This week marked the last of our ‘Feel Better Together’ calls over lockdown. I will always be grateful to this wonderful group of people who shared their stories over the past weeks and months.
For our final week we heard the very important story of Karen Parkinson, a good friend, and founder of the brilliant local group Mental Health Together.
She told the story of her father’s death that changed her life forever. She described her father as a massive figure in the community who worked hard and was well liked by all who knew him. However, no-one knew that he had a mental illness apart from his close family. He struggled with endogenous depression for years, and tragically took his own life when Karen was just 19.
The shock and grief at losing her father was overwhelming, but that coupled with the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, was too much for the 19-year-old to cope with and she describes her life falling apart.
Looking back, she feels like it was almost like watching herself in a movie. Her father of whom she’d been so proud of, was suddenly the talk of the town and she was suddenly ashamed of what people thought of him. Time stood still and she was filled with sadness, tears and unanswered questions, and no-one knew what to say. As a young girl with her whole life ahead of her she just wanted everything to be normal again.
However, she knew deep down that
‘My father didn’t want to leave me.’
She spent many years telling a different story and told anyone that asked, that her Dad had died of a heart attack.
However, 5 years ago this changed when she joined a local running group, ‘Run like a girl’, and she says that running changed her life again. It gave her the confidence to start to open up and tell her own story and she started to enter running events to raise money for the mental health charity MIND, culminating in the Liverpool Marathon in 2018, which was a another hugely significant and emotional moment in her life. She is now a mental health champion for England Athletics and is involved in the run and talk initiative, which aims to improve mental health through running and getting people talking and removing stigma by raising awareness.
Karen says ‘My strength to run came from my father – I wanted to do it for him. It allowed me to share his story for all the years of feeling ashamed. The stigma surrounding mental health meant I could not talk about it, and my father battled alone with depression for many years.’
In 2017 she set up her own local group in Leamington called ‘Mental Health Together’ which brings people together in the community to walk and talk, run and talk, or have a cuppa and chat. This has since extended to a variety of different activity and specialist interest groups with her team of volunteers.
Her mission is clear, ‘We should all care more about our mental health and take time to look out for others who may be struggling. No one should have to face a mental health problem alone.’
She is understandably particularly passionate about getting men to talk about their mental health and has always wanted to create a men’s group. It has taken time, but she is now extremely proud to have male volunteers who have been able to set this up for her.
She is no longer ashamed or worried about what people think, and feels strongly that she is
‘the voice my father never had’
It was a truly moving and inspiring story and one that clearly needs to be told more.
Given that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England it is likely that everyone with know someone in their immediate family or friendship group who will be affected. That is why it is so important to bring people together, and to create a space for open and honest conversation.
However, it is also important to point out that people do not have to feel pressured to ‘talk’ about their feelings at any MHT event. Simply coming together to run or walk in nature can be enough, and very often just being together and engaging in meaningful activity in a safe space where you do not feel judged is what’s important. I can tell you that whenever Karen Parkinson is involved there is sure to be plenty of laughter and fun!
We were extremely privileged to hear Karen share her story so openly and honestly, as she has always struggled with the prospect of public speaking. I hope that this will give her the confidence to tell her story again and again, because it is a story that needs to be heard.
Her story has so many important messages. The power of human connection, of sharing stories, of reaching out to others and listening with warmth and compassion. It also demonstrates clearly the very positive impact of exercising in nature, and creativity on our mental health.
So, if nothing else, please put on your trainers and step outside, connect with others, listen and share stories, and reach out to others who might be in need of a little support. You never know when just one small act of kindness might make a huge difference to someone’s life.
Thank you, Karen Parkinson. You are an inspiration to us all.
Please, please, please do share this story with everyone. It is a story that needs to be told.