BelongCon: Talking Community Cohesion, Mental Health and Sharing in Brighton

BelongCon Brighton Conversation and Community event for mental health and sharing awareness featuring speakers such as Brighton Digital Women and Claudia Barnett

What does it mean to belong? Yep, that’s a very philosophical question for a Wednesday afternoon, but it’s worth asking – especially with the General Election looming.

Last night, I border-hopped from West to East Sussex for the second BelongCon event, to find out what belonging is all about: to belong in your community, in your tribe of like-minded people (something that’s big for those of us with mental health issues), in your industry, in your environment. BelongCon began as ‘Belong Conference’, with the first event held in March, but as it took shape, founder Alice Reeves realised ‘Conference’ didn’t really define her aim. It’s now become ‘Belong Conversation’, starting discussions about sharing, empathy, friendship and self-esteem, as captured by photographer Seb Lee-Delisle, above.

Brighton really is the natural home for events like these: the city is known for being inclusive, open and liberal (the Metro once described Brighton locals as being ‘tolerant of everything except gluten’). It’s also great for digital marketers – the BrightonSEO conference, which attracts global attendees, is just the tip of the iceberg here – so I wasn’t wildly surprised to come across so many people from marketing and PR backgrounds. Having temped for a local SEO agency a few years ago, I know first-hand how inspiring the city can be for digital types.

You might assume marketers and digital whizz-kids are effortlessly confident, especially as they’re involved in so many conferences and networking events. But BelongCon showed that, behind their confident grins, a lot of these creatives are battling insecurity, isolation and potential mental health issues.

Gene Kelly Happy Again Singing in the Rain street art Krakow Poland with umbrella and caption
That’s wonderful news, Gene, but we can’t all be like you. Street art spotted on a trip to Kraków last year.

There was Pippa Moyle, the young start-up founder whose City Girl Network now has 1,487 members: it all began when she felt overwhelmed by anxiety and loneliness after moving to Brighton for work. From her one-person idea, she’s reached out to thousands of like-minded people, who probably thought they were the only ones feeling insecure and looking for a new friend or two.

Benita Matofska, from Global Sharing Week, was up next, covering her social enterprise’s worldwide plan to promote the sharing economy. This year, her Share-a-Suitcase campaign with charity Bridge2 will supply filled suitcases to refugees in a Greek refugee camp. For refugees, a suitcase symbolises hope and progress.

Dan Collier followed up with a talk on sharing grief, through counselling and opening up to friends and family when you feel able to, and breaking down the mental barriers we put up, particularly if men are involved. He also found some interesting search results on Google images for ‘grief’: plenty of women crying, but only one man (a statue with his head in his hands). What does that tell us about global perceptions of grief and crying, if the world’s biggest search engine reinforces stereotypes?

Men walking along urban street in group of three with buildings surrounding
Here are some men not being statues or doing the ‘head clutcher’ shot. Just normal men who may or may not have mental health issues. Credit: Pixabay.

Meanwhile, Lana Burgess and Allegra Chapman, founders of Brighton Digital Women, both spoke about accepting and owning your mental health, having realised during a wellbeing event just how many of their peers were struggling. Their talk was a no-holds-barred look at mental health management, including recognising symptoms, not worrying about it affecting your career and your high personal standards, and getting the right support.

Several people in the audience could identify with Lana when she said, “It took me getting very severe [with my bipolar] to get the help I needed. I couldn’t access it before, despite asking for help.”

She also spoke out about politicians using mental health for PR purposes to gain traction. Allegra echoed her argument: “You cannot consistently defund mental health services and waiting lists and at the same time promote mental health in politics.”

PRs asking if you are well journalist bugbear tweet by PR Week
PRs are really good at asking if you’re ‘well’, even if they have no interest in the answer. But are they themselves ‘well’? And (perhaps a question for another day) when will they stop using ridiculous greetings? Credit: PR Week, via Twitter.

It seems – at least in my eyes – there could be a correlation between writing or communicating for a living, such as being a copywriter or SEO, and masking your own emotional issues. Maybe it’s because digital comms is such a hugely competitive field; maybe we’re just so good at doing PR for others, we try applying PR tactics to our own lives, filtering out negative aspects to avoid a bad reaction from our audience (friends, family and employers).

For James Dorrell and Jo Ivens, the focus moved to community action: James suggested stepping away from instant gratification and excess packaging, looking instead to social enterprises and activism. As part of his day job at Creative Bloom, a local marketing agency, he’s promoting incredible clients, such as a woman who turns waste agricultural straw into paper and card. It’s by supporting tiny local start-ups such as these that big changes can eventually be made.

Jo Ivens told a similar story, but in community cohesion: she works for Brighton & Hove Impetus, which tackles loneliness and isolation in the community. This can be through cancer advocacy services, befriending schemes, and stepping up to help others nearby, even if you’re from a different generation or background. Her ‘clients’, if you like, are normal local people who need support.

Rubyetc HMS Oblivious mental health cartoon 'we are in the same boat'
One of my favourite mental health cartoons by the very talented Ruby Elliot, a.k.a. Rubyetc (she’s also a Brighton resident), nailing what it’s like trying to explain your issues to an oblivious friend/family member. Credit: rubyetc.tumblr.com.

The last speaker was the brilliant Claudia Barnett, who you may have seen in the recent BBC documentary, Mind Over Marathon. Claudia’s TV appearance saw her speak out about living with OCD since the age of 17, and tackling the insensitive media portrayal of her condition (most often associated with Monica Geller from Friends). Living with something readily dismissed as “fashionable or a quirk” understandably made her feel worse, especially as her OCD doesn’t fit the media’s ‘light-hearted obsessive comedy cleaning character’ bracket. Instead, it involves a constant barrage of extreme and intrusive thoughts – not exactly sitcom material.

I attended BelongCon after seeing Claudia tweet about how nervous she was to be speaking at the event, but her nerves didn’t get in the way of a very powerful speech.

“The notion of the stiff upper lip is damaging and destructive,” she said, citing Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins’ Twitter rants as proof that ignorant and bigoted views continue to fuel mental health stigma. “We need to reassess the language we use around mental health.”

Mind Over Marathon BBC documentary on mental health advocacy and exercise in training for London Marathon 2017
This is what happens when a group of ten strangers (including BelongCon speaker Claudia) becomes a supportive community managing mental health with exercise. Credit: BBC/Heads Together.

I’d never actually met Claudia in real life until this evening, but it was great to meet someone from the online mental health community (she was supported on the night by her fellow Mind Over Marathon runner, Jake, showing that the temporary community created for a two-part documentary can evolve into lasting friendship).

Claudia’s new website, Quiet Club, is just one way of tackling the negative self-talk and narrow-minded perceptions of mental health. Of course, moving the conversation online means sufferers from all over the world can feel less alone, and can find their own virtual community of supporters (much like Pippa’s City Girl Network has now spread around the country, to Bristol and Edinburgh, and even across to Berlin). Acceptance and community shouldn’t have geographical barriers, as the evening’s event proved.

The closing words should really go to BelongCon founder, Alice, who said, “Fear of rejection stopped me reaching out to people. We need to actively reach out, break down barriers, move closer together and cultivate community.”

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