Interview: Award-winning Hafal Trustee and campaigner Mair Elliott

Mair Elliott is an award-winning mental health and autism campaigner. A trustee of Welsh mental health charity Hafal, Mair uses the national media and social media to chart her journey and share her insights and concerns. We caught up with Mair to find out more about what motivates her and who inspires her.
 
Above: Mair with her St David Award for ‘Citizenship’, March 2018 

 

You are an award-winning mental health and autism campaigner and you have succeeded in giving your causes a very high profile in the Welsh media. Tell us about how you got into campaigning and why it’s important to you?

The first thing I did was to contribute to Welsh Government’s inquiry into children’s mental health services. I gave written evidence and spoke to the committee undertaking the inquiry with the support of Hafal. Following that, ITV Wales and S4C got in touch and asked if I was willing to make a programme about the state of the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in Wales.

I had personal experience of accessing CAMHS, and was very willing to raise awareness of the problems that were going on: things like long waiting times, poor access to talking therapies, little to no crisis support, staff shortages, poor resources, poor inter- and intra- agency communication and so on, which meant that myself and thousands of other young people in Wales were not receiving proper support or treatment, potentially putting lives at risk. I saw it as my duty to do something about this issue. The ‘Byd ar Bedwar’ S4C programme and the ‘Wales This Week’ ITV Wales programme seemed like the perfect opportunity to show the despair and frustration families and young people were going through just to try and get support and treatment for an illness.

It also frustrated me that mental illness was so stigmatised, and that not only did people have to deal with their illness but also judgements and misconceptions. Although terrifying, I wanted to take the step and be open about my own mental illness in the hope others would talk about mental illness too, and start to challenge those misconceptions and stereotypes.

Thankfully, the risk I took paid off and one of the programmes won a BAFTA Cymru award. I have been campaigning ever since. People always ask me how I stand on a stage in front of an audience, open up and allow myself to be vulnerable in that way. The truth is I’m not quite sure how I do it, but I see it as my duty. I refuse to sit back and allow generations of young people to go through the same things I went through. So no matter if people want to hear my voice or not, I’m still going to campaign with passion and dedication. It is not right or fair that young people get treated the way they do, especially when they are going through what is probably the darkest time of their lives. I guess my desire to see things fixed which aren’t right or fair is greater than my anxieties and fears of being open and vulnerable.

 

What do you think are the key mental health issues facing women today?

I am not anti- social media or technology, but I do feel that at the moment it is fuelling a mental health crisis, especially amongst young girls. There’s an epidemic of low self-esteem and poor wellbeing, with almost zero resilience, a combination which can be toxic. With all the positives technology and social media bring, it should also come with a warning label which reads: “Warning – what you see may not be reality.”

It may just be my perception, but I feel women, especially young women, fall into the trap of comparing their own lives to what they see online, making many feel inadequate, unhappy with themselves, and even anxious or depressed. The pressure to have the perfect body, have the perfect grades, have the perfect job, be the perfect ‘do it all’ mum, etc., is at an all time high. And to make things worse there is no relief from the onslaught of these expectations because social media runs 24/7 across most of the globe.

I feel that in the era of technology and social media people of any gender are exposed to glorified, unrealistic, and perfect versions of life. Often how people present themselves online is to only post the good, and even exaggerate the positive aspects of their lives. It is easy to misconstrue these depictions as what normal life is supposed to be like. In reality, life is messy, it’s not all good, and expecting otherwise will make you feel bad. But people are growing up with these ideals posted to social media and then finding it difficult to cope when real life kicks in and doesn’t look the same as the lives seen online.

Pictures are digitally edited to portray the ‘perfect body’, but these pictures are published with no warning that the body in the photo has been digitally manipulated to appear taller, thinner, more toned, etc. Again, it is easy to believe that your body should also look like the one in the photo.

Social media is also shown to affect our sleep, disrupting healthy sleeping patterns. Sleep is a key element of maintaining a healthy body and mind; any disruptions have negative consequences.

We need to look at how we can address this epidemic of low self-esteem, not by banning social media, but instead using the power of social media to tackle these unhealthy and unrealistic expectations we are all exposed to online.

 

Inequalities for women persist in many areas of mental health – for example, women are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men. How do you think we should tackle these inequalities?

It is my opinion that you cannot fix a problem until you fully understand it. We need to ask ourselves why these inequalities exist. Research allows us to pick apart the problems and really get to understand what’s going on underneath the surface. The knowledge gained from research can be used to build effective, targeted solutions to these issues.

I also am a strong believer that good quality information can save lives. Educating people plays a huge role in addressing these issues. If women are more likely to experience anxiety then we should be providing women with information about anxiety, and methods for reducing anxiety and building resilience. The same goes with other diagnostic inequalities – the solution is not to hand out more diagnoses to the opposing gender, but instead to try and understand why one gender is more likely to experience a condition than the other and develop preventative strategies which directly target the vulnerable gender.

 

You are a young woman in a leadership role as a Hafal trustee. How important do you think it is it for young women to have female role models in leadership positions? What have you gained from your own experience as a leader?

The concept that it is unusual for women to be in leadership positions goes to show how far we still have to go in the journey to gender equality. Part of that journey is to show women of all ages that it doesn’t matter what gender you are, if you are capable and have the skills then you can be a leader. What better way to show women it is possible than to have female role models?! I want young girls to be looking up at the managing boards of organisations, whether third sector, private sector or public sector, and see women working alongside men in those leadership positions. I want young girls to feel that they can and will aim to be future leaders.

It fills me with pride to be a part of the Hafal family. Not only do I get the humbling opportunity to be a leader, I also get to be part of the leadership for a cause I am so passionate about. Being a trustee of Hafal has taught me many things – not least how to read a financial report! – but also the importance of co-production or co-working. Working together within the Charity but also with other organisations, together we can provide the best standard of care and support that our members deserve. On a more personal note, I feel the most crucial thing that I have gained from being in a leadership position is the confidence to be authentic. I am more able than ever before to believe in myself and my abilities.

 

In you experience, have services been gender sensitive, and do you think more can be done in this area?

Some have, some haven’t. I’m sure some of my fellow women can agree it can be uncomfortable having a male member of staff on one-to-one observations with you in hospital. The trouble is that most of the time it isn’t made clear that if a situation is making you uncomfortable due to gender issues then you have a right to request for change. I believe there is scope for services to improve, especially regarding gender sensitive situations, and all services need to be at the same level. The most important thing which all services should be telling people is that they have the right to request a change if they feel uncomfortable.

 

Which women have inspired you in your life, and why? 

I have numerous women from whom I draw inspiration, but none above my own Mum. My Mum, also in a leadership position in the charity sector, showed me from a young age that being a woman shouldn’t affect my aspirations. She showed me that women could rise through organisations and be valuable contributors and workers. Because of her I have never let gender equality scare me, or let the everyday sexism get in the way of what I set out to achieve. Because of her I have always felt proud to be a woman.

My Mum has been through my illness with me, driving miles and miles to visit me in hospitals, fighting for support from services on my behalf, seeing me at my worst in the depths of mental illness. She has also been by my side throughout the extraordinary journey I have been on with my public speaking and campaigning work. Each time I step on a stage, each time I speak to a politician, each time I sit at various board meetings, I know I am there because of her. I am there because she brought me into this world, fought for me and taught me to stand up for what I believe in. So, here’s to you Mum!

 

A centenary after women were given the right to vote, do you think women have achieved equality?

No is the short and simple answer. Since suffrage things have come a long way, but there is still a fair distance to go before true equality is achieved. In my opinion true equality won’t be achieved until all women across the whole globe are treated equally to men. In many countries women are still treated as second class citizens; we haven’t even achieved equality in western culture yet so to achieve global gender equality still requires a huge amount of work.

Emmeline Pankhurst and the other inspirational women who fought for the right for women to vote took that first step and risked their lives in doing so. We as women, and men, have the duty to carry on fighting for what was once a dream to women: equality. Whether tackling the gender pay gap, fighting the everyday sexism that exists in our society, or breaking down stigma and misconceptions, we all have a part to play. We can and will reach true gender equality, I believe in the force of the feminist movement.

 

Find out about #DeedsNotWords, Hafal’s 2018 campaign for women’s mental health, at: http://www.hafal.org/deedsnotwords/