Offices should be flexible to reflect the preferences of their employees. Some people thrive earlier than others, some need a work from home day or two per week – these should be standard in offices across all industries.

Offices should encourage social activities. Teams always work better if they get on and know each other well, so group activities, days out or even just a dinner or drinks after work should be the norm I think.

I could probably think of many more including nap spaces, dog friendly offices, free coffee, colourful environments etc but one final thing I think is vital. All offices should have someone trained in some form of first line help for mental ill health. Something like Mental Health First Aid. It’s many times more likely you’ll use the skills learnt there in day to day life than physical first aid skills so all offices should have some employees who have them.


Similarly, what needs to change in our education system surrounding mental health for our younger generation in schools?

Again flexibility I think is key. Students are unique individuals and should be treated as such. In terms of overhauling the education system entirely I don’t have the answer there, but treating students like adults and giving them a certain amount of choice on how they spend their day and most importantly how they define success is key. Schools are places where young people learn so much more than what is on the curriculum but end up burning out due to the stress of exam results. If I look back now I certainly don’t define my success during my teenage years by my ability to draw a pretty decent ox bow lake.

I also think that we are getting better at educating students around societal issues which is great, but we are nowhere near perfect. Gender studies, homophobia, racism, bullying (the list goes on) have to be an absolute staple of a young person’s education and not a tick box because OFSTED said you had to do it. Mental health should also be explored hugely as it is one of the things that underpins your whole educational career. Why do I know that if I become hypothermic I’ll start feeling sleepy and warm, when I not once had any form of lesson around when anxiety might go from a normal reaction to something that a doctor can help me with?

Finally I think that schools need to become open places where students explore their emotions and are encouraged to do so. Emotional repression starts young and if you look at the statistics on male suicide for example, a huge reason why the numbers are so big is that boys are often taught that there are essentially two emotions, anger and happiness. Well what happens when the others come out?


Who inspires you?

Everyone who speaks their truth consistently with no shame, fear or guilt.

Everyone who works tirelessly purely to make the world a little bit better.

Everyone that is able to see failure as a growth opportunity.

J.K. Rowling

My dog


What has been your biggest achievement to date and why are you proud of it?

 

I’ve spent far too much time in the British education system to not see this question and panic!

To answer honestly I think it would be the Black Dog Campaign. Most of what we’re doing now I have built from the ground up after I lost someone very close to me to suicide – quite literally starting from a place where I wasn’t particularly able to define what depression was, quite apart from building an educational campaign on all aspects of mental health. It has been a huge personal growth journey for me and I am particularly proud of where we are now because I’m now in a position where I can count my team as some of the many people making real change happen in Britain.


Tell us one thing you really like about yourself!

 

[see above!]

I’ve worked hard to define success my own way and not compare myself to other people when judging how I’m doing in a certain situation. It’s how I try to live my life and I’m getting pretty good at it.. so.. I like that!




Bonus Question!
Evidence suggest that affirmations can help people to perform better at work. At Be Empowered we believe in using positive affirmations to harness positive thinking. What do you think is a great positive affirmation that will help protect people from negative stress?

I guess on a similar vein to the above I like things that give an individual all of the power rather than external affirmations. Something like ‘I believe in myself today’ can be a great way to harness positive thinking!

*Opinions my own and may or may not reflect the views of SANE, Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma, or any other charity I am affiliated with. 
A humungous thank you to Adrian for talking to us!
You can follow Adrian on Twitter
Read more about SANE