Hope – An Interview with Gill Hayes
written by Tracey Duke
photography by Pip Andersen
A few months ago, I met the most incredible woman; a mum of three, she was prepping for Ted X Exeter at the time we met. Whilst I didn’t know the subject of her talk, she kept that quiet, I couldn’t help but notice the positive energy she held; happy, focused, inspired and knowledgeable. We were drawn powerfully, as a group, to her magnetic, beautifully compassionate, personality.
What we didn’t know, was that just 4 short years before, Gill Hayes had, in the early hours of March 13th 2013, left her sleeping family at home in Exeter, driven to a bridge and jumped.
Much has been written of her story; of how her depression built quietly to a darkness she could no longer live with, of how of all people she was the least likely to have attempted to take her own life and how she simply did not see the signs coming.
I’m happy to say that she’s now fully recovered and I’m proud to consider Gill as a friend. She inspires me on the deepest levels with so much to take from her story.
My focus here, however, is not so much on what happened that fateful morning, but on how her life is now; what she’s learnt from her tragic experience and the changes she’s put in place to make sure she never finds herself in those darkest of places, again.
When we met earlier this month, at the city’s Southgate Hotel, I found her to be focused, relaxed and nothing short of beautiful.
Gill first off, you look amazing; so full of life & vitality! Obviously, we’re here to talk mental health and the importance of the daily maintenance of our wellbeing. So many of us spend time thinking about our diets and whether we’ve got to the gym this week, but so few of us take time to look after our minds. The ironic thing is that if our minds aren’t in great shape, what do we have?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. We need to think about mental health in the same way that we think about our physical health. With physical health, we know what to do to look after it; we know about good diet, good exercise, good sleep and all of those things. With mental health, we don’t think about it; I certainly didn’t think about it. As far as I was concerned, mental health problems were something that happened to other people. I was robust; I was a go-getter, a glass half full kind of girl. I thought mental health problems just didn’t happen to me, but I learnt the hard way.
Your Ted Talk gathered so much exposure; our readers can easily find your talk to get the full story, but let’s focus on how life has changed for you since that morning. What practices have you put into place to ensure that you stay as vibrant as you clearly are now?
The thing to remember is that no-one is immune; we all need to look after our mental health. Through my own research, trial and error, I’ve come up with, I guess, a toolbox of tricks and things that work for me. That’s a mixture of yoga, of meditation and of exercise. I’ve also taken up the piano, which let’s be honest is hilarious & challenging, but a whole lot of fun!
I also joined a choir, I got a dog and I’m staying active. And that’s the thing; I’ve always been active but now I understand the importance of it. Being active can mean a whole host of things; for me, I’ll go and have a thrash around in the surf every now and then or go for a walk, for others it might be getting on a dance floor. What you choose to do is not important, it’s the doing it that is.
So if you could summarise the main areas we need to focus on, what would they be?
There are five recognised areas of things that we need to consider in order to look after our mental health:
Connect. John Donne’s poem; No Man Is An Island, is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. We are social animals; we need a connection to survive and to thrive. It’s one of the things I ensure that I make time for every single day.
It’s all too easy, when we’re all so busy & time poor, to text someone and blow a night off, but actually no! Don’t do it. We know that we all feel better when we’ve offloaded to a friend or we’ve had a good moan or a great night out. Connection is vitally important.
Be Active. That can be whatever that means to you; whether it’s just going for a walk or kicking a football around; being active is really important and releases feel good endorphins to boost your overall state of mind.
Take Notice. This is the other thing that is often put forward. A lot of people talk about mindfulness these days; I personally have my own meditation practice. We don’t need to have any particular practice to be able to take notice. I think that in our busy lives we can spend so much time not taking notice. Most of us tend to operate on automatic pilot; we have to come out of that state of mind and really be present. We can do that by using our senses. If you’re walking to work, feel the sun or the rain on your face. Feel & smell and notice the change of seasons. All of those things are really positive.
It’s when we take notice that we sometimes have those great insights. Do you think Newton would have devised his theory of gravity if he’d been e-mailing on his smartphone when the apple fell?
Keep Learning. None of us knows it all, so keep actively learning. It doesn’t matter how old you are, growth is so important! Learn to dance, to sing, learn a new language, take a course, just keep growing and wake every day with a purpose.
Give. Giving can be anything from simply smiling at someone on the street, saying hello to a stranger, volunteering or fundraising. That sense of contribution to our world, however seemingly insignificant to you, can have hugely positive benefits.
I personally also practice…
Gratitude: This is something that has huge power for me. Even if you’ve had the worst day, there is always something that comes from that day to be thankful for. At the end of the day, think of three things that happened that you can be grateful for. Even if it’s something as simple as a hot cup of coffee or hearing your child laugh, it’s so important to focus on that; developing an attitude of gratitude is such a positive thing.
If we let it, our mind will naturally focus on the bad stuff so we have to do the work and keep focused on the good. If you give your energy to the negative stuff and spend your time worrying, it will have a knock on negative effect and from there it’s a slippery slope.
A word of warning: in our overly busy lives, there is a danger that the steps to well-being can just become another item for the ‘to do’ list, inadvertently causing more stress instead of alleviating it! Therefore cut yourself some slack, introduce one or two things at a time and remember that kicking back and chilling out are perfectly valid elements of staying well!
That makes a lot of sense. I know that I personally practice most of these points on a daily basis, but I’ve spent time getting to that point.
There are certain things that we need to do on a daily basis and some on a more ad hoc monthly basis, but the important thing is to keep our eye on it and check in with ourselves.
Keeping a journal is also something that works for me: I wrote a lot in my journal when I was recovering from my breakdown. I found it so helpful.
I think the other thing is not being afraid to talk. I think that many people, men especially, are very reluctant to admit when they’re feeling the pressure. We can be the most positive person on the planet, with our toolbox of tricks at the ready, but there are still days when you’ll sit down and question whether you can do it. Admitting you need help, is a sign of strength, not weakness.
I think you’re absolutely right. When I became ill, I was quite masculine in my thinking and I didn’t reach out to seek help; look where it got me. I am the personification of how things can go so badly wrong. We need to open up and have the conversation. We need to make it easier for people to say; ‘hey you know what, I’m not coping’.
Gill I know that, since your Ted Talk, you’ve been working with a number of businesses to address mental health issues and to start that conversation. What are you finding from your work?
So there’s a clear business and economic benefit to looking after our employees’ mental health and in encouraging good-working mental health.
Alarmingly, the mental health charity MIND puts the cost to the UK economy at £26 billion in lost working days, staff turnover and decreased productivity. The Mental Health Foundation put the figure a whole lot higher at a cost of between £70 and 100 billion in lost working days alone.
As startling as these figures are, as a whole, when you cut everything back they represent pain, suffering and a fight just to survive, by an individual.
A huge number of businesses are, thankfully, addressing this now and taking it very seriously; whether that’s organising workplace choirs, running clubs, meditation sessions or introducing flexible working hours to fit in with family life. One Solicitors I know of, even has a work camper van that employees can book and take off in for the weekend. It’s so refreshing to see well-being taken seriously. It’s forward thinking and it’s the way all businesses will eventually go; it’s a false economy to be any other way.
If you have someone sitting at their desk who is not functioning, they’re not helping your business. If you have someone who is physically active, who’s engaged and love their work on the other hand; it’s a different story. Don’t get me wrong there are always times when there are deadlines due and everyone knuckles down. However, if someone on a daily basis, is still at their desk when everyone else is gone, either their workload is too big or they’re not coping. That’s simply not sustainable in the long term and it’s not going to be good for anybody.
I was lucky and I have another chance at life. My focus now is to do everything I can to make sure we make a change for good: that we help people better understand the importance of good mental health and help create a society where people can talk openly about these issues without fear of recrimination or stigma. The time for change is now, not next year or in 5 years; it’s now.
You can see Gill’s original Ted Talk and story at http://tedxexeter.com/category/people/g/gill-hayes/
Follow her @gillhayes2