“Everyone should be as concerned with their mental health as they are with their physical health" - Stephen Jones

10 Jun 2024

7 mins read

Birthdays can be a bit like New Year’s Eve. Especially the big dates like 21 and of course the zeros: 30, 40, 50… you get the idea. On those days, we celebrate who we are whilst looking forward to what we want life to be. 

When Stephen Jones turned 29 he made a pledge to work out every day for a year. “I knew it was a positive thing for my life and I wanted to be kept accountable so I thought that if I raised money for a cause I wouldn’t have any choice. I would have to do it every day”, he explains.

Sure, Stephen had some stressors in his life. At 29 years old, he was the Head of Partnerships at DigitalGenius (DG), a position he admits does bring some pressure. “Quite a sizeable percentage of the company’s revenue has to come from the work I do so, yes, that can be quite stressful.” Even though this is the most responsibility he’s ever had in his career thus far, it was not his job that fuelled his new daily routine.

We sat down with Stephen two days after he turned 30 and finished a year of working out every day to raise money for Mind to talk about mental health, getting help and normalising conversations around mental health.

Mental health is such a broad topic and it’s pretty much different for everyone so, when you think of mental health, what do you think of?

It has a lot of negative connotations at the moment - which it shouldn’t. Your health is not seen in a negative way, but as soon as you use the words ‘mental health’ people immediately jump to things like mental illness. Their mind goes straight to negative stuff and that’s not what it is about at all. I think everyone should be concerned with their mental health in the same way everyone is concerned with their physical health.

Do you think there’s a bit of a stigma around it?

As I say, I think it’s something that everyone should be looking to improve. We should be able to have open conversations around it in the same way that I’ll have open conversations with colleagues at work about my diet, my exercise or anything that will affect my physical health. I’ll talk about that - the things I am doing to improve my physical health-, but it's rare to overhear work conversations about the things I’m doing to improve my mental health. Whether you have a diagnosed medical condition, whether you struggle with your mental health at any given time, I don’t think any of that stuff should matter. Whether you do or you don’t, I think everyone should be discussing their mental health. 

My dad used to say health is something you only value when you lose it, meaning you only really think about being healthy when you’re sick. Maybe that happens with mental health as well in the sense that you only realise how important it is to take care of it when you start experiencing some kind of challenge. What was your pathway into thinking about mental health and how important it is?

I think that’s a really good analogy. You only care about the importance of getting a good insurance plan when your house floods. I ended up having my formal kind of diagnosis of severe clinical depression in 2022.

Depression is something people can live with for a long time without realising they have it. Was that the case for you?

I was very aware of it. I remember being 18, moving out, living with other people around the same age as me and that was when I started to realise that I didn’t deal with conflict or just difficulty in the same way [as them]. That I wasn’t able to shrug things off as easily, wasn’t quite as resilient as I wanted to be. I started to notice that I was a little bit different maybe then, but I didn’t do anything about it. I avoided getting help for a really long time. I think I had to get to a pretty dark place before I accepted that I did not have a choice but to get help.

Stephen Jones on the panel for Quickfire Digital

Stephen on the panel for Quickfire Digital discussing AI in Ecommerce

Once you got to a point where you realised you needed help, what was the next step?

I was having a pretty tough time so I phoned 111 (the NHS helpline). I spoke to a mental health nurse who was very willing to hear me out and recommended speaking to a GP. I was very grateful that the service was available. You hear about the NHS being stretched all of the time so I didn’t want to be a burden, but I really felt listened to and they were very helpful.

Then I went to see a GP and he prescribed Sertraline, an antidepressant. The reasoning was that, since my symptoms had started when I was very young, it was likely to be more of a biochemical thing. It was not like I was an adult where some tragic life event had happened and caused it. It happened to me at a very young age; with things that were kind of mild that I was finding very upsetting but that, in the grand scheme of things, were not that big of a deal. It was likely to be a chemical thing - medication usually has a more positive effect in a scenario like that, and it did. 

I knew I didn’t feel happy. I knew I had the option to feel happier and just had no desire to do so. I think that’s what the medication has helped with. Now I choose to be at least “4 out of 10” every day. Those four points are in my control. 

Sometimes people want to help friends and family, but they don’t really have the tools. 

I’d relied on family and friends for support throughout my life. I was very lucky to have that. I think if I hadn’t had the support around me it would have been way harder and I would have had to get help earlier. But you end up feeling guilt. Guilt was a constant. You feel like a burden, for sure. Sometimes it’s easier to just speak to someone who has no connection to my life whatsoever, no previous opinions about any of the people involved in my life, no biases of their own, none of that stuff, just totally impartial.

My therapist knew when to share some of their story with me, which I was surprised by and grateful for. It wasn’t just questions. It helped me to feel sane actually having someone say ‘you know what, that’s a normal reaction.’ I had gone too far in the other direction where I felt like everything I did must be because I wasn’t normal. I didn’t feel validated in anything that I felt because I always thought it must be rooted in this thing in me that makes me a little bit emotional and sensitive, so I must be being unreasonable when this thing upsets me or makes me angry. Having someone listen to what you’re saying and go ‘that’s a totally human reaction and it’s got nothing to do with being depressed or anything. That’s just someone who hurt you and you feel hurt. That’s reasonable.’

Why were you a bit reluctant about sharing your story?

In my JustGiving post I kind of allude to it, but I’ve never talked explicitly about how dark my thoughts have been at various stages of my life. It’s not a stigma I wanted associated with my professional personality. I think it’s easy to see it as a weakness. I didn’t think I wanted it to be something that work colleagues knew about. The nature of my job is relationship building - it’s outgoing, social stuff so I didn’t want it to be a downer either! I didn’t want it to be something that people felt they had to talk to me about or felt uncomfortable talking to me about.

In the end, I decided that it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, I decided to share a bit more about myself in the hope that it might help someone else. And it has! I’ve had messages since from people at other companies that I’ve met through my work messaging me. One of them said ‘I don’t know how you deal with Sertraline. It made me feel like a zombie.’ In sending a message like that they’ve already told me that they’ve suffered with some kind of mental health condition, whether that’s depression, ADHD or whatever they’re taking it for. So people are already now more comfortable to share things like that with me. It’s normalising talking about it and it's making people feel more comfortable. Actually, after reading my No Days Off year post, a colleague told me that this was going to be the reason he was going to see a therapist. 

What do you think companies can do, regardless of size, to make them a better place to work when people are struggling with their mental health?

We [at DG] have a week off as a company, from the 5th to the 9th of August this year. It’s compulsory. During this recharge week we do as a company, all the internal chatter just goes away. There’s nothing that draws you back into checking your company emails or chat. DG is also giving an annual subscription to an app that helps to find balance, like Calm or Headspace. 

Now that you’ve finished the No Days Off challenge, how are you going to continue to take care of your mental health?

The feeling of exercising has made me feel more confident about my fitness and where I am body wise. Another thing is being open with it [mental health] and talking about it. I think it allows people to understand me better, to give me space when I need space and to be more supportive. In a remote job that’s easier because I work flexible hours and so I am able to work around my life schedule in a way that allows me to compensate. If anything gets in the way of my work, I’m able to make up that time later if that suits me. 

And then the other thing is just putting myself first. What the No Days Off year really taught me is that there’s always an excuse not to do the good thing. There’s always a reason to drink alcohol, whether it’s because it’s someone’s birthday or because it’s a Thursday and it’s sunny. There’s always a reason, but sometimes you can make the right choice for yourself and that’s what this has forced me to do. There’s always a reason not to do the good thing, but now I’m getting used to choosing to do the good thing anyway.
If you’d like to donate to Stephen’s cause, you’ll be able to do so here

If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help: