A WOMAN who works as a 'mental health and wellbeing champion' at a building society has spoken about the importance of her work - and the tragic story behind her involvement in the field.

Lisa Birdsall, originally of Cleator Moor, is one of the Cumberland Building Society’s team of mental health and wellbeing champions.

Their mission is to be a first point of contact, support and information for any of the team facing a life crisis or mental health difficulties.

There are nine in the team, and all are ordinary employees who have had some special training for their extra voluntary role.

“We were originally called mental health first aiders,” says Lisa who is an operations assistant working in the mortgages department at the building society’s Carlisle headquarters.

“We are trying to normalise the subject of mental health and get a culture within the business where people feel they can open up and ask for help.”

The champions undertake training through Carlisle and Eden Mind and Mental Health First Aid England.

Lisa was drawn to the role because of her own experiences with mental illness.

Whitehaven News: Lisa Birdsall operations assistant for mortgage services at the Cumberland. Photograph Jonathan Becker

“I personally have suffered with mental health issues since my late teens,” she says. “I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder] aged 31 in 2014.”

Lisa also survived the suicide of her brother Stephen in 2015.

Today she has a successful career with The Cumberland. She lives in Harraby with her husband Jonny and their two children aged 10 and 11.

She understands how to manage both her own mental health issue, and the trauma of her loss. And she has built up strategies to maintain her wellbeing.

These are hard won achievements. Now she wants to make sure others facing mental illness, trauma, and bereavement have help close at hand – and feel empowered to ask for it.

Lisa says she struggled with self confidence as a child.

“I was always on the edge. My moods were always erratic and when that happened it really sent me into a spiral of depression."

Lisa saw a counsellor but continued to be unwell.

“When I was 19, I actually made an attempt on my own life,” she says. “At that point I was diagnosed with normal depression.”

Periods of relative wellness followed but when Lisa was 26 the birth of her daughter brought on post-natal depression.

“It went on forever and in the end I said, this is not post-natal depression. It went on for two years."

It was another five years before Lisa was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type two.

She explains: “With bipolar [disorder] type one you have more manic episodes. I have only had one episode of mania and psychosis – that is a scary place to be."

A year after her diagnosis, and while she was still very ill, Lisa’s brother Stephen took his own life aged 34. He was her only sibling.

“There was just the two of us,” she says. “He struggled as well with his mental health. He was on anti-depressants when he died and was going to a counselling service but wasn’t getting much out of it.

“I was deeply entrenched in my illness. And when that happened it pulled the rug out from under me again.

“It was very sudden. We knew he was struggling, we just didn’t know to what extent. He wasn’t as open about it as I am, he didn’t like talking about this stuff.”

A change in her normally well-groomed brother rang alarm bells.

“I remember really clearly the last time I saw him. It was two weeks before he died. He didn’t look like himself at all. He was very proud of his appearance, but he just looked different,” she says.

“I remember saying to him, I’m always here if you ever need to talk about anything.

“I didn’t push it. Who’s to say, if I had pushed it, would he be here now? It’s a regret that will live with me for the rest of my life.

“He didn’t leave a note so there are lots of unanswered questions that you have to learn to make peace with.

“It took me three years to begin to come out of that deep dark hole after he died.”

Whitehaven News: Left to right. Vicky Mills mortgage and protection manager and Lisa Birdsall operations assistant for mortgage services at the Cumberland. Picture: Jonathan BeckerLeft to right. Vicky Mills mortgage and protection manager and Lisa Birdsall operations assistant for mortgage services at the Cumberland. Picture: Jonathan Becker

In 2018 Lisa took the decision to come off her bipolar disorder medication.

In fact Lisa suffered no adverse reaction, but the incident convinced her even more strongly of the value of acceptance and awareness in the workplace.

Now she is using everything she has learned and experienced to help others. As a mental health and wellbeing champion she is available to meet and talk with colleagues at work.

“I never offer advice or share pain,” she says. “We can signpost to professional help. But it’s mostly about listening openly and without judgement. And they know they are not going to be judged by me.”

The Cumberland team decided to call themselves mental health and wellbeing champions rather than mental health first aiders. “We felt the term ‘first aid’ sent the wrong message – that we were just there for people who have reached crisis point,” says Lisa.

Lisa is committed to helping develop a supportive and accepting environment about mental health at The Cumberland, but she would also like to see these changes becoming widespread.

“I have a pipe dream; by law businesses must have a physical first aider for every 50 employees. I would like to see the same law brought in for mental health first aiders,” she says.

“The more we talk the more it is normalised.

"I want to smash that stigma away, then people will feel safe to open up and ask for help.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues in this article, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk.