Using your mental health journey to help others in their time of crisis
In this episode, #IBTalk speaks to Kirsty Plank, senior account manager at Full Circle Comms – discussing her mental wellbeing journey, the work of the mental health charity My Black Dog, and the myriad of ways insurance businesses can protect and support their people.
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Narrator: [00:00:02] Welcome to IB Talk, the leading podcast for the insurance industry across the UK and Ireland brought to you by Insurance Business.
Mia: [00:00:18] Hello and welcome to the latest edition of IB Talk, the Insurance Industry Podcast brought to you by Insurance Business. My name is Mia Wallace, senior news editor at Insurance Business UK, and I am delighted to be joined by none other than Kirsty Plank, senior account manager for Circle Comms, who's joined me here today to discuss mental health and insurance initiatives. Thanks so much for joining me, Kirsty.
Kirsty: [00:00:42] You're very welcome, Mia. Lovely to speak to you.
Mia: [00:00:45] Well, I've had the great pleasure of speaking with you before. Kirsty, for those who haven't. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your role at Full Circle Comms and how you support the insurance profession?
Kirsty: [00:00:55] So I've worked for Full Circle Comms since 2018, but I've worked within the insurance industry for nearly 15 years now. I work with a number of clients across the insurance industry with full circle comms, so we support anything from global brokers, insurance law firms, established companies and insurers to innovative start ups and MGAs. And our role is basically to help clients find engaging ways to tell their stories and raise their profile within the industry that's working with press, but also doing social media, creating content for them, podcast videos, any way that helps them to get their message out there.
Mia: [00:01:32] I'm going to hazard a guess that that's the role that keeps you extremely busy at the moment. It certainly is at this particular time.
Kirsty: [00:01:41] Results season storms there's a there's a there's a lot of stuff to talk about. And Biba coming up as well. We're busy preparing our clients to exhibit and make sure that they've they've got the platform to talk about themselves and their exciting initiatives.
Mia: [00:01:58] And speaking of your clients, in the past, you've been instrumental in connecting me with so many brilliant voices across the insurance ecosystem. But I'm delighted that today is a chance to hear your take on what is a particularly pressing issue at the moment mental health and insurance. I understand that you recently became a volunteer with the mental health charity My Black Dog. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with the charity?
Kirsty: [00:02:22] Yes, of course. So the MGAA recently became a partner for the charity, and I read about their mission on social media, on LinkedIn, and found out a bit more about it. And it immediately resonated with me and knew I wanted to be part of it. I contacted Stephen Card of Carbon Underwriting, who's one of the charity's ambassadors, and asked how I could get involved. He put me in touch with Mark, the the operations manager, and the timing was just perfect as my black dog were just in the process of recruiting a new tranche of volunteers. I had a chat with the founder, Niki Clarke, just to get a sense of who I was, why I wanted to get involved and very, very quickly found myself on an induction session. But it's not just a hobby for me. It's not like an extra little thing to do it. In addition to work, my black dog is a vital support service for people who just need to open up but may not have a safe or supportive place to do so or don't feel comfortable. So as soon as I read about it, I knew that it was something I wanted to get involved with. And I'm really, really pleased to have been able to to start my journey with them and to become a volunteer myself.
Mia: [00:03:28] And that's really superb. And speaking of my Black Dog, can you tell me a little bit more about the charity and the support services that it offers?
Kirsty: [00:03:36] Yes, of course. Well, let's start by saying that at the moment, one in four people face at least a three month wait to get treatment from the meant for mental health on the NHS. But in some cases waits can be up to four years. This is something I've experienced myself and during that time, between knowing you need some help and actually getting the help you need, many people can feel quite alone. They might not feel comfortable opening up to friends or family, or be lucky enough to have a secure support network to talk to and certainly work colleagues. But never at night where are they at the point of needing crisis support such as the Samaritans? So in that kind of gap, there's a there's a real lack of support for many people. It can be quite lonely and quite isolating. So my black dog fills that void and offers a free online peer to peer support service. We're online every day, staffed by a pack of over 80 volunteers, and there's two full time and two part time employees as well. All of our volunteers have got their own lived experience of mental ill health, and they were not qualified medical professionals or counselors. We've all been through similar struggles and can offer the comfort and friendly ear to people who feel they don't know who to talk to. It's all completely online. I know that many people are nervous about picking up a phone and actually talking to somebody about their about their struggles. But it's sometimes a lot easier to just type in a message online. So the support services are chat service online. You can reach it through the website by Black Dog and you click on a button. It takes you through to an anonymous chat service. You're assigned a pseudonym. So there's there's absolutely no no way of tracing who you are. And it just gives you a place where you can be completely open about the things that you're feeling and struggling with and know that you're going to receive support from somebody who's been there themselves and who can give you just a friendly ear. We can't offer, obviously, professional guidance or advice. We're not qualified, but we can offer the comfort that someone's listening to you. And I think the anonymity is important and it's completely confidential. We don't know who you are, but we do know that you need us. And we do know that you just want us to listen. Over the past year, my Black Dog has dealt with over 6000 online chats, and that's double the number there was in 2020. Between March 2020 and 21, there was over a 2,000% increase in the number of users on the service, mainly due to the pandemic. The charity launch just before the pandemic hit. And suddenly we received an influx in in in chats and people needing to needing the support and that number is just continuing to grow. And I can't see it. I can't see it going down any time soon. The tagline for the charity is, If you don't know who to talk to, talk to someone who gets it. And it's as simple as that. If you need support, click on the website, click on the button, open a chat and talk to somebody who knows what you're going through.
Mia: [00:06:33] And it certainly sounds like a really wonderful initiative. And I wonder, is there a particular reason why choosing to support mental health services was so important to you personally?
Kirsty: [00:06:41] Yes. Well, I've suffered from depression on and off since teenage years, and it was quite easy at that time to dismiss it as, you know, the teenage blues hormones. But when that didn't pass, I knew that this was something that I would have to live with. For my whole life. I've been signed off from work on occasion as it's interfered with my ability to do my job. But I've been lucky to have worked for companies that have understood that and they've taken mental ill health seriously. I've never felt judged or penalised because of the problem, and day to day it often, often isn't an issue. But thousands of people aren't that fortunate and they don't have the support of their colleagues or their managers. To be able to feel they can open up about their mental health challenges. So that's why for me, it's really important for me to get involved with this charity. One of my own experiences, I was desperate for help once, and I was referred to talking therapies, a free NHS service. But it wasn't until two months later that I actually got an appointment to talk to somebody, and by that time I'd had to work through it alone because living with it just wasn't an option. During that time, the ability to log on and talk to somebody who understood what I was going through would have been so, so important for me. I know that there's definitely still a stigma talking about mental health. And I, you know, I know that sometimes people well, there is still a bit of judgement about it and I just want to make it clear that it's, you know, it is an illness and we need to make sure that we're creating supportive environments for people. Every time I talk to somebody through my black dog, I feel like I'm giving someone a bit of comfort that they're not alone and that sometimes that just that that knowing someone is out there can make all the difference. And that's why it's so important to me.
Mia: [00:08:30] Well, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Kirsty It's in doing so that we can all gain a much better understanding of what those around us might be going for. And it strikes me that in your role you have the opportunity to support such a variety of insurance businesses using the overview that this gives you. Do you think that attitudes towards mental wellbeing have shifted in recent years?
Kirsty: [00:08:50] I think the tide is turning. There's certainly a greater acceptance that mental ill health can be just as debilitating for people as physical illness and needs to be treated as such. According to research from the Mental Health Foundation, 70 million working days are lost in the UK each year and that's equating to around £2.4 billion. But it's likely that just scratches the surface. We have a massive problem in the UK. It's gone beyond epidemic levels. People like you and me are suffering on a massive scale and I think the tide is turning. We're certainly starting to see more people in the public eye opening up about their struggles more and encouraging people, especially younger people, to talk about what they're feeling and to put a to put a label to what they're feeling and know that what's going on inside of them isn't unusual, but it is serious. And they do need to seek help, but it often just scratches the surface because so many people are struggling with really deep, raw. Void of depression that often just reaching out and talking about it is so difficult. There's definitely a lot more work to be done, particularly with younger men to break down the stigma of mental health and depression and create a culture where this black dog isn't demonized or weaponized. I don't think any of us want to live in a society where opening up about a problem that you're suffering with or a struggle becomes used against you to to to make you feel like you're not good enough or that you can't do your job. I mean, certainly at higher levels in business, if a CEO can suffer from depression and mental ill health just as much as anyone else in the company. So if they're happy to talk about their struggles and show that they can still be a strong, competent, confident leader whilst dealing with this this kind of problem, then I think that's really powerful to other people to show that it doesn't have to be, you know, a career ender. It doesn't have to be something that can be looked down on. You can be looked down on for it is is an illness, as any of us. I mean, I've noticed that a lot of businesses quite happily talk on social media about their latest wellbeing initiatives, free fruit, access to employee assistance programs, but it's not enough, and therefore they will not keep the Black Dog away. There has to be a culture of openness and support in businesses. It has to be more than a tick box exercise. We can't go out there and say that we're doing this. We're, you know, we're giving our employees drinks on a Friday, that kind of thing. If those employees then don't feel that they can go to their manager when they're struggling and and ask for a mental health day or even. Even also for a sick day because of mental health. I know that there are a number of businesses that now offer mental health days to their employees. And that's a fantastic thing because sometimes you wake up in the morning and you may not feel sick, you may not feel ill in a physical sense, but mentally you just cannot deal with the day. And it's not a weakness. It's something that is is normal and should be should be openly talked about. Employees must feel supported and encouraged to speak up if they're struggling and not feel like they will be judged by their colleagues or their or their bosses if they do.
Mia: [00:12:07] That's a great point. Kirsty And you can really see the power in such initiatives in breaking down those barriers and trying to eradicate that stigma. And I know that a key element of the service offered by my Black Dog is that they are anonymous and non-judgemental. Do you think that approach is particularly critical for professionals who might otherwise feel a little bit reticent about discussing the challenges that they face?
Kirsty: [00:12:29] Absolutely. I feel there is still a lingering stigma around mental health and the fear of being seen as weak for opening up. I think there's still prevails quite a lot in insurance as as much as we are seeing a change at board level, it is still very heavily male dominated and there are certainly pockets of very antiquated ideals from people who are taught not to show emotion and to get ahead in business. You need to be a rock. You need to be solid. You can't show any signs of being unwell or like you might be struggling. And that's something that is very difficult for professionals to overcome, particularly if that has become ingrained in the culture. So the idea of being able to talk to someone on a non-judgemental or anonymous basis is really important. A lot of a lot of businesses do offer employee assistance programs, but we find that they aren't getting used as well as they should be. I think there's a lingering fear that those any disclosures on those services could get back to the employer, could be used against them in future. So external services like my Black Dog are so important because they are independent from the business and they offer a place where you can talk about anything you want and talk about very difficult things without having to look at and look at your peers in the in the eye and without having to feel like you might get penalized for talking about these things and that it could affect your career later on. The anonymity of the service is really important. Some people just don't want to put their name to something and but they still want help. And that's. That's fine. Not everyone feels comfortable talking openly. I think that will change and I think that will improve. But there's no there's no denying that there are some people who just will never feel comfortable. And for those people, it is important to have somewhere to talk where they don't have to look someone in the eye and admit that they're struggling. There's no shame in it, obviously, but it is. I think the anonymity of it is really, really important.
Mia: [00:14:28] I completely agree. These remain incredibly difficult conversations and it's certainly a very timely support service and unfortunately all too necessary right now. How can those listening who would like to support my black dog get involved?
Kirsty: [00:14:41] Absolutely. We're we're still looking for volunteers to to meet the demand, you know, with with the number of chats increasing. I know that there's going to be a greater demand for more hours, for more support, to talk to those people who come to come to us for help. You can visit myblackdog.co To find out how you can volunteer and fundraise. We're also running a number of events throughout the year where we will be present and we will be able to talk to people in person and just chat about the charity and what we offer and we can get that message out there through these events. We'll be at Car Fest North and south in August. And also there's a new festival, the At Ease Festival over the August Bank holiday weekend in Suffolk, a weekend of music, food and fun to support, force and my Black Dog. We're really looking forward to that. And we're looking for volunteers to help man the stand and just talk about the charity and give people an opportunity to find out more. One of the most important ways that we would like to talk about is partnerships with companies. There are a lot of companies who may be struggling to change the culture within the business or to show meaningful support to employees. And whereas they might have an employee assistance program, it might not be working or people might not be using it. So what we'd like to do is to partner with companies to offer additional support that's external to the company, that's anonymous and therefore more appealing to employees who prefer their mental health to remain separate to their work. Which is fair enough, and I think it's fine to keep the two separate, but we would really, really like to talk about forming company partnerships and making sure that companies know that there's a service out there that they can give to their employees as a resource that is completely separate and independent from them and hopefully encourage people to use it a bit more. But there's also you can also donate. I mean the charity is very small, but its growing very, very quickly. And certainly with the news this week of the invasions in Ukraine, it's it's a tense time for us across the UK. We've already been through two years of pandemic life. There's well, tensions, global tensions, rising prices. It's hardly any wonder that that chats to my black dog are increasing so rapidly. And we need the support. We need to have people who can who can jump in and help, who can talk to people, but also raise money to make sure that we can offer this service to people for a long time to come.
Mia: [00:17:10] I must say, Kirsty, it certainly sounds like there's never been a better time to get involved with this and I'm always a delight to speak with you and this has been no exception. But thanks so much for sharing your story with us here today. It's been a real pleasure and it's been really inspiring to hear about your journey and about the work that my Black Dog does.
Kirsty: [00:17:29] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It's such an important topic. It's so important to me. And I'm really glad to have have the platform to be able to share it with people and hopefully it will help, even if it just helps one person. I'll be happy, but I'm hoping it'll help a lot more.
Mia: [00:17:44] Absolutely. I can imagine that it will do as well. And and thanks for sharing the information on how to get involved. That's so important. And I'm hoping that a lot of people listening take you up on that as well.
Kirsty: [00:17:55] Me, too. I'm we're always here to talk whenever people need it.
Mia: [00:18:01] Fantastic. And for everybody listening. Thanks so much for joining us and I look forward to welcoming you back next time here on IB Talk.
Narrator: [00:18:12] Thank you for listening to IB Talk for the latest episodes. Be sure to follow us on SoundCloud, Stitcher and Apple Podcasts.
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