Principal's assembly 13th October 2020

I will tell anyone who listens that The West Wing is the best drama ever made for tv. Aired between 1999 and 2006 (but all available on Netflix), it follows the fictional presidency of Democrat Jed Bartlet, played by Emmy and Golden Globe winning film star Martin Sheen.

My favourite characters are the Chief of Staff, veteran Democrat strategist and recovering alcoholic, Leo McGarry, and his deputy, the politically brilliant but unstable Josh Lyman. Their relationship is one of the highlights of the show.

McGarry is played by one of my favourite actors, the late John Spencer. In one of the most memorable scenes of the seven seasons, he tells this story to the troubled Lyman, played by the equally brilliant Bradley Whitford:

‘This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”’

I haven’t done the acting justice and the story certainly is not meant to undermine your faith in medicine or religion. The intention is to point out that we can’t always solve all our own problems and there is no harm in admitting that. Whether it be a doctor, priest, teacher or friend, we all need people to listen to us, encourage us and advise us.
Taking the first step and approaching a confidant is often the hardest move. I’m sure that’s why the ITV campaign that you’ll have seen advertised during Britain’s Got Talent is called Britain Get Talking.

Mental health remains an area that we find difficult to discuss openly. I even saw a blog yesterday from a teacher who said she was “outing” herself as having had a dip in her mental health as if this is something she ought to hide. In effect, why should it be any different to talking about any other problem we have with our health?

I suspect it is harder because there is still, sadly, stigma attached to mental health, that somehow it is not macho or maybe even British to admit to suffering. That’s why Andrew Flintoff’s recent BBC documentary in which he talked openly about his struggle with bulimia was so important. One of the giants – literally and figuratively – of modern sport accepting that he needs help. It’s why rugby referee Nigel Owens is such an important figure.

Operating in just about the most macho field, Owens is perhaps the best referee in the history of the sport who happens to be openly homosexual. I advise all our older pupils to watch an interview with Owens in which he explains how his struggles with being open over his sexuality damaged his mental health to the most despairing of levels and how, in the end, openness with his parents saved his life.

Last Saturday was Mental Health Awareness Day. Nigel Owens retweeted his interview with this message: “Never feel alone, share your worries, it’s not a sign of weakness and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” As The Yorkshire Post’s Graeme Bandeira drew brilliantly at the weekend, “It’s ok not to be ok...”

I think that Owens would like the culture of inclusivity and kindness that we have at Fulneck School, but would warn us against complacency. If there is just one person watching this today who doesn’t have someone they know they can turn to, then that’s one too many.

Equally, if you see someone who is not quite themselves, discreetly try to find out if there is something wrong and whether sharing it might help. It might be nothing, but your involvement might mean everything.

I want to finish today by commenting on the well-known words of former Apple CEO Tim Cook: “The sidelines are not where you want to live your life. The world needs you in the arena.” He’s absolutely right – we need you to be the leaders of the future – but you can’t do that unless you look after your own physical and mental health first. Nigel Owens would not be the most respected referee in world rugby had he not sorted his own health first.


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