South African native, Surrey-based Geoff McDonald is no stranger to mental health struggles.
A former school teacher, Geoff went on to have a 25-year career at Unilever, culminating in being their Global VP of HR for all of their marketing communications and sustainability.
During that career, back in 2008, Geoff got very ill with anxiety-fuelled depression. He said that talking about his illness with loved ones and other people who had been through the same, saved his life.
Instead of suffering in silence, Geoff was open about what he was going through and found people to be very understanding. He took some time off to get better and returned to Unilever in 2010.
Then, in 2012, Geoff lost a very good friend to suicide.
“The day he died, I lay in bed that night and thought, ‘Why didn’t you talk to me?’” he told Global Shakers. “Why didn’t I know that he was struggling with his mental state? I mean, I had the t-shirt.”
“I realised how lucky I was to be able to have conversations about my mental health. I’ve been able to feel loved and supported. I’ve been able to speak to people that gave me hope, and he wasn’t able to do that.
I realised that stigma has just killed my friend.”
It frustrated Geoff that had his friend had a physical illness, he would have likely gone to a doctor. He would have spoken to somebody and gotten the support and care that he needed to recover.
“But because he was a man struggling mentally and emotionally, it was more difficult to have the conversation.”
“It’s just not fair that in the 21st century, we still can’t talk about what is so much part of us—our mental and emotional health. We are not just physical beings; we are emotional, mental, spiritual.”
That night, Geoff felt driven to do something, so he wrote to Alastair Campbell. The former spokesman, press secretary and director of communications for Tony Blair was doing a lot of advocacy and campaigning work in the mental health space at the time.
“I knew that if I could just meet with him, he might start introducing me to some people and open some doors.”
Within 10 minutes, he had a response, and a week later, the pair met up in Belsize Park close to where Campbell lives.
Campbell started to open some doors indeed and introduced Geoff to people that he said allowed him to “take the first tiny footsteps on a journey filled with a sense of purpose—to try and create workplaces all over the world where people can feel like they can talk openly about their emotional and mental struggles.”
For the next few years, Geoff started to do some work at Unilever in his global HR role around addressing the stigma of mental health.
After seeing huge success with these endeavours, in 2014 he left his high-powered position at the company to take those learnings out into the rest of the world.
Within the space of 6 months, he had met with dozens of senior professionals who all wanted to make a contribution towards mental health in the workplace one day.
“There’s more power in the group than the individual.”
Geoff then combined forces with Georgie Mack, someone who does similar work in the mental health space. One evening, they decided to bring together all the people that they had met that want to make a contribution to addressing the stigma of mental health in their workplaces.
To their amazement, everyone they invited showed up. That was the genesis of Minds@Work, the charity that Geoff co-founded with Georgie.
What started as a small network of people willing to share and learn has grown to over 2000 in the UK, all motivated by the same purpose—to inspire and equip individuals to go back into their workplaces and address the stigma of “mental ill-health”.
Since his awakening, Geoff has campaigned to change the way we see mental health. He has spoken at Cambridge, Oxford, Bologna and Warwick Universities as well as at corporate events across Australia, Europe, Japan, North America, Turkey and Eastern Europe.
His work has allowed him a seat at the table with politicians, business leaders and influencers, including the UK Prime Minister, the Royal Family and Pope Francis.
As a global advocate and campaigner for mental health in the workplace, he has participated in a number of BBC programmes and written articles on the subject for the Huffington Post, the Financial Times and journals in human resources.Tags: charity, human resources, Mental Health, UK, Wellness