PROFILE: Celia Richardson, the acceptable face of mental health

Celia Richardson, director of comms and fundraising at the Mental Health Foundation, is cradling her cup of tea as the photographer snaps away. She is concerned that her red shoes clash with the pink bean bags, but it is the only sign of vanity in an otherwise unaffected manner.

Celia Richardson
Celia Richardson

This week, the Mental Health Foundation's annual awareness week kicked off with a report on problem anger, written by Richardson. During a staggered return to work from maternity leave, she spent weeks in the British Library researching the topic.

‘I love the British Library, but it was a lonely existence - no water-cooler mom­ents,' she laughs. ‘I like to buy into an org­anisation and really be part of something.'

This attitude has been a key ­element of her rapid ascent up the career ladder. At just 34 she is a leading NGO comms professional, has added fundraising responsibilities to her remit and has spent three years co-chairing the Mental Health Alliance (MHA), which was influential in bringing about better mental health legislation for England and Wales.

Her office is in the impressive Sea Containers Building on London's South Bank. The building's striking golden orbs sit bet­ween the Tate Modern and the old Cardboard City site. But Richardson's mission is to destroy the stereotypes that compartmentalise mental health sufferers into tortured artists or social pariahs.

‘There is still a lack of understanding that mental health is a term that applies to everyone,' she says. ‘If you have a mental health problem, that will be how you are described, no matter what else is in the news story. You would not get away with talking about people with physical problems in the way you do about people with mental health problems.'

Richardson believes a few high-profile murder cases had a negative effect on the way in which mental health issues were perceived by the media and the public, ­citing the case of psychopathic murderer Michael Stone. This case was one of many that ignited governmental debate about incarcerating psychopaths - even if they had not committed a crime.

But she says there has been progress in breaking down stigmas surrounding mental health and is positive about the mainstream appetite for the subject. She points to the success of Psychologies magazine and ­psychological issues appearing ‘on the sofa of the breakfast show' as evidence.

Celia RichardsonRichardson says it is important to break down the "Victorian asylum mentality" that categorises those with mental health problems as ‘people to be kept at arm's length'. A key message is that it is more common than people realise; while one in three people will get cancer, one in four will have mental health problems.

Richardson should know. She was trea­ted for depression in the late 90s and comes from a family with a history of mental illness. She thinks people need to get away from the idea that therapy is an American West Coast idea.

She laughs as she rem­embers how she used to call Tuesdays ‘psychotherapy evening' when she and a couple of colleagues discovered they attended sessions on the same night. ‘By talking about the issues, you demystify them, which can only be a good thing,' she says.

Richardson was politicised in her formative years, during the closure of the mines and steel works in her home town near Newcastle in the 80s. She believes this expe­rience drove her to the voluntary sector.

She has never shied away from challenging or unfashionable issues. She spent two years working at a sink estate in Wembley, was active at the Refugee Council in the 90s and is a member of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society).

‘Celia has a strong social conscience that has translated into her career,' says Lisa Watch, the General Social Care Council's head of external affairs, who worked with Richardson at the RNID.

‘I imagine her inclusive and empowering leadership style has played a part in her success. And recently, she has balanced her career with a strong family commitment - a positive role model for working mothers,' says Watch.

Richardson lives with her young son and former BBC journalist husband, now head of media for the Medical Research Council.

With the Seroxat anti-depressant story recently domina­ting the headlines, you would expect Richardson to rail against the pharma industry. She has successfully lobbied the Government on the benefits of exercise and psychotherapy rather than drugs to treat depression. But she credits the industry for creating an understan­ding of mental health that has aided charities.

‘There was a time when depression was dismissed, but some pharma companies did such a fantastic job of marketing a treatment that it was seen to be a real illness,' she says.

Richardson admits she is not ‘a process person', something she discovered during a stint with ‘development folk' in Rwanda. ‘I like words and hate logistics,' she says.

Her passion, knowledge and creativity have earned her respect in the voluntary sector. RNID's senior campaigns officer, Agnes Hoctor, who co-chaired the MHA's campaigns group, says Richardson ‘was expert at infiltrating Department of Health press conferences and collaring journalists on the way out to give our point of view'.

But she is no self-publicist. Richardson co-wrote Fundamental Facts, reg­arded as a ‘bible' on mental health issues, but never mentions it in the interview.

Her style is more akin to quiet diplomacy. Rethink's director of public affairs Paul Corry lauds her for keeping the notoriously fractious mental health sector on the same agenda. With mental health issues becoming more politicised, these qualities should propel Richardson further.

2007 Mental Health Foundation, director of comms and fundraising
2002 Mental Health Foundation, head of press then director of comms
2001 RNID, deputy head of media
1997 Stonebridge Housing Action Trust, comms officer then head of comms
1994 Refugee Council, dir­ect marketing officer

What was your biggest career break?
Not going back to university after my first degree as I had planned. I was a bit of a truant at school and university, but paid work seemed to suit me more. The Refugee Council was
a good starting point, since the cause had massive appeal for me and I felt as though I
was part of something important when I was still very young.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
I've never met anyone who isn't sometimes a bit scared in their day job. Take the occasional risk, be open to other people's ideas, trust your and others' instincts. And if your big ideas invite lots of criticism, you might just be doing something right. Take criticism on board, but don't abandon your ideas too quickly.

Who has been your most notable mentor?
My current boss, Andrew McCullogh. He explains his decisions to me. We disagree quite a bit, but he's a risk-taker and likes to go against the grain.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A willingness to speak up. To have creativity in teams, people have to challenge each other's ideas with a view to building on them - and they have to be open to being disagreed with. I also like a flash of fearlessness.

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