“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld

IT’S not simply turning up to speak.

You can make up your own mind about comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy routine quote. I have decided to tell the story of sharing the lived experience of mental health, the fear of speaking, the before and after, and the immense power of a person’s own story.

Not only does one need to overcome the fear of public speaking, but also the fear of sharing the lived experience. It’s not simply turning up to speak.

I do it so that I or others do not have to deliver that eulogy.

It requires one to share vulnerabilities in the most public way; telling a story about what has been taboo to speak about, especially so in my work group of health and medicine. It’s also a taboo topic for a male. Men have been very reluctant to speak up until very recently, and many still are.

Some talks go well, and some do not. Some talks are combined with tears. Some talks take a few days to regroup from. Some I have booked a routine appointment with a counsellor afterwards for support. It’s not simply turning up to speak.

I entered this phase of my life after I became a speaker and ambassador for Beyondblue in 2014. They have built much around individuals’ lived experience and their willingness to share their stories. Their speaker group numbers many hundreds from all walks of life, because mental health does not discriminate. These individuals are volunteers who give up their time in order to help others.

Beyondblue places huge value on the power of the lived experience, and it changes lives for the better. At the induction, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett spoke to us. He made the point that you will never know how many and who you help.

For a doctor, this is a strange experience, as the results are usually right in front of us.

I have no real knowledge of who I or the speakers have helped, but we all believe that if we can change just one life – save one life in a year of speaking – then we have achieved our aim.

My own reasons are many but include making a dent in the 3128 people that took their own lives in 2017. That’s eight people a day – six men and two women, every day. Upwards of 60 000 people attempt to end their lives per year. These are truly horrifying numbers, and so easily those numbers could have included me.

Medicine’s silent and hidden secret also has equally horrifying statistics.

My first talk was to a coterie group of an AFL football side: the Angels of the St Kilda Football Club. It was a terrifying experience and not the best speech I have ever given, but the women were supportive and kind.

I was called the next day by the Beyondblue speaker organisers – a routine they have to check on their speakers. They well know that it’s not simply turning up to speak. They protect this vital and most vulnerable part of their team. If talks are becoming too much, they schedule breaks. There is always the option to pull out at the last minute with no judgement. They know and respect that it’s not simply turning up to speak.

My next gig was a major TV show – SBS Insight in 2014 – giving national media exposure to what had previously been a hidden illness: male suicide. The professionalism of the team at Insight shone through. After the taping, they checked on me the next day. After the show was aired, they again checked twice to make sure I was okay. The team from Beyondblue also checked in.

They both set a high standard of professionalism and support. They realise it’s not simply turning up to talk.

Outside Beyondblue, I have accepted invitations to talk from major colleges and hospitals. Despite, on occasions, breaking down and crying on stage, I am yet to receive that call. Maybe that is the medical profession failing to realise that it’s not simply turning up to talk.

Some of these colleges and hospitals expect you to pay your own expenses, to speak and share your most vulnerable time, and again be judged by your peers.

Why did I write this article? I do it because I have seen my friends and colleagues in this space, Dr Yumiko Kadota and The Wounded Healer in the United Kingdom, who have been targeted as I have been, judged by those who do not have the right to judge. If they felt the same way as me as a result, then I feel great empathy for them. It was a horrifying experience for me and required added support.

I will leave you with a Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Those who share their lived experience bleed a little or a lot, both before and after. My friends in this space are hurting as well. We need respect but, especially in medicine, that requires a huge cultural change.

It’s not simply turning up to speak.

Dr Geoffrey Toogood is a cardiologist and a long-time advocate for mental health. He has swum the English Channel. He came up with the idea of crazysocks4docs day. He was recently awarded the 2019 AMA President’s Award.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

7 thoughts on “Sharing our lived experience: our courage demands respect

  1. Helen Lowy says:

    I applaud your courage in sharing your lived experience and in doing so helping others.
    I’m sorry to hear that the health care profession has not supported you well.
    I agree, we need to improve self-care (individual and collectively) in healthcare.

  2. Bruni Brewin says:

    Most of us have heard of the trilogy of ‘mind, body and spirit’ – they are a part of our humanness and can’t be separated, only blocked by our beliefs and perceptions in life.

    The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions to me is the true gift of a healer. The ability to share your own feelings and the vulnerability this may cause, shows true strength of character.

    In the words of W Edwards Deming: father of quality management, patient and composer –
    The four key elements of his “system of profound knowledge” are:

    1, Appreciation for a system; 2, Understanding variation; 3, A theory of knowledge; and 4, Understanding psychology and human behaviour.

    Quote: “We are here to make another world.”

    You have shown us all of these elements. Thank you for your article.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dear Geoffrey,
    Thanks for your courage and insightful wisdom. It is a pity that we are so trained to give out to others that we forget to support our peers and ourselves!! Kind of like the mum, who doesn’t prioritise her own health, and then finds everything crumbling down around her. Need to get our own house in order.
    Am very sorry that you were actively targeted and caught up in the criticism around lack of diversity on GP panel!! Again showed our lack of care for peers.
    Thank you again for all your fabulous and generous insights.

  4. Kay Dunkley says:

    Thank you Geoff for sharing this important message and hopefully in the future there will be greater consideration of the effort it takes to share your vulnerabilities in a public forum. Your honesty about this is inspiring and very important. Hopefully there will be greater consideration of your needs in the future. Best wishes to you and others who are so open about your experiences. Take care of yourself so that you can keep caring for others.

  5. Nick Hansen says:

    A terrific article by Dr Toogood. The medical profession has a huge role to play in the mental health space not only as advocates but as carers. I was tremendously fortunate when I had severe anxiety to have amazing doctors who looked after me – my GP and his now late father who was a doctor who turned to psychology later in life. I am indebted to him for the rest of my life. I am also a proud member of Beyondblue’s Blue Voices group.

  6. Ariane Cullen says:

    Thank you Geoffrey for your generosity and courage.

  7. Dr Neil Edward Hucker says:

    When people have panic attacks the two greatest fears are that they are going to die or go mad.

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