Anxiety and loneliness left Ian close to breaking. Then redundancy gave him the opportunity to head in a new direction – becoming a passionate champion for mental health first aid training
It was 2017 and I was on the plane home, heading back to my wife and two kids following a client meeting. It wasn’t particularly stressful, just another work trip. But for some reason, this was where it started to unravel. Out of nowhere, I just broke down and started to cry. Everyone around me was like: “Woah.” The poor woman I was with didn’t have a clue what to do. She just said: “Chin up, mate.”
Looking back now, of course, I know what was happening to me. I left college in 2001 and straight away started a job in insurance. I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but it was a job, and I was making money. I worked my way up, and for nearly 20 years, I was a typical corporate employee.
Every day, I would travel into London from Fareham, in Hampshire, to look after the global insurance for high profile corporate clients like Porsche, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce. Insurance and corporate life were still not things I was passionate about, but the salary was good, I was able to provide for my family. From the outside, I had everything I could ever want – my own home, nice holidays, meals out, and so on. Everyone around me assumed that life was fine and dandy.
Underneath the façade, the job was getting to me. I knew I wasn’t happy, but I felt like there was no one I could turn to. I had two children who depended on me, and I just thought I needed to get through this and crack on.
Our mental health and feelings weren’t things we talked about, especially in the City, where it can be seen as a sign of weakness. It’s such a boys’ club – and the work hard, play hard mentality was what drove me to my poor mental health.
After my breakdown on the plane, I realised I couldn’t just ‘chin up’ anymore. I had already started to develop social anxiety, and being around groups of people really made me feel uncomfortable. When I tried to explain this to my colleagues, they were like: “Nah, not you mate, you’re the life and soul of the party.” I think it was the unacceptance by the people around me that led me to internalise it.
Quite quickly, I became detached from myself and everyone around me. I was constantly tired, and emotionally drained, and suffering from profound loneliness. I just wasn’t myself anymore, and couldn’t do anything to change what was happening to me.
Luckily, around the same time in 2017, my employers were in the early stages of setting up mental health first aid training. Still quite a new concept in the workplace, it trains employees to recognise the signs of poor mental health, and treats mental health first aid as importantly as physical health first aid – although currently only 13% of managers in the UK have attended specialist training that focuses on mental health.
"Our mental health and feelings weren’t things we talked about, especially in the City, where it can be seen as a sign of weakness"
My wellbeing department asked if this was something I’d like to get involved with, and I was totally struck by how effective it was – I could see so much of myself in what I learnt. It was brilliant, and it literally changed my life. I found something new that I was completely passionate about, I loved working with people, and helping them to identify signs of poor mental health, and breaking down the stigmas surrounding it.
However, I still held a large amount of responsibility in my job, owning many client relationships, and during this time I continued to experience mental ill-health. Half of my time at work I was really enthusiastic, almost finding a form of therapy in my new purpose, and the other half I would be uninterested and continue to feel isolated.
In 2018, my company announced that it would be making redundancies, providing the catalyst for me to reconsider my career options, and take a completely different path – founding We are Hummingbird Health.
It was a huge leap of faith, and thankfully, with the support of my wife and children, I’m able to live my dream of helping others by delivering mental health first aid, and suicide prevention and intervention training.
In addition to delivering mental health first aid training, as part of We are Hummingbird, we break down the stigma of mental health through music, and I’ve worked with some great people around the world – musicians, DJs, and actors. I have also partnered in another mental health venture, Believe Tuesdays, and have recorded a six-part video series on mental health called A Mental Session.
I’m so grateful to have experienced what I have. It’s taught me so much about myself, and now I can use my life-changing experience to provide expert advice and training to businesses – how to spot when employees or colleagues might be experiencing poor mental health, and the simple, straightforward steps that can be taken to help them.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) says:
Ian created a career in the corporate world that appeared to deliver it all, yet in reality he was maintaining a façade. When he became unable to bottle up his feelings any longer, he felt isolated and withdrew from others. The key turning point came with the mental health first aid training offered to Ian at work. He felt more able to cope, yet still struggled with direction, until redundancy offered the opportunity to change course with his career. He followed his passion to help others with mental health problems in the workplace, emphasising how important it is to both ask for and offer support to our colleagues.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss feelings of anxiety or lonliness, visit counselling-directory.org.uk