Exploring mental health as a volunteer

Mark Smith, Digital Content Development Officer, Wales Co-operative Centre

Many people attach themselves to a cause having experienced a particular health issue or life event. We see people running marathons, climbing mountains, doing a sponsored silence, baking cakes, knitting giant blankets and so much more. People talk about their experiences, as public speakers, as bloggers, vloggers, through campaigns and the media. We’re unified in wanting to raise awareness, so more people know about the things that have affected us, so their own journey is made that bit easier.

In my case, it’s mental health.

My diagnosis is bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Ever since I received my initial diagnosis of severe depression and anxiety, I wanted to help raise awareness of mental health. Initially, this was to help tackle the stigma and discrimination that exists around mental health. For a few years, I was a volunteer ‘champion’ with the Time to Change Wales campaign. It was a campaign that provided its volunteers with many opportunities. In my case, I gave media interviews, spoke at public events, ran an arts project and got my manager (Catherine) involved in a part of the campaign that looked at how someone in the life of a person with mental ill health can play an important role, simply by talking and listening.

I set up a volunteer-run organisation called Making Minds, about five years ago. We ran several projects and held regular events, to give people a platform to express themselves, with mental health as a theme running through everything we did.

This led on to something much bigger than I could ever have envisaged getting involved in – Wales’ own arts festival dedicated to the theme of mental health. As with the other things, this was something I did in my spare time. I worked on a pilot festival in 2015 with Disability Arts Cymru and Ynys Mon a Gwynedd Mind. It was a success, with twenty events and activities held around Wales. It left us with an appetite to do it all over again, but bigger and better (as you do). Last year we ran a second festival, with the theme of ‘Walls : Muriau’, essentially using creativity to look at the walls and barriers that are faced by people with mental ill health. It was an incredible, if challenging, experience, with the festival holding events around Wales over the space of two months, culminating in a week of events at the Wales Millennium Centre.

So what next? Who knows? I’m taking a break from voluntary activity at the moment, but will definitely return to it at some point in the near future. Mental health and the arts remain passions of mine and it’s where I feel I have the most to offer and can make a real difference. They say ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. It’s not about conquering the world, but starting with your own little corner of it. Try it. You’ll never know if you don’t.

If you’d like to talk to me about any of the above, please email me at mark.smith@wales.coop

This blog has been written for Volunteers’ Week, a national campaign running between 1st-7th June

Image courtesy of Glyn Brimacombe

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