Steph Slack - mental health changemaker | #WomenIKnow

I'm lucky to call the talented Steph slack my friend after we met whilst travelling Australia in 2013. Now living in London, Steph talks about her work to end male suicide, avoiding awkward 'networking' and instead creating meaningful connections, and why her day-to-day work means she'll never fit into a 'box'.

 LH: Steph, you’re a very talented individual with a number of different passion projects. How do you describe what you do?

SS: I create spaces for people to come together and talk about the things that are important to them. It means I don’t have a job title or fit in a box.  

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.  My uncle took his life seven years ago, and four years later, one of my good male friends tried to take his own life. I think it’s something we’re increasingly aware of now, but it’s still not being properly addressed - there’s a stigma still, especially for men, but also for us as a society to talk about.

LH: Why do you think that’s the case?

SS: It gets tricky because women don’t yet have full equality - it can be like, well why are you looking at this when there’s work still to be done [around equality]. The angle I try to come at it from is that people are dying - losing their lives because of something that is almost always preventable.

How do we do more to enable men to feel like they can open up? I think we have to start at the beginning, with children.  

We need to look at how we educate our children and how we try to reduce the gender stereotyping that happens between boys and girls from a very early age.  

LH: You’ve been doing some really pioneering work in schools to start the conversation about mental and emotional wellbeing. Can you tell me more about that?

SS: Who In The Zoo Are You is a primary classroom tool which aims to get children used to recognising their own emotions and then be able to articulate them. It looks like a zoo with different enclosures, but the animals represent different emotions - so you’ve got Happy Hippo, Sad Snake, Excited Elephant and the pupils will come in every morning and pick up a token and put it in the enclosure that best reflects how they’re feeling that day. It means the pupils can get used to looking at how they are feeling each day and the teacher can use that to identify areas that might need support or a bit more attention. There’s nothing like it in the curriculum, so there’s a huge gap in making sure every child has access to that sort of tool.

Our vision is to have the tool in every primary classroom in the UK so that every child attending school has access to this process every single day.

LH: You embody the ‘multi-hyphen’ entrepreneur that we’re seeing more and more of thanks to the rise of digital tech. How else do you spend your working week?

SS: The other half of my week is spent  at Hertfordshire Mind on a pilot project called SpeakEasy, which aims to support men between the ages of 18-65 who are at high risk of suicide. In conjunction with the local NHS trust, an individual can spend one hour a week with a volunteer who has lived experience of mental health issues. I’ve been involved in recruiting the volunteers - using existing volunteer networks, but also leveraging local social media platforms and local organisations who work with the NHS Trust.

I have a lot of respect for the volunteers - it’s not an easy role to play.

LH: You’ve identified that speaking and helping others to learn is something you want to explore. How are you currently doing that?

SS: I started by running workshops for General Assembly around networking and building authentic relationships, which came off the back of finding myself at corporate networking events and feeling like I was there out of obligation and everyone else was there to see what they could get out of it. 

It's funny because when you ask the room how many people hate networking, most people raise their hand. 

It feels awkward, transactional and quite shallow and surface-level. 

I decided to come at it with the aim of shifting that perspective and making it feel more genuine.

I’m now working on delivering suicide awareness workshops in organisations which break down the stigma around the topic and encourage people to get comfortable in conversations around suicide. I don’t believe it has to be a dark and heavy topic.  

I teach people to understand why they’re there in the first place - there’s no point being in a room if you don’t know who you want to connect with, because otherwise, you’re probably in the wrong room. The feedback has been really good, but there’s still room for more.

LH: I'd love to know more about how you structure your day and what motivates you. Is there a time of day that you feel more inspired than others?

SS: I used to be a night owl, but living in Melbourne for 12 months meant I became an early riser - now, I’m basically useless after 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Exercise is a vital part of my morning routine, and then 7am-11.30am is when I get my best work done. 

Afternoons are generally for meetings, coffees and chats - I sometimes get a second wind late at night, usually some form of writing. 

In general I prefer to get stuff done by midday. 

LH: So much of your work is dependent on connecting with others and yet you need that deep concentration to be creative and produce your best work. How do you find a balance?

SS: If I really need to get stuff done I use the Pomodoro technique - I work solidly for 30 minutes on a timer, and then after that you get up and have a break, whether that’s have a drink, or look at your phone. It’s so hard on a laptop not to be distracted by emails, buzzes or pings.

I think we're addicted to connection - or at least, feeling connected to others. 

It’s ironic that we as humans somehow don’t feel connected to the people in our life as much as we should, but instead we’re searching for a sense of acceptance from others in the digital world.

LH: You’ve spoken before about the need to start the mental health conversation earlier to change the status quo. How do you feel about young people using technology so frequently to foster connections?

SS: We are becoming addicted to this sense of acceptance and recognition that we get from the online world. If you’re a parent my advice is to create conversations - find out why your kids are in those spaces, ask questions, and create space for your children to let you into that world. Appreciate that a part of their personality has a part of their life online, which is probably hidden from the adults in their lives. The more you can talk to them about that, the more you’re going to know that they’re safe, and they’ll understand why you’re worried about what they’re doing.

LH: You’re so candid in the way you share your daily challenges online. Do you mind sharing a challenge you’re currently facing or have overcome?

SS: When I moved from Australia back to London, figuring out what I wanted to do was a huge challenge, and one that I’m still overcoming. It’s a cliche, but as a millenial there are so many conventions we don’t need to adhere to anymore, to the point where it’s overwhelming and it can be hard to figure out what you do want to do with your life. Being in my twenties has involved realising the definition of success that we’ve been sold doesn’t necessarily result in happiness, and that it might look different for you.

Writing, speaking, advocacy and running workshops are not things my parents necessarily recognise as a 'job', and I've struggled with that for a while. 

At 28, I still remember plugging a cable in to get an Internet connection - we’re this weird generation that grew up half without technology, and half living and breathing it. I’m hugely passionate about the opportunities that technology brings to change the conversation and bring about change.

LH: With so many fantastic projects on the go it's a wonder you find any time for reading, but I know you're a big fan of books and the 'switching off' that settling down with a book can bring. Can you recommend a recent or favourite book that's really inspired you?

I’ve often been told that I need to ‘lighten up’ on my reading load to give my brain a break, but there’s so much good stuff out there! My top two of late have been The Book of Human Emotions, by Tiffany Watt Smith and Chase The Rainbow, by Poorna Bell - both fascinating, thought provoking reads.

Steph Slack creates spaces for people to come together, open up and talk about what’s important to them. Because she believes talking saves lives. You can find out more at www.hellostephslack.com or on Instagram at @steph.slack