In honor of Mental Health Awareness week starting in the USA this weekend, I’d like to share with a story from another inspirational woman in my network. Annabelle Southcoat is a genuine polymath – someone whose intellectual curiosity and drive for humanity and social justice has led her down so many fruitful paths already. Her story is interesting because she so nearly wasn’t. Her story is relevant to business leaders because she demonstrates the value of authentic adjustments to our inclusion practice and how, with the right champion, we can change the course and direction of lives. Ms Southcoat is now a Psychologist at the UK Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) a drummer in a band, an innovative thinker and a pussy cat mother. She says,
”I’m also a dyslexic, gay, trans woman (though I tend to just say woman these days) and I have an ongoing and exciting relationship with my mental health.
I was born in the north east of England, my parents were fairly unconventional for the time in that after my younger brother was born my mum went back to work as a computer programmer, while my dad stayed home to look after the children. This caused a bit of friction with the family (so I’m told) and we left the north east before I started school. Following my mums career we moved around the country so that I attended eight different schools by the time I finished my A-levels (UK equivalent to High School Diploma).
When I was eight years old, Disney released The Little Mermaid, seeing it at the cinema also changed my life as it helped shape my questions of my gender identity. In 1989, with no Google to check this was challenging to face alone, it would also define my Master’s research into how childhood narratives shape our identity, with consequences for our mental health. I’m publishing this shortly, so watch this space!
Throughout school I was bullied and a bit of a loner, I was that child who would always get the school report ‘could try harder’ and ‘not achieving their full potential’. No one spotted my dyslexia or that, as it turns out, I’m pretty bright, with a General Ability Index (GAI) that puts me in the top 0.1% of the population. I wouldn’t learn of my dyslexia until my first year of university and wouldn’t really understand it or its impact until my late 30s. With a lot of hard work I got through my exams at sixteen (to everyone’s surprise, including my own) and onto A-levels”
What kind of system allows someone with a gifted intellect to struggle through exams? All children who ‘fail’ the school system suffer, gifted or not. It perpetuates needless anxiety, internalized self-hatred and isolation across a wide spectrum. We need to do better for all children. Ms Southcoat continues:
“After my friend tragically died by suicide, I tried to copy her. It would be the start of several attempts over my life, the last and most serious of which was at the start of 2018. However, back in 1999 I changed from dreaming of geochemistry to wanting to make sure none of my other friends died the same way; sadly I wouldn’t be successful here either. So with one A-level (aka, not a great High School result – most have three) I made it to university to study psychology, learned I was dyslexic and started working in call centres to pay my way through my studies.
Much to my regret now, I stayed with call centres after I graduated because the money was ok and I was good at it. I did that for 10 years, and then, following several redundancies started as a UK Civil Servant. I’ve written advice for the (then) Prime Minister and did some of the early internal strategy work on Brexit before moving to DSTL, completing my Master’s and becoming a Psychologist.”
I’m really taken by the trajectory once Ms Southcoat found her way into a safe space, where she was valued. She goes from struggling to pass one A Level to writing for the PM and finally achieving her dream of being a Psychologist in a few short years. What is the difference that made the difference? If we could all work inclusively, I wonder how many under-utilized, thwarted colleagues could prosper and bloom? I asked Ms Southcoat about this directly.
She replied: “I could talk about the extra time for exams, the adaptive technologies or inclusive policies that have all helped, but they only get you so far. These things get you in the room, but not, as some would say, a seat at the table, or even an ability to speak there.
What gets you there is having someone champion you. A champion being someone who walks into a room, behind closed doors and says ‘this person has value and we should listen to them’. A champion stands behind you and says ‘you’ve got this’ and holds your hand while you find your feet. I’ve been lucky to have a few champions when I’ve really needed them, someone who saw through the differences that put others off and recognised I had value.
Having a champion allowed me to do things I never believed I could. A stand-out moment was working on Brexit strategy. At the start it was all very fluid and I had devised a plan I was to brief to the Permanent Secretary and her senior team. I remember standing outside the meeting room in tears with my then boss – crying because I didn’t know all the answers to the questions I thought I’d be asked. She helped me to realised that no one knew the answers to those questions, and in my head were more answers than anyone else had to some of the key issues we faced. I dried my tears and in I went, gave my briefing and was really listened to. It was a special moment for me, only possible because I had actually been specifically picked for that role by my boss, she, literally brought me into that room and sat me down to talk, so others could listen.”
As someone who is considered to be functioning at a fairly successful level by society’s standards I can really relate to this – I spent Thursday morning in tears when I couldn’t access an IT system properly and then felt under prepared! A word to the wise – your neurominority colleagues try really hard but when we can’t do it, it’s really crushing! I completely agree that the attitude of your colleagues makes all the difference. Policies and adaptions create a framework that signals a company’s intentions, but it is people who have to implement them. Ms Southcoat concluded our interview with a comment that really speaks to the value of diversity and inclusion.
“You see, you can have all the inclusive policies and adaptive technologies in the world, and in the UK that’s about legislative compliance more than inclusion or valuing diversity. But, if you really want to have a workplace where everyone makes a difference and you’re maximising the talent that you’ve got (and lets face it, anything else is just a waste of time, effort and money) then you need people in authority, who champion others. People who see that diversity is what makes us better; my dyslexia makes me bad at doing maths in my head, but great at creative, big picture problem solving. My mental health issues are mostly born out of attachment issues and of being constantly ‘othered’ by people, but this means I understand the need to bring others together, so I’m great at facilitating and mentoring.
I’ve come a long way and done really well for myself, but, it was harder than it needed to be. If I had a champion from the start, and more frequently along my journey I wonder how much further on I would be, how much more productive I’d have been and how much more of a difference I could have made, when for years I was overlooked and left on the side-lines.
What makes me successful as a neurodivergent, trans, pussy cat loving, drumming woman with complex mental health issues is that same thing that makes anyone else successful. It’s just much harder for me without it. It’s having someone see my value, champion that and make use of it.”
Thank you for sharing and persisting Annabelle Southcoat, your journey through mental health distress to success and providing inspiration for others needs to be heard. I am delighted the world is now allowing you to contribute to the power of your potential.