Drawing of group therapy. I'm holding my head in my hands

That’s me, on the right

My story

I drew this immediately after my first group therapy session, having been admitted to psychiatric hospital.

I talked for a while, then burst into tears and kept crying for several minutes.

The people on either side of me put a hand on me.

I particularly remember that.

It felt good.

But I couldn’t stop crying for a while.

Afterwards, I was exhausted. But relieved too.

Mental Health in Law Firms

Corporate, My story

If you run a law firm, or run the HR team, you might find it helpful to hear about what seems to have gone down well at Slaughter and May, Linklaters, Freshfields and many other firms in the City and outside London.

My next talk is at another Magic Circle firm. I thought it might help drum up attendance if I recorded a 1m video for the people there. If you’d like me to talk at your firm, I’m sure I could do something similar.

For a bit more detail, try this video:

Thank you for watching.

JP

International Men’s Day: Join Me

Events, My story
Highly professional video by JP Flintoff

Tuesday 19 November is International Men’s Day.

When I first started thinking what to do with my own experience of breakdown and recovery, I thought about publishing my drawings as a book, with the title:

How To Stop Your Man Falling Apart (and what to do if it’s happened already)

I haven’t published the pictures yet, under that title or any other. But I’ve shown them to hundreds of people, who seemed to find them interesting and helpful.

I am going to talk about my experience online on Tuesday. If you’d like to join me, you’d be very welcome.

Online course FAQ

Several people have asked questions about this. As follows:

  1. If I know I am at risk of having a breakdown (i.e. having dark thoughts etc.), what should I do to avoid it?
  2. What is the best way I could help someone who I can see is having a tough time, or potentially is at risk of a breakdown?
  3. What stopped you asking for help?
  4. Did seeing your loved ones get upset about you encourage you to address your concerns, or not? 
  5. What was the best thing friends or family or colleagues said to encourage you to explain how you felt, or what you were experiencing?
  6. What should people not say – what words were not helpful?
  7. Where can people seek help if they are worried about someone?
  8. Is there a useful distinction to be made between how men and women experience breakdown, both as ill person and caring observer?

If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please put it below!

Comment on this FAQ

Somebody asked why this costs three times as much as talks at (say) The School of Life or the How To Academy. The answer:

1. This could save lives. Every few days, in psychiatric hospital, somebody new joined our group therapy sessions who had tried to end it all the previous day. And these were the “lucky” ones who’d failed.

2. I don’t think of this as being one-way. I prefer dialogue, and the online format should enable participants to ask questions/ make comments they might not ask in front of colleagues at work, or in a shared room. That includes finding out at the very beginning what you are actually looking to get out of it. I’ll adjust accordingly.

3. I’ll talk about what led up to my breakdown, and how (if at all) it might have been avoided.

4. I’ll also talk about what happens after. It’s not like you come out of hospital and everything’s fine. My toughest times were the months after hospital. I’ll tell you how I wobbled and what I did to consolidate my recovery.

5. When I share this material live and in person, there are moments when the room shares laughter and other moments when a few individuals cry. What I share is raw and personal. I only want people to attend who are VERY interested  – almost or actually desperate, about themselves or others.

6. If you aren’t satisfied, I’ll refund your fee. (You don’t need to explain why you aren’t satisfied – though of course it would help me if you choose to do so.)

I want to help people who need it, so I’m making two places available at no charge.

If you’d like to take me up on that, please just send an email giving me a brief explanation.

If I can’t do it this time, I’ll put you on a list for the next one.

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What more can companies do?

Corporate

Every company says it cares about employee well-being. But if nobody would say the opposite, the statement is hollow.

So the real test is not what they say but what they do.

Too often, internal talks and training about well-being attract the same people again and again. Others, who perhaps need this most, stay away. I’ve lost count of the number of HR people who’ve told me this, and fret about how to attract a wider audience.

Well, if the people in charge don’t show up that sends a pretty clear message: it’s not important.

It says: we don’t want to hear about that stuff.

Which in turn becomes a major block for staff experiencing difficulty. Naturally enough, they assume that nobody wants to know.

Obviously, we’re all busy. The entire management team can’t come along to everything. But it makes a difference if somebody senior attends.

Yesterday, for the first time outside London, I gave a talk about my breakdown. The audience comprised several dozen lawyers at the large East Anglian firm Birketts – plus the firm’s two most senior partners.

At the end, one of those two asked me what else they could do to help normalise conversations about mental health.

I thought about it for a moment, then made a suggestion which elicited lively debate from people around the room. But my suggestion, and the lively debate, aren’t what inspired this post.

What really matters is that the man in charge came along to listen and, in front of all those employees, he asked that question.

How to describe yourself after breakdown?

My story

One reason (of thousands) why people may not want to go into mental hospital is because we worry about how we might be described, both then and afterwards.

“Nutcase,” for instance.

Of course, few people are as heartless as to say that. But still, we wonder how to describe the person we have become.

I did, anyway.

I was recently asked to describe myself so that a friend could introduce me to some influential people who might help me spread the word. I didn’t know what I could say, so I asked a handful of friends.

Here’s one of the replies, edited to protect other peoples’ identities:

It is helpful.

I have had mental health problems, but I was previously, and often still am, together and positive.

Taking my drawings on tour

Exhibition

I visited a major law firm in the City of London last week, to talk about doing an event with them – a talk, with my drawings on a slide show, like the events I’ve done elsewhere.

I realised that, like many other organisations, this firm is looking to do something to coincide with big national Mental Health Awareness campaigns. 

Which is wonderful, but I’m quite booked up in October. And I could do with spreading out my work relating to mental health. It’s quite exhausting!

So I’ve been wondering about creating a mini exhibition of (some of) the drawings I made, and writing captions to go with them, to take from one firm to the next for a week / fortnight / month at a time.

(Yes, I know lawyers aren’t all white men in pinstriped suits. But I’d like this work to reach men as well as the many women who are already, bless them, open to this kind of thing)

I could also take it to churches or other community groups.

As usual, I find the idea of starting something like this rather overwhelming, and wanted to put the idea out there to see what people suggest.

Do you think that’s something firms / churches / others could be interested in? (If so, what kind of ‘others’?)

Your suggestions gratefully received.

But I’ve closed comments, because I’m getting a lot of spam, and it’s stressing me out! My contact details are at the bottom of the Talks and Workshops page.

Mental Health Awareness Week

My story

Had a bit of a shock just now, but it’s sinking in, and I know I’ll be alright.

Got notified that I’m mentioned by name in The Bookseller online, as part of an event at HarperCollins (the publishing company).

It reads:

Over at HarperCollins, on 14th May author and journalist John-Paul Flintoff will talk at The News Building about how he went from being on top to having a breakdown and spending eight weeks in psychiatric hospital. 

Nothing wrong with that. So far as it goes, it’s correct. But I felt a bit exposed.

Not half as exposed, mind you, as I expect to feel when I go to do the talk, and share the pictures I drew – in hospital and afterwards – potentially with people I have worked with (at The Times and The Sunday Times, because they have been invited too).

Keep reminding myself: it’s not about me.

I’m doing the talk for people who may be feeling some of the distress I was feeling, to give them a chance to avoid the worst – and for others whose relatives may be going through something similar.

My story
While I was still in psychiatric hospital (but going home at night), I went to a reception at 10 Downing Street. It felt like another planet. Happily, a great friend recognised me…
…and we took a selfie at the front door, on the way out.

I’m posting these pictures because I’ve been in touch with my friend again today. I remember how wonderfully she responded to me telling her I had come straight from mental hospital.

She laughed, and shared a few things about her own various struggles, over the years.

I felt hugely grateful to be able to laugh.

And for her bravery in sharing her own stories.

The following day I was back in hospital again.

Next time I attend a glitzy reception (if anybody should invite me to one) I will try to remember that the people around me might include psychiatric patients on day release…

Postscript. Farah Tazeen Ahmad died on 6 November 2019. The world lost an award-winning broadcaster, her sons lost their mother, and I lost a dear friend.

Why draw?

My story

What has drawing got to do with mental health? That’s a question I’ve asked myself since being invited to run a lunchtime workshop using drawing during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Apparently a lot of people in the organization in question have asked to do something using art.

And when I gave a talk there in February, using my own drawings, it was very warmly received. So it made sense to the organizers to invite me back to share some thoughts about how drawing had been helpful to me.

My first thoughts:

  1. Drawing is necessarily very immediate, and brings me into the present moment
  2. Drawing gets me away from the tyranny of being verbal
  3. Drawing gives me a sense of agency

1. Drawing is immediate: It’s hard to draw and also be obsessive about regrets (past) and worries (future). I learned that instinctively, unconsciously. Ever since childhood I’ve found drawing to be relaxing.

Obviously, this ceases to be the case if you worry about the drawing itself (“it’s terrible!”). That’s why I like to remind myself that drawing is both a noun and a verb: you don’t have to like the finished artifact to enjoy the activity. I try to let go, in advance, of any need for the artifact to be “good” – as if anybody really knew what good is, anyway.

2. Escaping the tyranny of words: I like words. I’ve used them all my working life, as a journalist and author. I have a couple of degrees in English. I’m very verbal.

But the downside is a tendency to become overwhelmingly analytical and logical. What I’ve learned through my breakdown and subsequent therapy is that I’m also capable of having feelings that are not logical. Drawing helps me to access those. And sometimes by seeing them on paper I’ve been able to recognize that they don’t “make sense”.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that drawing saved my life. When I was in total despair, I drew some very dark pictures to help myself “see” the self-destructive urges from the outside. They looked bad, repulsive.

3. Drawing gives me agency: By making a mark on paper you apply your mind to shape the physical universe. It might not sound much, but when I felt utterly worthless, and alone, it gave me a teeny tiny boost to see my thoughts “out there”, even if nobody else would ever see them.


The workshop

I don’t know yet how many people will be attending this workshop. But I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ll probably give a short talk at the beginning, along the lines of this post, and explain a bit about who I am.

Then I’ll invite participants to think about what they’re hoping to get out of the session – and tell me!

Then we’ll do a series of very simple drawing exercises, taking about 10 minutes each. I’ll ask people to draw things in front of them (nothing complicated, probably cutlery, salt cellars, or coffee cups), and also draw certain things from memory – but nothing “therapeutic” – I don’t want to scare anybody off!

No experience is necessary, and people who are “bad at drawing” are particularly welcome, because they won’t intimidate anybody else.

I’ve been so uncertain, for such a long time, about my ability to do anything at all – and why anybody should want to hear from me.

So it’s helpful to have received feedback from my first-ever talk about my breakdown, to a large group of strangers. Here it is:

“Just wanted to say again, a HUGE thank you for today. You were ABSOLUTELY incredible.”

I’ve had positive feedback before. I hear it. I read it. I like it. But it never really went in. I always thought people were “just saying it”, because I didn’t believe in myself.

I sincerely believe that is changing.

At least, I hope it is.

My story