“The storms still come, but I have the raincoat to weather it”
For a young Sydneysider, authentic sharing of one’s journey is the best way to combat the waves of psychological distress, anxiety and depression sweeping, and still to sweep, Australian society.
The calling to be a mental health advocacy was so strong for Mitch Wallis, founder of Heart On My Sleeve, that he said it was almost like the choice was taken out of his hands.
“My mental health deteriorated at an unprecedented rates of knots for a number of reasons – new work pressures, old coping techniques not working the way they used to, and an existential dilemma which made me feel I had the perfect exterior life but was unfulfilled on the inside,” he said.
“Part of the calling is recognising the amount of pain it causes to not listen to your pain.”
For Mr Wallis, this meant appreciating that he would have to go through the fire in order to come out the other side.
“Through this personal transformation came a professional one as well, where I promised myself that I would turn some of this pain into meaning if I could,” he recounted.
“Eventually, when I started to crawl my way out of the hole, I found profound meaning in sharing my experience, and receiving or listening to another person’s story. It changed my life.”
After finding inspiration on YouTube, he decided to share his own personal story of mental illness with the online community, with posts that were raw in their transparency and intensity.
What started as a cool, yet intimate, idea quickly exploded across the social media landscape of Australia: tens of thousands of online users currently follow Heart On My Sleeve (HOMS) across Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
On those platforms, individuals share their personal journey with mental illnesses by posting a ‘selfie’, with a heart drawn on their arm, and penning a story about their struggles, what has helped them, and why they think such public disclosure is important and cathartic.
Such honesty, and authenticity, gives “people power, a place to go, to feel seen and heart with the safety and the scale that technology provides”, Mr Wallis explained.
“Our main metric is driving a reduced sense of isolation and feelings of inadequacy, as well as increase help-seeking behavior,” he said.
“We try and address issues way higher in the funnel [rather than discussing suicide prevention] by promoting early intervention so issues are addressed before it gets [more serious].”
Following the enormously successful advocacy push via social media, HOMS will be expanding its offerings to include a national pledge, podcast, and artistic series, among other initiatives.
“We have a duty of care and so we’re moving into the service provider space, launching an e-learning module which allows people to get both the theory and the practical tools to come in and learn how they can ask for help, and represent their authentic selves to their family and friends in the right way,” he said.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to help people tell stories safely and productively.”
These opportunities should extend to persons across all walks of life, including those in professional services environments.
“I think there’s a two-way responsibility here: our generation should lead a new culture where we don’t just do things because it’s the way that they’ve been done previously,” he said.
“And from an upper management perspective, there’s a responsibility to have an open mindset so that we can usher in a new way of work.”
It will be a gradual process, he concedes, with change happening incrementally rather than in inflammatory or aggressive manners.
But, ultimately, individuals and institutions in the workplace must believe that such change is worthy of time and investment, he said.
Moving forward, Mr Wallis feels that HOMS has the right ingredients to be disruptive.
“We have a unique voice that feels more like a sporting or entertainment campaign, even though we’re doing it in mental health,” he explained.
“You don’t often see people in wellbeing spaces tattooing logos on their arms because they believe in it so much, which we’ve seen a whole band of people who follow us do.”
And while he is optimistic about what HOMS can do – something that is both exciting and nerve-wracking for him – he says the movement will need help from every level, including government, pharmaceutical, professional services, education and the wider community.
We are in a crisis, he stated, and needs a holistic approach across the board.
“It’s going to take trillions of dollars, and trillions of man hours, to get hold of issues that are taking too many lives, affecting too many people on a daily basis,” he said.
“We need to go beyond talking. We need improved medication, improved quality of therapy; charities can’t do it on their own.”
Through it all, Mr Wallis knows how fortunate he is to have weathered the storm, and come out the other side feeling stable.
“The storms absolutely still come for me, but I feel like I have the raincoat to be able to weather it for the time being,” he concluded.
“So, while I have that raincoat, I will provide the shelter, because it’s a duty, and not everyone has that privilege.”
His calling to serve just so happens to be doing something he loves, which makes it even easier for him to get out of bed in the morning.