Hello, friends and internet strangers. I know I’ve been asking rather a lot of you all lately, what with my Marathon fundraising and all the banging on about running and power-ballads. But I’d be honoured if you could read and possibly help with the following….
After much soul-searching about my life’s future direction over the past year-and-a-bit I have decided I’d like to use my copywriting, journalism and/or social media skills more directly in a mental health setting. Over the last ten years I’ve written about everything from social policy to couture latex (a story best served with wine). But I believe I do my best for others when I bring lived experience as well as skills to my work. Mental health, always a subject close to my heart, has grown ever-closer to it in recent years. This idea has come to me like the person you end up marrying after you’ve been friends for years and you realise it’s been staring you in the face all the time (I don’t know why I picked that analogy, I’m more likely to climb a mountain with the England football team in the near future than get married, but anyway….).
I wanted to announce this here first, rather than scattergunning mental health organisations with standard begging letters, or trying to shoehorn my freelance portfolio into application forms asking for “At least three years’ experience in a similar role, preferably within a similar organisation,” because it’s easier to show what I can do outside those boundaries. I feel that looking for advertised jobs or tenders with large, branded firms or mental health charities – wonderful as they are – isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, to find work. The best evidence that I use words and social media is not on my CV or in speculative emails or “competency frameworks” but here in front of you, and in my published writing, over at my work website. And at @shakeandcrawl and @MaxineFrances), in my 35,000+ tweets since 2011 – plenty are about TV or cute animals, but plenty are about mental health. Sometimes both.
There’s no hiding that the path to here hasn’t been easy or pleasant. Bluntly, a lot of my adult life reads like an answer to the interview question: “Tell us about a time you overcame something difficult.” At 21, during my second undergraduate year, I was identified as dyspraxic. After graduating, I trained as a magazine journalist at Cardiff, and applied for lots of big-brand jobs I nearly-but-not-quite got. I stayed in a largely-admin-based graduate job that wasn’t a great fit for as long as I could, then used the experience to train businesses in supporting people with dyspraxia, alongside writing features for various national papers and magazines. I’ve given dyspraxia talks and training everywhere from youth clubs to boardrooms, and am a trustee of The Dyspraxia Foundation. The anxiety and depression that’s affected me throughout my life is largely because of my dyspraxia being unrecognised for so long, and is pretty manageable by playing to my strengths as far as possible.
My own experiences first got me engaged with mental health. I started blogging about it as a student, in amongst my musings on theatre, politics, boys, girls and other studenty concerns of the day. But seeing friends struggle with depression – and some, very tragically, lose that struggle – has turned me from an armchair advocate into an active one. Five years ago, one of my dearest friends took his own life. It was just six months into my full-time freelancing career, and my burgeoning business struggled to recover. When a second friend did the same at the end of 2014 and it triggered another mental health dip I couldn’t figuratively or literally afford, I took up running and started fundraising for mental health. I also set up a small dedicated mental health blog to smooth those difficult few months, including a widely-shared post on how to talk to someone dealing with suicide. I’ve run, vlogged, guest-blogged and blogged some more. By the end of April, I will have run the London Marathon and raised over £2,000 for Mind.
There may be people I know reading this and wondering whether it’s such a good idea. Whether that by taking my work in this direction, I’m letting myself be defined by my mental health – or by other people’s – when I should just try to brick it all up and forget about it. But you can’t stop feelings by trying to ignore them, any more than you can fix a leaking roof by trying to ignore rain. I can’t help what I feel. I can help what I do with it, and whether I let it tear me up or make the best use of it by supporting others: especially those who live with mental health problems without the benefit of a supportive family, a marketable skill, or having the Arts Council read their writing.
What exactly happens next obviously depends who I can connect with. I’m looking at either returning to a salaried job or staying self-employed but working with a small number of rolling clients rather than the mostly one-off, word-of-mouth writing and proofreading jobs I do now. My ultimate wish (which is about as likely as a lottery win) would be doing regular journalism again, including but not necessarily limited to mental health writing. Outside traditional journalism, the most obvious organisations I’d fit into are seemingly charities/CICs, or communications agencies with a lot of mental health clients (for copywriting in particular, most big organisations employ agencies rather than a single person in-house). I once turned down an interview for a staff job with an agency because I wasn’t clear on what it involved, and at the time I didn’t feel able to ask the right questions in the right way. Five years on – despite some very difficult times – I’m more confident, experienced and open. I look forward to whatever that may bring. I’ve had a five years a Lib Dem press officer wouldn’t envy. But, like him, I can make a good blog post out of a bad situation.
A few other details….
- I don’t have the means to retrain as an anything (and it’s highly unlikely anyone will fund me to do it as I’m over 30 and have a postgraduate qualification already), so please bear that in mind if making any suggestions. I think I might like to do a counselling training one day if I have money and time, but not right now. Ditto volunteering. I’m looking into doing a bit with a particular organisation, but I can’t apply until the end of the year, as they have a rule for volunteers who’ve known people die by suicide that they won’t take you until at least two years since the most recent. I can understand why, and I’m sure many related organisations have something similar.
- This isn’t just about guilt over the deaths of friends. I have felt that, of course, as anyone does on some level when someone they know takes their lives. But it’s not the defining factor. There’s a paint chart of feelings involved in situations like these, and public words are only the half of it. Reducing it to just guilt is too crass.
- Words and I were made for each other; Numbers and I don’t and never will get on. The careers lady at school told me I wouldn’t get into a good university because of my Maths GCSE. I got into eight of them (and, somehow, scored a high 2:1 in a compulsory stats module…), but work involving Maths and spreadsheets is generally best avoided. Much the same goes for high-level admin although this depends on the situation – I’m happy to discuss in more detail if you want to.
- I’m based in South Bucks, just outside London, at the moment but will consider relocating, including internationally, if the opportunity’s there. What I do is more important than where.
If you think you can help in any way (whether it’s with a specific opportunity or advice on where best to find them), please comment below or email me. If you think there might be someone in your circle who could help, even if it’s a really long shot, please pass this along; I’d be very happy to hear from them. Thank you.