Podcast: Poppy Jaman OBE

22 February 2022

Thea Joshi chats with Poppy Jaman OBE, CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance, founder of Mental Health First Aid England and trustee at Centre for Mental Health. Reflecting on her own lived experience of mental health problems and growing up in a Bengali Muslim family, Poppy talks about some of the individuals who supported her at pivotal points in her life. Together they discuss the root causes of mental ill-health, and why we need to stop thinking about systems of change as immovable things “out there in the ether”, rather than being made up of people who can make change happen. Poppy also shares the things she does to maintain her mental health and look after herself.

Listen to the episode on Spotify or iTunesThe full transcript is available below.

Show notes: 

Music by scottholmesmusic.com




Alethea Joshi (AJ): Hello and welcome to Centre for Mental Health’s podcast, where we explore ideas around mental health, equality, and social justice. I’m Thea Joshi, and this podcast is a place where we talk to people with lived experience of mental health problems, people working in a specific area of mental health, or some of our own team, to discuss how we’re engaged in the fight for equality in mental health.

I recently caught up with Poppy Jaman OBE; she’s the CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance, and the founding CEO of Mental Health First Aid in England. She’s also one of our trustees here at the Centre. And I have to say it was a real joy to get to chat and listen to Poppy, hearing about her own lived experience of mental health problems and growing up in a Bengali Muslim family, and about some of the individuals who supported Poppy at pivotal points in her life. And we discussed the root causes of mental ill-health, and why we need to stop thinking about systems of change as immovable things “out there in the ether”, rather than being made up of people who can make change happen. We also chatted about the things that Poppy does to maintain her mental health and look after herself.

So I’ve got to say, I’m really excited to be here with Poppy Jaman today. She is the Chief Exec of the City Mental Health Alliance, and she’s also a trustee of Centre for Mental Health. So welcome, Poppy!

Poppy Jaman (PJ): Hi, Alethea. Thank you very much.

AJ: So I am really looking forward to this conversation. But I have to say I’m a little daunted because I know that you’ve been interviewed by the likes of Fearne Cotton and Bryony Gordon on their podcasts. So obviously, that was all leading up to this moment, the pinnacle of your podcast journey…!

PJ: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more.

AJ: That’s so kind. So Poppy, you are also the founding CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, you obviously have an OBE and are generally a highly respected advisor, advocate, campaigner for mental health. And there’s so much that I want to hear from you about. So I’m just going to dive in and ask you very generally, if you would be happy to tell us a bit more about your journey up until this point, in your own words.

PJ: So yeah, let me let me sort of go back well, almost 26 years. So I experienced my first episode of mental ill health in the form of postnatal depression. But actually, if I go back now to my teens, I recognise that my mental health struggles probably started in my mid to late teens, but it wasn’t picked up by my family. In fact, it was partly the environment that I was in. So you know, I grew up as a British-Bengali Muslim woman, a young girl, and at that time, there was a lot of discrimination, a lot of gender discrimination.

And anyway, long story short, I ended up having a forced marriage that then led to even more exacerbated mental health struggles. And it really appeared when the medical service kicked in when you have a baby, because you’ve got so much support around you. So that was my first sort of experience of anything mental health. And that then led to, I guess, an enormous curiosity, but also looking at family members in a different light, particularly my mum and dad, thinking about the fact that they migrated to this country. We know, there’s lots of examples I’ve talked about at other Centre for Mental Health events about racism, etc.

So I guess all of those issues, societal issues that the Centre is working so hard to raise the profile of and bring equity to, I’m the lived experience of that. But having said that, I’m a middle-class privileged woman, now in a very senior job, with lots of influence, status, respect, financial resources. So I am no longer there. And I guess I’m also an example of social mobility. And when equality does play a strong part and allyship plays a strong part in getting people like me out of that situation into here, because you don’t do that alone. It takes a whole community to raise a child. And that is probably the beginning of the question that you asked.

Yeah, so here I am today. I am the Chief Executive of the City Mental Health Alliance. Our vision is to create mentally healthy workplaces. We’ve been going for a decade. I’m about to launch the global chapter of our organisation and our ambition is to be in 80 countries so that workplace mental health is completely baked in to employers’ minds and settings and that we can never go back. That’s what I would love my legacy to be once I’ve finished this career. And I’m quite keen to retire soon, I’m knackered. The emotional labour that this stuff takes. I’d like to just prance about in sarees somewhere hot, if life allows.

But I guess it’s been a very interesting and fascinating journey, and I’ve had lots of therapy and time to reflect on that journey. And that’s why I think I’ll always be campaigning for mental health. But actually, nowadays, I’m beginning to talk more about the root causes of mental health difficulties, hence sharing so much of my story. Gender and equality matters. Race equality matters. Neurodiversity awareness and equality matters. All of the intersects, without getting that bit right we can’t really prevent mental ill health. And that’s what the Centre’s work is about, which is why I’ve chosen to be a trustee and try and help navigate this and push it forward. Like I said, I want to retire soon. So let’s get it done, as much as I can.

AJ: Thank you. We are so grateful for you being on board, literally, Poppy. One thing you mentioned there was about it taking a community to raise a child and talking about that in terms of your own growth and development and where you’ve got to today. And I was interested to know, what are some of the elements of that community for you? What were some of the elements?

PJ: That’s a really good question. And as soon as you asked that question, I thought of a couple of my teachers, actually. So I remember one teacher, Mrs. Moore, taking me aside and very much recognising that I was really struggling with home issues. And simple things, like I was really into dancing, I’m still into dancing (but I haven’t been to a good party for a while so I’m missing that) but actually, I wanted to perform at school, and because my family were against me staying on at school after school hours – their fear, I suppose, led that – but I experienced that as gender inequality, and actually was really annoyed that I couldn’t go to dance and perform, etc. And I remember Mrs. Moore just being amazing. She took me aside and at lunchtime she’d make time for me to just listen to what was going on. And a few times she had picked up the phone and phoned my mum with me next to her at school, just explaining to my mum what I was doing after school and I wasn’t going off. So what did Mrs. Moore do? She went over and above. She recognised my struggles, then went over above her school duties in order to have a conversation that would reassure my family, which meant that I could have access like my girl friends (I went to a girls school) [they] to the evening classes. That is equity work. It’s not giving something more to me as a student, it was actually levelling the platform, because everybody already had permission from their parents. I didn’t have permission from my parents because of fear. So I think that is a really good example of what we as individuals can do in our respective jobs. Even though there’s time pressure, sometimes that one call or that one act can change someone’s life. So I think that’s a very good example.

I think in the workplace, the reason why I’m so passionate about the workplace is [because of] my first job. So I was really struggling with my mental health, the antidepressants, the medication at the time, you know, it takes almost six months to settle into proper medication the first time in many people’s experiences. So I was struggling with meds, and I was struggling with the therapist because the therapist hadn’t really had experience of working with an Asian woman who was in a marriage that she didn’t want to be in and all the complexities that come with that. And various other things happened, but I decided to get a job. And actually, I got my first job after the birth of my daughter at the Citizens Advice Bureau. And again, my manager was just so amazing. I can’t remember her name now. But she recognised my age, the fact that I was a young mum, the fact that there was clearly something going on in my domestic life that I wasn’t talking about. And she just managed me with so much kindness that I never had to disclose my mental health struggles (because I didn’t know that I even had to disclose back then it was just one big blur. I was essentially a child with a child.) But again, compassionate leadership, compassionate management in the workplace, you don’t have to be mental health qualified to have a good quality conversation. And when I led Mental Health First Aid up until 2018, that was my big passion there – that everybody can have a conversation. Mental Health First Aid isn’t some incredibly unique thing, it just teaches you to actually have a compassionate dialogue.

And so I would say [in terms of] raising the child as a community: teacher, workplace, and then my health visitor. She was the one that recognised that I wasn’t well, and she took me aside, sat me down in a corner, when I’d gone to the normal clinics, like you used to back in the day to have your baby weighed, etc. And she picked up on my anxiety. And then actually went and got a doctor and got them to see me within the hour of being there. And again, another intervention that was life saving. And I could go on, I could go on. Just so many examples of throughout life that people noticed and they acted. And that, for me, is the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is me being able to put myself in your shoes. And action is when I go and do something about it. And that is exactly what equity in mental health is about. It’s that simple.

AJ: That’s such an encouraging story, all of those little sort of vignettes are just really genuinely encouraging. And what’s interesting is that, as you said, about Centre for Mental Health’s work, we’re focusing on equality and mental health. And often we’re talking there about systems and systemic issues, systemic inequality. And I think what you’re showing there as well though is that also, there’s a very human, very individual level to all the stuff that we’re talking about. It’s not systems somewhere in the ether of this weird, invisible force. It’s also just individual people making good decisions for driving for equity.

What I also think is really amazing in terms of timing is that we literally yesterday (not when this goes out, but when we’re recording) we just launched a new report with the Maternal Mental Health Alliance about mothers’ mental health, and specifically about integrating provision for mothers in antenatal and postnatal care with midwives and health visitors and, again, highlighting that role that health visitors and these physical health professionals can play in mothers’ mental health. And that’s so exciting to hear that that was your experience.

PJ: Yeah, and I suppose an observation I want to make about what you’ve said about systems, Alethea, is: systems are made up of people. So unless we individually change our behaviour, the system isn’t going to change itself. So if the policy is we don’t ask people about their personal lives in the workplace, for example, which essentially if it wasn’t a written down policy, it was the workplace culture that we avoided talking about anything about anybody’s personal lives. And actually, that’s very much part of our British culture as well. And you know, I bridge British-Bengali culture, so I can really see the difference. So, you know, the British culture is also we mustn’t pry or we mustn’t overstep the mark in terms of personal questions and things. So that is a system, yeah? And that is held up by me and you practising that. So unless I change my behaviour, then the policy in the workplace won’t change, that actually, it’s okay to ask about someone’s sleep patterns and whether their kids are all right, because unless you know those bits of your team members’ lives, then you’re not going to know whether performance at work is related to a skills deficit, a competency issue, or actually just life issues that’s happening to them that you might be able to leverage a little bit.

And I’ll give you another example on that from my personal life. This is just ridiculous. I was doing my MBA and I was working for South East Development Centre, which was the regional arm of the National Institute for Mental Health in England. So that was my first regional job and it was sort of an arm’s length body of the Department of Health and I was leading on race equality for South East England. So I was doing that job and it was a pretty big job and a massive step for me. I haven’t got a levels, I haven’t got a first degree, I came from GCSEs, worked my way through as a community development worker and then found myself in this job after a leadership programme that the NHS had put in place that my line manager insisted I went on. But I had said to her, I don’t want to go to a BME [programme], why can’t I just go to a normal leadership programme? I was so arrogant.

AJ: I don’t think that’s arrogance. I think that’s right!

PJ: Well, I guess it was naive because she was like, ‘Poppy, everybody that’s gone on this leadership programme has raved on about it, speak to a few people that have gone to it’. And then I was like, okay, I’ll put in an application, thinking they’ll never accept me anyway, I’ve only just got GCSEs. Anyway, they accepted me on this leadership programme. And it was the first time I was in a room of a load of Black and Brown people at managerial [level] or aspiring leaders. Because I lived in Portsmouth, I was in the minority. People like me weren’t in jobs, you know, most of my family, well, all the women in my family didn’t work up until me. I was the first woman to drive in my family, the first woman to get a job. So going on this BME programme, I suddenly met all these people and I was like wow, there’s so much that we relate to in terms of being people of colour in our businesses, in our education. And it was such an amazing leadership programme. But that then gave me the confidence to go for a regional job because it was on the back of that. So that’s the first example, this manager of mine being like, I’ve seen you and I’ve seen your potential, and here’s a door that I am opening for you, and we’ll fund it. You should go to this. So that’s one example.

And then sort of five years later, I found myself working with the South East Development Centre, and another manager, Judy, amazing. She was like, your CV doesn’t reflect the job that you’re doing. Whatever your next career step is, it’s not going to happen on the basis that your CV’s s**t, basically. So what are you gonna do about that? I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. I’ve got a baby at home, I’m already doing this job. We’ll fund it, go and do an MBA, she said to me. Do general management. If you don’t know what you want to do, it will just tick all the boxes. And they gave me time off. Again, another manager spotting talent and going look, we’re gonna help you because you deserve an opportunity.

So going back to loads of people coming together to build one person up – if we all took that approach most days in our lives, or like, you know, three days in our lives, it would make such a difference, wouldn’t it? It would change systems because, if you think about it, the way both of those three managers were so kind to me means that I’m really kind to my team. And I want to go the extra mile. So what are what are we doing? We’re changing the system through culture. And the paperwork will follow. But I think people talk about systems, like you said, like it’s something out there that’s just gonna change. We have to change our own behaviour.

AJ: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s such a helpful point because I think, whilst we are completely about systems change, and some of that will be out of our reach. I don’t have the power myself to, say, change benefits policy at the moment, although I wish I could. But at the same time, I think it’s really important for us to remember that we’re not powerless that, as you said, the system isn’t some weird, obsolete thing out there but that actually is in all of us to change our behaviour and change the systems around us. And I think that’s such a, for want of a better word, empowering message, to know that these things are within our grasp, and we also all have a responsibility for making equality in mental health a reality.

PJ: Yeah, definitely. And we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our kids. And if you haven’t got kids then the little people and young people that may be in your life or that you experience through media, but actually we have to put ourselves in those shoes and hope that they look back at some of the stuff that we did and say, God, at least they tried. Do you know I mean? I don’t know whether we will succeed but I think we’re gonna make some pretty good progress because there’s a whole load of us. There’s a mental health army, like Sarah Hughes, you, our organisations, and we’re not going to just not change. But I do want the next generation to look back and go, they did a good job of putting us on a platform.

AJ: Yeah, 100%. Just going right back, you mentioned about when you were first experiencing postnatal anxiety and depression and struggling with the therapist because she hadn’t kind of supported people who were in your situation or from your background. And it reminded me of Myira Khan who we had on the podcast a good nine months ago, who runs the Muslim Psychotherapist & Counselling Network. And we talked quite a lot about culturally informed responses and providing a culturally informed service. And I would just love to know your thoughts on that and what you think would make the biggest difference in that area?

PJ: I think you have to start quite a long way up the supply chain. So after the tragic murder of George Floyd, and the massive Black Lives Matter movement, and all of us waking up, some of us being triggered, to actually do better. And it was an amazing period as a CEO and as a leader in this sector to be around because there was so much emotion, which was hard, but there was so much honesty and so much listening going on. One of the things that happened was in the workplaces, so the City Mental Health Alliance community, our members were coming to us and saying, do you know Black therapists? Or, do you know diverse therapeutic communities? And actually, they were then looking at their employee assistance programmes that they have for their employees where counselling is often part of that service, and going back and saying, show us who are on your books. And discovering that actually, quite often, that it wasn’t a diverse set of therapists.

And so the one massive and practical thing that came out of that movement in the workplace space is a real consciousness to therapy needing to be culturally appropriate for racialised communities and minoritised communities. And I think that speaks volumes because it’s still not accessible, and partly because of the supply chain issue. We haven’t got enough therapists from the Bangladeshi community, from the Indian community, from the Pakistani community, from the African communities that we’ve got here. We just haven’t got enough therapists. And partly that will be because of stigma, partly because people don’t know that that’s a career path that they should be progressing because the mental health awareness in our communities is so low. And there’s a statistic I do want to share about that in a minute. But we have to invest in getting more people trained as therapists in the first place because the supply and the demand isn’t matching up at the moment.

And the other really interesting thing from a workplace lens is we did a piece of research with Lloyds Banking Group on racism in the workplace, led by my colleague, Farimah Darbyshire. And we discovered that Black and Brown people were more likely to seek help for their mental health and talk about mental health at work than they were in their communities. So actually, there’s two ways of looking at that. For me, I carry the responsibility of my community on my shoulder and I feel quite ashamed that we haven’t done more to raise awareness in our community. And actually, isn’t it sad that our kids are more likely to go to work and talk about their mental health than at home with me or my aunties. I mean, that’s sad. But then when I look at it with my workplace CEO head on, I’m like, wow, what an opportunity for workplaces to foster that belonging by encouraging people from Black and Brown communities, minoritised communities, to come to work and talk about it because we already know that they’re doing more of that anyway, so build on it.

So I just think that it’s really important that when people do seek help the first, second, third time, like it’s really hard to do it the first time and if you’re not lucky enough like me working in the social sector, I had people constantly going, ‘go back to therapy, find the next therapist, it’s the shoe that fits. It’s not going to be the first time, see it as an interview’. If I didn’t have people like that encouraging me, I’d probably only have just done it that first time and gone, actually, this isn’t for me. And if I had, I can’t imagine what a nightmare I’d be because I’d have such little personal insight into my mental health struggles, how it presents itself, how I can manage it. I think I’d be a really troubled mother. I think I would have done a bad job of lots of different things. So again, it’s really important to get therapy right. And keep trying. Anybody that’s listening that thinks, oh, God, I’ve tried it once, it was bit rubbish: keep trying, because when you find the right person, it’s life changing in terms of quality of wellbeing.

AJ: Yeah, 100%, I can totally agree with that. So true. And I have to ask you because it’s so important to us, I know it’s really important to you. We’ve talked a lot already about inequalities in mental health. But I just wanted to ask you, if we’re talking about this massive goal of the eradication of mental health inequalities, I mean there’s so many things, but what in your view could really make a difference to making that reality?

PJ: I’ve already talked a lot about individual behaviour and I really think that every single one of us that are working in this space, just take a pause, and just reflect on: are you perpetuating systems that discriminate by not speaking up? Because there’s so much work to be done, and you get stuck sometimes because you think you’re in the justice world or equality world, but actually [not] really thinking about it. And then I think, actually, every organisation needs to put in a framework, and we were talking about it at my board meeting this morning. And one of my colleagues said, this is the framework. Every time we do a project, we need to be monitoring access, action and impact. So you need to be going, are people accessing the services or the support or the awareness or whatever it is that we’re doing? What action are they taking as a result of it? And how do we find out that that action has been taken and what it is? And then what impact is that action having? So if we put that kind of framework around all the work that we’re doing, I think we’re going to get the data and the quality of information that we’re going to get in terms of how far up this eradication journey we are at, or [whether] we are actually doing more harm. And I think until we know that it’s going to be really hard.

And that, again, is somewhere where I think the Centre’s got a very big role to play (and it already is doing so), is really looking at the research, the credibility, what is working. And getting to impact is hard. So we were saying in our board meeting, let’s just start by anecdotes. Let’s just start by the one or two stories that comes when you release this toolkit: we used it, somebody said that actually, as a result of that, they went and got help. Like, it doesn’t need to be more sophisticated, but we need to start somewhere. So that would be the framework that I’m going to put out there today with you, Alethea, is let’s look at access, action and impact of the work that we’re doing. And then we’ll know whether we’re reaching the people that we need to be reaching. 

AJ: Yeah, thank you, Poppy. There’s so much food for thought there. So thank you for that. It’s a really helpful framework, I think. I’m conscious of your time but I just wondered if I could ask you one more question? And feel free to say if you don’t want to talk about this, but obviously we’ve talked about you accessing therapy and managing your mental health, and I would love to know, are there certain things that you do to maintain good mental health that really help you?

PJ: Yeah, loads, and I’ve actually started a list again, because I always talk about people writing down their wellbeing toolkit. So I talk about writing your stress signature down, which is how does stress presents itself. So, you know, for me, it’s irritability, headaches, lack of sleep, limited diet, losing my appetite. So those are the kinds of things you write down in your stress signature. And then your wellbeing toolkit, you write down the things that help. And I was reflecting on this because I think it’s changed quite a lot in recent times, but I haven’t really properly thought about it. But one of the things that has changed is, my colleague Hannah actually brought this term to my attention, ‘fitness snacking’.

AJ: Wow, okay, I’m intrigued!

PJ: So basically what she’s saying is, instead of trying to fit in an hour’s worth of exercise, before work or after work, or lunchtime when those of us that were exercising might, actually get more in like 10 minutes in between meetings, go for a little walk, do a little yoga session, do a quick 10 minute workout. So it’s snacking on fitness basically, throughout your day. And I guess this has come quite specifically with the fact that many of us are still working from home and it’s hard to get that one hour in. But actually, because of the lack of movement we’re seeing an increase in chronic pain. So fitness snacking is something that I’ve started to introduce myself in my working life. And it’s brilliant. I love it. So I do yoga in the morning, most nights I’ll do yoga again. And then in between, I’ve moved to Brighton, so I went for a little sea dip at lunchtime.

AJ: Oh, very nice.

PJ: Yes, I managed three fitness snacks in one day. So that’s something, and yoga I mentioned, like that’s been part of my world for a few years now and it really is the only way that I can really centre myself. Time with the kids in a different way is the other thing because they’ve all left home now. And you know, whether it’s zoom calls, or actually a walk and chat with one. So reconnecting with family. I’m trying to take my aunties and mum out once a week. So we are going to do bhaji on the beach at some point.

AJ: Oh my gosh, I love that. And also, have you seen the film?

PJ: Yes.

AJ: Okay. Okay. I’m going to have to somehow link to that. It’s probably on some YouTube channel, there must be a copy of it somewhere. Guys, if you haven’t seen it, it’s an excellent film from the ’90s. But that’s so exciting! 

PJ: Yeah. So those and then eating better as well. I am trying to sort out my gut microbiome. So I’ve got a friend who’s a specialist in this area, and she’s helping me to get the right nutrients. I think, because I’m perimenopausal, I’ve had hormone tests done. So it’s quite interesting, when you asked me that question, before I would have reeled off like 10 things. But I’m in transition at the moment, because of just all the health struggles that I had late last year, you know, my mental health took a downward dip, I had the shingles virus and was off work for three months. So I’m really trying to reengage with what health and wellbeing mean to me, but those are some of the things that are happening at the moment, if that’s helpful, Alethea. 

AJ: That’s super helpful. And I guess that’s something about wellbeing. It’s like different seasons of life will mean different things and wellbeing will look different. I mean, that probably all sounds very cliche, but I think there’s some truth in it. But that’s super helpful to hear. I love the idea both of the stress signature and the wellbeing toolkit. I’m a fan of frameworks so this is really speaking to me.

Poppy, I could literally go on talking with you all day, especially about Bhaji on the Beach. But we have to stop there. But look, just thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful.

PJ: It’s been lovely chatting to you, too. Thank you very much. That was a lot of fun.

AJ: I really hope you enjoyed this episode. Just a reminder that we rely on donations to fight for equality in mental health, so we’d love it if you could donate at www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/donate. Take care and see you next time.

Tag: Podcast

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