Rob Ford is Helping Tech Leaders Open Up Online

The entrepreneur recently launched a mental health Q&A series for professionals in the digital space

By Lauren O'Shaughnessy

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Photo by Alison Ford

A Google images search for “mental illness” produces some predictable scenes — people crouched in corners clutching their heads in anguish, anatomical brains surrounded by chemical compounds, silhouettes of sufferers gazing out windows in search of someone who understands.

The sentiment is clear: mental disorders bring isolation and fear into the lives of those affected. But the visualization doesn’t resonate. People battling mental disorders don’t want to be shrouded in darkness, they want their stories listened to and their insecurities addressed. They want faces, relatable ones, attached to an often faceless movement.

In this Q&A series, we help sufferers emerge from their figurative corners, by letting them describe their thoughts, feelings and experiences in their own words. And in doing so, diversify a conversation that has been formulaic and misrepresentative for too long.

Tell us about yourself — who are you, where do you live, what do you like?

Thanks for having me. I’m Rob Ford, Founder and Owner of The FWA — an industry recognised platform that celebrates digital innovation. I started it back in May of 2000. I live in Cambridge, UK.

The thing I love to do most is hang out in my greenhouse on my own, when it is raining, and grow trees from seeds.

Have you ever been diagnosed with a condition? How long did it take? What barriers did you face?

I have never been diagnosed as such, but a doctor once “labelled” me with “major depression”. That was actually the result of some years of unemployment in my 20s and the chance encounter with an unemployment advisor who suggested I see a doctor, as I was refusing to go on any back-to-work courses (and my benefit was subsequently halved for not toeing the line). Whilst in the waiting room, I picked up a leaflet on depression and recited much of what I read to the doctor. Within 60 seconds, he duly labelled me, signed me off work, and gave me Prozac.

It took me years to actually accept that I was effectively mentally ill. The stigma surrounding mental illness, the label, the taboo… I wouldn’t accept it.

What I struggled with is that I could be happy and was also enjoying a carefree life with no overheads, no job, going to warehouse raves in the late 80s and early 90s. Surely, if I had a broken leg, it would be broken every day, not just every now and then?

In summary, the only barrier I actually faced was my own. On my 49th birthday, I effectively came out on Facebook, as I was prompted to do a charity raiser for my birthday and I chose mental health for kids and then I laid out my story in the public domain.

Was there a specific low point that drove you to seek help or open up to a loved one?

I don’t see or understand low points but I do now feel like I could say “episodes”. I became first aware that the world was not a shiny happy place when I was about 14. It was around the time the infamous Moors Murderers were getting some press and I became slightly scared to go out alone. My older friend, whom I used to hang out with to play on his Atari, had to walk me home every night. This has only just come back to me whilst writing this.

I have since had plenty of episodes that I see like a fruit machine, with 4 reels. Every now and then one of the reels has a triple bar in place, sometimes there are 2. When all 4 are in at once, that’s an episode.

I hold my hands up to having an episode when my son was born 4 years ago. I expected becoming a dad to be like hailing a taxi. Instead, I felt like I was hit by a fast train. I had no comprehension of how challenging it would be, even though I was very well read and learned on the subject. I was even aware that I could have an episode, as the books were flagging up the types of people who could suffer with depression when becoming a parent — those who had depression before. It took me 2 years to get over that, and now a further 2 years down the line, I am loving being a dad.

What stigma or cultural misconceptions have affected, or still affect, your recovery?

I don’t recognise the term recovery. I do see a difference, as with all things in life, through the generations. Today’s generation is far more accepting and understanding of mental illness.

One of the things I found most difficult was talking to my parents, even though I was 49 when I finally did. I guess I felt I didn’t want to guilt trip them at their age. The reality though, was that they knew me better than anyone and saw me grow up. They knew.

What coping tools help you manage your condition?

Medication didn’t work for me (but I know it works for many). Maybe I didn’t try it for long enough but I dabbled with Prozac for 6 weeks and then something else (can’t even remember the name) for another 6 weeks, then gave up. The doctor suggested therapy but back in the 1990s, that meant a trip to the local secure hospital. No way I was going through what could be a one way door.

1994, I was sold by the photos on a packet of bonsai seeds. The packaging sucked me in. I started growing trees from seed and fell in love with gardening. I ended up with over 500 trees in 3 inch pots.

By the late 1990s, as my friends were getting married off and into successful jobs, I was left wondering where I was going. I read a lot about UFOs, maybe looking for some meaning to life and then fell into Windows 95 on a PC my dad bought.

By 2000 I was pretty adept with Flash and web design, internet awards followed and then I set up FWA and that completely took me over. I didn’t have a holiday or day off for my entire 30s. Got married when I was 40, became a dad at 45, and finally feel complete… almost.

In summary, keeping busy is what I do best. If I don’t keep an active mind, I open up space for doubt and this is when the anxiety creeps in. Finally, I recently finished up 52 weeks of private counselling. I lucked out and found a great counsellor. In all honesty, if it wasn’t for the time and money, I’d go EVERY week.

In your opinion, what’s wrong with the current state of mental health care, both in your immediate community and on a broader scale?

The people on the frontline in the UK are often doctors (GPs) whom, it seems, like to medicate everything, including mental illness.

Personally, I would like to see therapy and counselling open to everyone, for free. In the UK, the theory is that this is already the case but, unfortunately, due to resources in the NHS, waiting times are often rather long meaning medication is the most available tool for many Doctors.

To summarise that, it’s all about money. Thankfully, I have been able to pay for private therapy but I appreciate this isn’t an option for many.

What are you doing to combat those issues? What do others need to do to create change?

Spread the word.

I opened up on Facebook to friends and then I set up a mental health awareness editorial project on FWA, where we feature interviews with those in the industry who are happy to share. The more we talk about this, the more others might realise they are not alone. If we can offer a glimmer of hope to one person, it’s all been worth it.

What’s your opinion on the mental health spectrum — the idea that our conditions and experiences are fluid, and that treatment needs to accept and respond to our ever-changing mental state?

100% agree. Let’s apply this to everything in life. It’s no good treating mental health like a diet, it’s a way of life we need to somehow change.

What advice would you give someone reading this right now?

If you made it down here, I’m going to high five you. If you are struggling now or ever, try and talk to someone. Personally, I feel talking to strangers is easier than friends or family, especially a professional therapist. But, in a few words… talk to someone.

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