"When I was 18, I knew nothing about mental illness," says Paul. "I came home [from university] for Christmas and I was very ill. I actually saw the name of the drug I was taking in a textbook; I read all my symptoms. I was reading my own diagnosis."
While studying medical biochemistry at the University of Surrey as an 18-year-old almost three decades ago, Nelson-born Paul Graham discovered he had schizophrenia. Having been unwell for a few years before he moved south, he had never been able to get to the bottom of his illness; awareness of mental health was virtually non-existent. "I was more of less sent back to university with my tablets not really knowing what had gone on," he said.
Almost three decades on, and Paul says he is "very lucky" to have made some sort of recovery, even though it took years. "I listened to other people talk, which helped me quite a bit," he explains. "And I did a lot of reading and joined the National Schizophrenia Fellowship (now Rethink Mental Illness). But it goes through stages - I've never become catastrophically ill like I was, but I still have peaks and troughs."
It was at a National Schizophrenia Fellowship conference that Paul discovered how cathartic and helpful listening to others who had gone through similar experiences to him was and how engaging with them and their stories proved to be extremely beneficial. Opening a dialogue around mental health was transformative. And so that is what Paul is out to promote.
Time to Change is a growing social movement aiming to end mental health discrimination. For National Time to Talk Day on February 7th, Paul - who has worked with Time to Change for the past two years - has organised an event in the Community Room at Asda Colne at 1pm at which people can enjoy a chat and a brew in a welcoming environment.
"Time to Change is generally for people with a lived experience of a mental health problem," explained Paul of the event, which is geared towards de-stigmatising mental health by making small changes to social attitudes and behaviour. "We're not a support group as such; the idea is more to use your lived experience to reduce discrimination around mental health.
"If you have had a mental health problem in the past or are a parent of a carer of someone with a mental health problem, then coming along will help provide an insight into different issues and subtle things which can help with improving anyone's mental well-being," he added, with the event offering the chance for people to connect with those sharing their lived experiences.
"It takes a shift of attitudes to remove the stigma, which makes a massive difference in itself."
Statistically, one in four people will fight a mental health problem in any given year, which is why Paul - who works as the Office Manager at Literacy Solutions in Nelson - is on a mission to spread the message that opening up about mental health can yield untold positives.
He has spoken in numerous settings - including Nelson and Colne College (his former school), Lancashire Mind, and Churches Together - to extol the virtues of not only sharing, but of other crucial factors such as sleep, nutrition, and exercise having himself seen a massive improvement in his own well-being when he started cycling to work.
A public governor for Lancashire Care, Paul also gives talks at big local businesses such as the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce and Boohoo, encouraging them to sign up to the Time to Change Employer Pledge which promotes a working environment in which people can comfortably talk to their employer about mental health issues openly "as opposed to making up a bad back and calling in sick", in Paul's words.
Mental health costs the UK economy an estimated £100bn per year, leading Paul and Time to Change to appeal to employers to adopt a more proactive approach. "If you spend some time and money on mental health in the workplace, you'll ultimately save money because it'll improve productivity," he says.
Gone are the days when mental health was taboo. "It's okay to talk about mental health; more and more people will respect you for it," Paul says.
"Things are getting better."
For more information, head to https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/events/time-talk-day-community
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