‘There’s no better feeling than helping’: Chorley entrepreneur channels trauma to create invaluable and ever-growing mental health resource
The highly successful tech entrepreneur and father-of-two tragically lost both his brother Michael Robinson and his brother-in-law Kurt Smith to suicide in the space of just 18 months. Understandably, he spiralled.
“As a family, we were all affected and I myself had a breakdown in 2018,” says Stephen, 50. “My brother-in-law was the life and soul of the party - he ran a nightclub in Chorley for 30 years, so it came as quite a shock because we just didn’t expect it.
“Then, in my brother’s case, he had been suffering with his mental health for a while and we could all see it, but he wouldn’t get help,” he adds. “He was also a functioning alcoholic who was in denial about his drinking so, while we were living with that every day and trying to support him, it was very frustrating.
“We felt helpless,” continues Stephen. “But the system was also putting barriers up by making it hard to access support. At this time, we were all going through so many emotions because we could see what was happening in front of our eyes.”
At his lowest ebb, however, Stephen was able to claw his way back to reality with help from his wife Joanna and through counselling.
“I just couldn’t function the same as usual because of my anxiety: small tasks at work became mountains to climb whereas before you’d just bulldoze through them,” he says. “Counselling got me to open up and be vulnerable. It made me more willing to speak.
“I was also determined to ensure that something good would come out of all this,” Stephen says. “And, while at the time that seemed very unlikely, slowly but surely I started to formulate an idea.”
Having battled back from the brink, Stephen set about thinking how he could help others do the same, resolving to start an online community designed to support people in managing their mental health and physical wellbeing. It’s Mental was born and, barely three years on, has over 10,000 members and counting.
“I wanted to create something which offered support to people who are vulnerable on a more constantly-accessible basis,” says Stephen, from Charnock Richard. “It’s Mental is an online self-care platform - counselling itself is great and, on top of that, I was lucky enough to be able to afford private care, but most people can’t do that, so they go to the NHS where there are waiting lists galore.
“When you go to the GP and say you’re depressed and they say there’s an eight- to 13-week waiting list, what do you do?” he asks. “The key to a mental health system that works is consistent and constant support, not the on/off approach we often see where treatment and resources are turned off when either the money or the course run out.
“The NHS must be so frustrated and it’s not their fault, but that’s where It’s Mental can offer that more instant help whilst also showing people that they’re not alone,” he continues. “I really think something like this could have had an impact when it came to Michael, Kurt, and even myself.”
An already-noticeable lack of mental health provision has been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic, widening the mental health gap and erecting barriers to access for those in need of support. Stephen saw it with both Michael and Kurt and is now determined to do something to help prevent such cases as much as he can in the future.
Drawing on Stephen’s business expertise, It’s Mental reflects his belief in the potential for tech to help, with the community giving people access to a diverse panel of wellbeing coaches and experts – including psychologists, physiotherapists, life coaches, nutritionists, and personal trainers – who can guide members as they look to incorporate wellbeing and mental strength a key part of their daily life.
“The reality is that, in the UK, there’s a giant mental health gap and I saw an opportunity for technology to close that gap,” says Stephen. “If we can close it even a tiny amount, it can genuinely save lives. Sadly, my brother and my brother-in-law fell through that gap, and I’m determined to stop that from happening to others as much as I possibly can.
“The community is founded on the belief that prevention is better than cure and we are passionate about making positive changes,” he adds. “Changing behaviour, changing habits - either breaking bad ones or creating good ones - is a key element to our wellbeing coaching programmes which are designed to help people have a good work/life balance and most importantly be happy.
“That’s why we pushed it via the workplace wellbeing route: post-Covid, people really needed something like It’s Mental,” Stephen explains, with the likes of Tim O'Keefe, founder of military veterans’ charity FrontFoot, and Ian Wright, CEO of Lancashire-based VirtualNonExecs, gushing in their praise. “As communities and businesses seek to emerge from the grip of the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing has never been more important.”
Running workshops, one-to-one sessions, panel discussions, and speaker events, It’s Mental adheres to the PERMA model developed by American psychologist and educator Dr Martin Seligman - Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. Stephen has also added Vitality – sleep, nutrition, physical fitness and energy management – as an additional cog in the wheel.
“It’s time to stop being reactive and start being proactive,” says Stephen. “We need to give people support, which is why we’ve adopted a peer-to-peer approach which brings people from similar professions and backgrounds together to share the pressures and concerns they face on a daily basis.
“We go into a workplace as an independent service, everyone is anonymous, and we want to ensure people are comfortable so that they engage,” he adds. “That’s everything to us because we’re all about action: mental and physical.
“If we can get just one stressed out person to open their eyes to the wider possibilities, then we’ve started the process of positive change and good things will begin to present themselves.”
Stephen acknowledges that, at the start of the journey, the process can seem intimidating - impossible even - but reiterates that taking that first step is crucial as it creates a domino effect of improvement.
“I know what it’s like from my own personal experiences, but things can improve,” says Stephen. “We know that vulnerable people can’t just flick a switch and suddenly become socially active and that’s why it’s so important to have this process in place.
“Social connection is the start of that journey and that leads to self-help learning and then, hopefully, to being socially active,” he continues. “I’m so proud to be involved in It’s Mental because, while I’ve run businesses, I’ve lost businesses, and I’ve sold businesses, that’s always been an ego thing.
“This, on the other hand, is totally different,” he says. “It’s not about money, it’s about helping people. I’ve actually had people reach out and contact me to say that it’s really helped.
“There’s no better feeling.”
For more information, head to https://www.itsmental.co.uk/