Sharing our lived experience: our courage demands respect

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld

IT’S not simply turning up to speak.

You can make up your own mind about comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy routine quote. I have decided to tell the story of sharing the lived experience of mental health, the fear of speaking, the before and after, and the immense power of a person’s own story.

Not only does one need to overcome the fear of public speaking, but also the fear of sharing the lived experience. It’s not simply turning up to speak.

I do it so that I or others do not have to deliver that eulogy.

It requires one to share vulnerabilities in the most public way; telling a story about what has been taboo to speak about, especially so in my work group of health and medicine. It’s also a taboo topic for a male. Men have been very reluctant to speak up until very recently, and many still are.

Some talks go well, and some do not. Some talks are combined with tears. Some talks take a few days to regroup from. Some I have booked a routine appointment with a counsellor afterwards for support. It’s not simply turning up to speak.

I entered this phase of my life after I became a speaker and ambassador for Beyondblue in 2014. They have built much around individuals’ lived experience and their willingness to share their stories. Their speaker group numbers many hundreds from all walks of life, because mental health does not discriminate. These individuals are volunteers who give up their time in order to help others.

Beyondblue places huge value on the power of the lived experience, and it changes lives for the better. At the induction, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett spoke to us. He made the point that you will never know how many and who you help.

For a doctor, this is a strange experience, as the results are usually right in front of us.

I have no real knowledge of who I or the speakers have helped, but we all believe that if we can change just one life – save one life in a year of speaking – then we have achieved our aim.

My own reasons are many but include making a dent in the 3128 people that took their own lives in 2017. That’s eight people a day – six men and two women, every day. Upwards of 60 000 people attempt to end their lives per year. These are truly horrifying numbers, and so easily those numbers could have included me.

Medicine’s silent and hidden secret also has equally horrifying statistics.

My first talk was to a coterie group of an AFL football side: the Angels of the St Kilda Football Club. It was a terrifying experience and not the best speech I have ever given, but the women were supportive and kind.

I was called the next day by the Beyondblue speaker organisers – a routine they have to check on their speakers. They well know that it’s not simply turning up to speak. They protect this vital and most vulnerable part of their team. If talks are becoming too much, they schedule breaks. There is always the option to pull out at the last minute with no judgement. They know and respect that it’s not simply turning up to speak.

My next gig was a major TV show – SBS Insight in 2014 – giving national media exposure to what had previously been a hidden illness: male suicide. The professionalism of the team at Insight shone through. After the taping, they checked on me the next day. After the show was aired, they again checked twice to make sure I was okay. The team from Beyondblue also checked in.

They both set a high standard of professionalism and support. They realise it’s not simply turning up to talk.

Outside Beyondblue, I have accepted invitations to talk from major colleges and hospitals. Despite, on occasions, breaking down and crying on stage, I am yet to receive that call. Maybe that is the medical profession failing to realise that it’s not simply turning up to talk.

Some of these colleges and hospitals expect you to pay your own expenses, to speak and share your most vulnerable time, and again be judged by your peers.

Why did I write this article? I do it because I have seen my friends and colleagues in this space, Dr Yumiko Kadota and The Wounded Healer in the United Kingdom, who have been targeted as I have been, judged by those who do not have the right to judge. If they felt the same way as me as a result, then I feel great empathy for them. It was a horrifying experience for me and required added support.

I will leave you with a Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Those who share their lived experience bleed a little or a lot, both before and after. My friends in this space are hurting as well. We need respect but, especially in medicine, that requires a huge cultural change.

It’s not simply turning up to speak.

Dr Geoffrey Toogood is a cardiologist and a long-time advocate for mental health. He has swum the English Channel. He came up with the idea of crazysocks4docs day. He was recently awarded the 2019 AMA President’s Award.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email