'It feels like coming home': starting a new chapter at Centre for Mental Health

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David Woodhead
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11 October 2021

By David Woodhead

‘We’d like to offer you a job’, says the man on the end of the phone. ‘Oh, it’s Andy, by the way’. My response is spontaneous, non-verbal: a squawk, maybe; or a squeal, perhaps; a half scream, most certainly.

The interview went well, at least I thought it had, but I didn’t know if I’d done enough. It’s always hard to tell.

I’ve wanted to work for Centre for Mental Health for quite some time. Over recent years, I have watched them expand their influence on thinking about inequalities and social justice. I have read their reports and briefings, and even penned the occasional blog for them. And as Covid lockdowns rolled forward, what they were saying about inequality and social justice was ever more pertinent and important.

The Centre’s core messages strike a chord with me. I started to understand early on in life that where we live, and how we live, and how much we have, have direct impacts on health.

My father lived in a mining town in the early 80s and saw the devastating effects of pit closures on his friends and their families. I went to a small comprehensive school in Yorkshire where there were stark differences between the middle class kids and those from poor families.

The Centre’s core messages strike a chord with me. I started to understand early on in life that where we live, and how we live, and how much we have, have direct impacts on health.

A few years later, at university in London, I came out, half terrified, straight into the AIDS pandemic and the roll out of Clause 28 – challenging times with long term legacies on me and my friends. We’ve had our mental health challenges over the years; some took their own lives, others struggled with addiction, a fair few faced the stigma attached to being HIV+.

These are some of the things that motivate me.

My interest in research and mental health has spanned almost 25 years – my PhD in the mid 90s considered the psychosocial impacts of the HIV epidemic – and has brought many privileges. I’ve been lucky to work with communities and colleagues who have fought tirelessly to get resources to the people who need it most. Together, we’ve started to understand what people need, the assets they bring, and how best to improve their health and wellbeing.

My interests have been wide. For example, in recent years, I have researched street homelessness, reviewed international literature about inequalities and cancer, listened to the stories of LGBT people who experienced childhood trauma, and explored how reminiscence can improve the wellbeing of people with dementia. Each piece led me back to the same conclusion: inequalities are worsening, there’s a lot for us to do, and we have little time in which to act.

When work and personal values align, the momentum for action is easily found

The research work at Centre for Mental Health is well established and world class. And I am picking up the mantle of Associate Director of Research with humility and excitement, delighted to be lending a hand. An early task is to develop a plan for the next three years to heighten our impact. My eye is drawn to LGBT health, the social impact of sexual violence, the effects of Covid lockdowns, the health of people in the criminal justice system, and the impacts of racism – which is of critical importance to everything we do. Working in the field of inequalities focuses my mind on poverty – not least its impact on children and young people – and the host of problems that comes with it. The detail of the plan is yet to be agreed and I am open to suggestions and challenge.

These are critical times for mental health. Building knowledge about the scale of the problem and how best we can improve people’s lives and experiences of services is crucial. I’m looking forward to working with the team and building alliances outside of the organisation. Success is found in collaboration.

When work and personal values align, the momentum for action is easily found. Did I mention how pleased I am to be here?

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