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Chris Jones

Hear from Chris Jones and his experiences with mental health.

What have you been up to, Chris?

Today, I had some training. I'm starting a new placement with my counseling. I’ve got one placement at the moment. The training is really thorough which is really nice. They've got quite a good structure in place there.

When you say “placement,” what does that mean exactly?

It's basically like an organization, it can be a charity sometimes, but this one's not, where they offer counseling to people usually at a reduced fee, because it's with trainees. So, it's a place where if you're training to become a counselor, you essentially work for free, but it helps you build your clinical hours because to qualify, you need to have had a certain amount of hours to meet the quota. I need 100 hours of clinical work to qualify. There’s a load of other work you need to do as well but that's like one aspect of it. You go and see clients—you’ll have a group of clients, perhaps—and you'll have your sessions and through that, you gain your hours and obviously, your experience as well with working with clients.

Is this taking place in London, where you’re at now?

Yeah, in London where I live currently. Where I was training today was in Mill Hill Broadway, which is quite north. It would be really inconvenient if I had to travel outside of London for it but actually getting a placement can be quite a process. It's quite competitive and not straightforward when it comes to finding a volunteering role where you're working for free, but I think there are a lot of people training at the moment to become counselors and therapists. There's a high demand for placements and not all can get approved because of various reasons. It's a bit of an ordeal but I’m glad it's all in place now because it's quite a lot of work. It's like finding a job. It's a lot of work looking for a job, right? Applications, a lot of interviews, a lot of stages to go through to even get to a point where you're sitting with a client, which is understandable. If it was straightforward, and you're suddenly sat in front of a client in a counseling role if there isn't this process to get to that point, then I suppose anyone could just be sat there in the end, and it could be quite dangerous.

You and I were just on a bite-sized adventure as part of the Why So Sad? mission. We rode bikes with boards up to Milngavie skatepark in Glasgow, then over to Kelvingrove Skate Park and on to The Loading Bay. What are your biggest takeaways and memories from that now that we’re a month or so past?

I really enjoyed cycling around Glasgow. That was really nice. I saw parts of Glasgow that I'd never seen before. It’s a beautiful city. It was lovely cycling along the canal and revisiting old skate parks that I haven't been to in a long time, like going back to Kelvingrove—that was really fun.

Connecting with people that I hadn't seen in a while was really good. Being in a space where people are open and comfortable talking about mental health, that's always a really nice experience.

Skating all day and then also just having these discussions which were insightful for me as well. Having conversations with people afterward, where people feel quite relaxed, to be quite open about things that are going on in their lives—being in that open environment where there's not a sense of judgment. It’s quite freeing.

I felt the same way. Having that physical component first—having everyone use that to get their energy good and then sit down and talk—I think there's something interesting in setting the tone and the stage emotionally and physically for people. Getting some energy out is good.

The other thing is—and I’ve said this a few times—if I had a pound for every time I heard “skateboarding is my escape” or “skateboarding saved my life”... that's great but I always think that if it's helping you process to that point, then the next stage is to ask the follow-up question, “what does it help to escape from? What has it saved you from?” because then we’re starting to dig in and really process, learn, heal and grow. I think that's the step that we often maybe shy away from in the skate community—but maybe in broader life as well.

So, taking that extra time after the skate session to also say, ‘OK, now let's sit down and chat about something that we don't often make space for.’ I think that's part of the point of the missions. And part of the point of events like the Glasgow session. I think it's a good thing and I'm glad I’m not the only person doing this. For example, we had the Ben Raemers Foundation there as well. I wondered if you have thoughts on that idea of using skate events in that way?

Definitely, just on a personal level, I think it helped me feel a lot more relaxed in that space. You know? I've not really talked to our panel before and naturally, there were some nerves around the first experience in itself of doing that. It was interesting how relaxed I felt and I think that is definitely linked with the fact that we were able to exercise before. I think just cycling around and skating all day and having fun put me in a really good mood. The setup for it was conducive for me feeling relaxed too and present enough to engage with it. I wouldn't say public speaking is a strong point for me. I guess from doing everything beforehand, endorphins are definitely triggered and I think that helped.

That’s kind of the idea. Your mental health and physical health aren’t separate things. There’s a lot of good work that’s been done over the last 10 years to understand this. To that point, we talked a little bit about the implications of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study that happened back in the ‘90s, where they started to understand that there are things that happen to you as your brain is developing that have an impact on you as an adult and that have an impact on your stress response. In your “Smile” film, you talk about having low confidence and low self-esteem. Have you ever managed to dig into that and identify where those feelings came from?

It was really interesting talking with you about ACEs because it's something I hadn't really come across before. When it comes to low self-esteem, I guess there are a lot of different facets to it. One of the major things I talked about in the video has been a lack of confidence in myself regarding my intelligence. That's something that I can track back to my earliest formative years.

When I was really young, I had meningitis and when I was in primary school I struggled with things like reading. I was behind my peers at the time. In those years my parents always pushed for me to get extra help from the school but quite often, the head of the school would often dismiss my struggles as being a result of me being slow and not really helping in some way.

It took my parents to push and push and fortunately, there was there a tutor at the school that helped children with learning difficulties. She offered to tutor me for free outside of school hours. She helped me to improve my reading and writing so I could kind of get up to speed with my peers in primary school.

Then I went into secondary school and at that point, I was kind of at a level with my peers but I think because of that prior experience and the way I was treated and spoken to contributed to the sense of inferiority. That I wasn’t as clever as my peers. In some ways that put me off school. I didn’t think school was for me. My response was to not try at all. I really lacked confidence. It led to me not trying and feeling like school wasn’t for me. After my GCSEs, I left and I wasn't that interested—I did a college course in photography and then dropped out. It wasn’t until I went back to college that I actually started to try and see what happens. I started getting good grades, went to university, and got my degree but still, those experiences of my younger years influenced the thoughts and feelings I had about myself in relation to others and in relation to intellectual abilities. That’s an example of a childhood experience that didn’t really foster to cater to my needs. I never had any official diagnosis of a learning disability. It was just presented to me that I was slow.

It’s almost a fight-or-flight response, isn’t it?

Like, “You think I’m dumb? Alright, then I’m not going to follow your rules or work hard.”

And wow, that experience of meningitis you had is such a clear, tangible, example. It’s certainly the type of thing we’d define as trauma—a horrible event outside the norm. And then the chronic part of it was that the social environment around you wasn't helping your needs as a kid at a time when you needed the adult world more than ever. It’s no wonder you had those feelings coming up from the subconscious. That comes back to something you said in the “Smile” film: Our emotions don’t always tell the truth.

I look at things differently these days, even after that, even after getting a degree and having evidence that what I was told wasn’t the case, those feelings still persisted.

That leads to something I wanted to discuss. You had another very traumatic experience later in life when your dad had the accident. How old were you when that happened?

I was 21. Right at the end of university. Literally two weeks before I was done. My relationship with my dad before I went to university was quite complicated. He was struggling and drinking a lot. There were periods when he could go in on me and my brother. He’d say things that tapped into my insecurities: ‘You’re not going to amount to anything.’ ‘You’re stupid’.

My university experience, in some ways, was a way to fight through childhood experiences of feeling stupid and almost proving I wasn’t. I look at it in some aspects as an unhealthy response. There was an element where I was just trying to prove something to my dad as a fuck you, which isn’t very healthy. But there was something in that that would have somehow completed a cycle—I’ve gone through this and it counters some of those core beliefs I had. I was putting so much validation on my dad’s opinions of me—seeking validation from external sources rather than coming from me. After my dad’s incident, trying to get that validation from external sources still played out in some ways. It wasn’t until I took more of a compassionate approach to myself. Not necessarily looking through a lens of low confidence and suggesting that I needed to have high confidence but rather, genuinely accepting me as I am and looking at myself in less of a black-and-white way. It’s so much more complex than one singular description of myself. I may be stupid at times, I may be clever at times, and I can be both sometimes as well. Putting myself into one box was hindering me and also holding me back still.

And as much as your motivation to get a degree was coming from a place of proving your dad or your teachers wrong, the outcome wasn’t that bad. You got a degree. Understanding why you were behaving that way is what’s really important. You also talk in the film about getting to a point of severe depression. Did you ever get to the point of suicidal ideation?

I did. Fortunately for me, it didn’t last very long and it didn’t go further than abstract thoughts. It never resulted in a plan or intention and it hasn’t returned since, which I’m very glad for. But that experience influenced me to want to volunteer for the Listening Place which offers a service for people who no longer feel life’s worth living. That experience resonated and stuck with me.

Going back to what we discussed earlier about the use of physical activity to regulate yourself, have you used that or noticed physical activity helping you?

Yeah, definitely. I am very aware that when I’m talking, all I can really say is from my personal experience and what works for me. When it comes to things like CBT, I’ve found elements of it very helpful but it’s not helpful for all things and all people. It’s the same with this. I have my methods when I’m feeling unregulated or can’t think clearly—when you go into that fight or flight mode and cortisol is flooding your body or whatever. I kind of describe it as a form of brain fog, where it becomes hard to decide things. When I’m in that state, what works for me at times, I don’t have a persistent practice for mindfulness but I do practice meditation and that helps bring me down sometimes. I’m aware mindfulness is a broad term and doesn't work for everyone but when I think of it, I don’t think of it solely as closing our eyes and breathing, for me, it can be anything, from making a cup of tea to skating. Just engaging and trying to feel something—connecting with your body. That can really calm me to a state where I can think clearly and process what’s going on. Many of us if not all of us have had a form of a traumatic incident and when you go into that fight, flight, freeze, mode, thinking about your thoughts isn’t always achievable.

Right. Because it’s not the time.

Yeah. Anything that can bring me into a present state—I don’t do it often but sometimes cold swimming… just the shock of it can bring me back into my body and brings me back down when I come out. I find that helpful. It can be as simple as listening to music, to be honest. Something rhythmic. It does something to help bring me out of that mode and then I can process what’s going on. The past does influence our present experience but through that exploration of what's going on and understanding yourself and how you respond to things, you can develop response methods—having a mental health plan. It’s a continuous process. You add things along the way but it’s really finding your own twist to these things.

You’re getting at something important. It’s a continuous process and there is no single magic bullet that’s going to kill the werewolf—meaning, solve our mental health problems in one fell swoop—but there are common patterns for us all. We need to work out what works for ourselves.

It’s important when you do seek the help of professionals to remember that everyone’s different and there isn’t one way to help all. It’s finding what works for you. It requires work, it takes time, and we can’t always change a situation but we can change our response to it. That’s the beauty of it all. As humans, we have the power to change. It’s important not to get trapped into deterministic ways, like, ‘I can’t go back and change the past [so there’s nothing I can do now]’. When you recognize patterns and become conscious of them you can create new and more helpful ones. It’s possible. There’s scientific evidence. It’s an achievable goal.

That’s interesting. That idea of not being able to change the situation but we can change our response to it. It makes me think of boxing. Great boxers learn to develop skills to dodge punches. In a way, we’re building skills to see feelings and thoughts but then dodge them and deal with them before our brains get into a cycle of anxiety. Boxing with your thoughts.

For sure, and that’s a good way to put it. That takes time. For me, it’s taken a long period to look at things I perceive as a threat differently because they’re so ingrained in your thinking. That’s what I mean when I said our feelings don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes you may be threatened by something related to these ACEs and previous experiences but in the present day, with time, they don’t have to be threatening anymore. It takes time to build new pathways and reframe things so you can stop responding from a place of anxiety. It takes time but it’s possible. That’s the main thing… the exciting thing. You’re not stuck even if you feel stuck at times.

Since the “Smile” film you’ve been training to become a counselor, what were the big factors in your life that led you down that path?

My experiences of anxiety, depression, and difficulties growing up, have contributed to this sense that mental health is something I care about because it’s played such a role in my life. It’s something I’m passionate about. There are so many more resources out there now. Having gone through things where maybe I didn’t feel like there was that same support in place, it would be great to play a role in a skateboard context, where people feel like that support’s in place for others. Working and volunteering in the helping with various charities and I think it fuels a desire for me to work in that world. In a lot of ways I never really knew how I wanted to exist in that sphere. It was never, ‘Boom, I’m going to become a counselor.’ It’s been a process. Just having a really good tutor to get my counseling certificate inspired me to continue with and experience the benefits of therapy. It’s helped me so much. It helps. It works. I don’t want to sound too altruistic but the experiences and learning have really helped as well. I’ve always had an interest in psychology and the theory around it is really fascinating. Therapy does a lot of things for different people, for me, it’s facilitated a space to build self-awareness. The more self-aware we become as individuals, the more we can help the world because we’re thinking about why we behave the way we do. It can only have a positive impact.

I wondered if what happened with Ben (Raemers) had an impact or impetus for you to keep pushing on that path.

Definitely. With Ben, it influenced me and led me to volunteer at the Listening Place.

It certainly impacted me to think, ‘OK, this is something we as skateboarders and as a community need to keep pushing on to figure out how to have ongoing conversations. Thinking about skating, and skateboarding in the community, what would you say is the biggest positive and where is there room for improvement?

I think the biggest positive is connectedness with others. As humans we're quite social beings. Being a part of a group like that, it’s a really positive thing. What it helps facilitate is an awareness of how we are in groups as well. Through groups, you can have a lot of feedback which helps develop self-awareness. I think it’s a lot harder to develop that awareness on an individual level and you don’t get those benefits.

What could be improved? Within the skateboard community or within the culture, I think that there are similar things that could be said on a more macro level of society that could move towards improvement. There is that movement as well relating to mental health to develop mental health awareness and facilitate an environment where people can talk openly and create a space where there isn’t judgment around this. I think that is something that is happening within skateboarding, thanks to the work of Why So Sad? and The Ben Raemers Foundation. It’s something that’s happening and hopefully, it will only get better. There are these new skate events now where they have two-hour talks about mental health in the middle of them. That's a very new thing and it's certainly a positive thing. We just need to keep it going.