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'Tea and Talk creates environments where people feel comfortable talking about mental health'

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Helen Hutchings’ unique perspective put her in the best position to be able to support others

Silence isn’t really golden. That’s the view of Helen Hutchings, a registered mental health nurse who believes talking is one of the most important factors in aiding the recovery of those with mental health problems.

Ms Hutchings had post-partum psychosis after her daughter’s birth in 2003 and, despite being an RMN, didn’t see the signs. “Not recognising the symptoms made me realise lots of other people wouldn’t be able to understand or talk about what was happening to them,” she says.

She was later diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and initially kept her illness a secret at work. When she did pluck up the courage to tell her colleague, another RMN, Ms Hutchings was shocked by the reaction.

“He said he wished I hadn’t told him because it would make it ‘uncomfortable’ for him to work with me. And it was,” she says.

Those events inspired her to apply for a Time to Change grant as part of the anti-stigma campaign with Dorset Healthcare University Foundation Trust and Dorset Mental Health Forum. She was successful - and is the only nurse to receive £40,000 to deliver 100 Tea and Talk sessions with employers and schools, reaching 2,000 people.

“Tea and Talk creates environments where people feel comfortable talking about mental health,” she says. “One in four of us will experience mental health problems and all of us will experience distress at some point.”

Workshops are delivered to 15-20 people in a room set up to create a social atmosphere rather than a work one - bunting is hung, tea is poured and fairy cakes are put out.

“It’s a move away from training to encouraging personal responsibility in society,” she says.

Workshops start with a quiz on misconceptions about mental health, such as “the suicide rate of young men who die aged 16-39 is 10%” (it’s actually 20%), “people with mental health problems are more likely to be violent” and “the best person to help a person with a mental health issue is a professional”. Films from Time to Change then highlight the devastating effects of discrimination and the power of conversation in reducing stigma and supporting recovery.

People are helped to discuss whether they’d feel able to talk about mental health problems with colleagues, family or friends, and how they can support their own wellbeing and that of others.

“I never put anyone on the spot,” she says. “But I want to explore people’s views, even if they are resistant. It’s better to talk before people hit crisis - this is about promoting individual and organisational wellbeing.”

The workshops have been delivered to universities, NHS trusts, councils, the British Army, Flybe and the Probation Service. Ms Hutchings will be working with New Look and John Lewis among others and, since her story was featured

in The Sunday Express, Volkswagen has got in touch.

“Some companies say they haven’t got mental health problems in their workforce, and that worries me. Firms that deny its existence are the sorts of places where staff will be afraid to mention it.”

After the workshops, people often tell Ms Hutchings they felt able to talk about their past experience for the first time.

“We end by making pledges,” she says. “One policewoman pledged to set up a support network for police officers - it was the first of its kind and there are now 45 nationwide. She says she was inspired by Tea and Talk to use her experience of distress in a positive way.”

The format works so well Ms Hutchings says she hasn’t changed a thing since 2009 and doesn’t plan to - “Well apart from I’d quite like to get sponsorship from Tetley and Mr Kipling!”

● Follow on twitter
@teaandtalking, or email

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