None of us is perfect, so let’s be open about our challenges

8th September 2017 at 00:00
With mental ill-health on the rise, adult education has a huge role to play in protecting people’s wellbeing

Recent research suggests that one in six of us experiences a common mental health problem every week in the UK. Digesting figures like this, and seeing examples in recent months of high-profile figures, including royalty, entertainers and sports stars, opening up about mental health issues, we believe there has never been a more important time for us to have the confidence to speak openly about our mental wellbeing.

The theme of this year’s Mental Wealth Festival, running across venues in London next week, is the “human face of wellbeing”, which moves beyond statistics to explore real-life stories surrounding mental health. We believe that, as a society, we have made great progress in discussing the subject of mental health in recent years, but it’s only the beginning. There’s still a lot of work to do in moving towards a social environment where anyone can feel comfortable about discussing what has historically been seen as a taboo subject with friends, colleagues or family.

We have both struggled with vulnerabilities that have impacted on our professional lives, in the form of stammering (Ed) and dyslexia (Mark). The truth is that difficulties can strike anyone at any time, regardless of age, profession or background.

Ed’s book, Speaking Out, has a chapter titled “Vulnerability”, which touches on his speech-therapy journey with City Lit and the inspirational Jan Logan, who helped him come to terms with his stammer. Ed didn’t realise until a long time into his political career that he had an “interiorised stammer”. One of the most important things that he took from his journey was to be open with people about the fact that he stammers, and to make peace with it.

In turn, Ed’s openness and advocacy around stammering proved to be an eye-opener for Mark, who realised that he wasn’t being open about the challenges he faced around his dyslexia and, as a consequence, he now talks regularly about the challenges of being both a college principal and dyslexic.

Relieving stress

Interiorised stammering or dyslexia might not be considered by many as conditions that contribute or detract from good mental health. However, we believe that being open about the challenges you face helps to relieve the stress that is associated with them.

As Ed observes in his book: “The reality is none of us are perfect. Every politician, every adult, every child has some flaws, some challenges and some imperfections. But the more honest you are with yourself and other people about the struggles you face, the easier you’ll find them to cope with.”

At the Mental Wealth Festival we are looking forward to others opening up about their personal challenges.

We have both seen and believe in the transformative nature of adult education on individual mental wellbeing. We believe that the specialised classes and life-long learning opportunities offered by adult education colleges have a crucial role to play in helping individuals through any mental health challenges that they might experience.

Adult education opens up the opportunity for transformation – whatever form that may take, big or small. It can help learners with anything from complete professional or personal reinvention to nurturing a hidden talent or taking advantage of specialised provision to come to terms with a specific personal challenge. One of the great joys of City Lit is seeing the evidence of transformation within individuals.

We will continue to advocate for sensible, cross-party policy discussions to be held around the subject of mental health – which should be a priority for all parties – and champion the vital role the adult education sector has to play in enhancing wellbeing.

Finally, let’s not forget that figure we quoted at the start of this article. With so many suffering from some form of mental health challenge, this is an issue that is too important to be sidelined. Let’s keep the debate open and let’s keep breaking down the barriers surrounding mental health.

Ed Balls is senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, visiting professor at King’s College London and former education secretary. Mark Malcolmson is principal of City Lit

The Mental Wealth Festival runs from 12-14 September at venues in central London (find out more at

Ed and Mark will be discussing Ed’s life, career and his journey around stammering at the event on Thursday 14 September at the National Gallery (Sainsbury Wing). Tickets are available direct from

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