Michelle Partington was one of the first woman paramedics with the RAF to serve on the front line in Afghanistan – the subject of here forthcoming memoir which also details her battles with her own mental health.
Through her company, Mentis, Michelle educates individuals and companies about mental health in the workplace. She’s represented Great Britain at the Toronto Invictus Games and, this winter, she’s going to be rowing across the Atlantic.
We sent Steven Smith along to meet this real life Superwoman.
SS: Do you think there is still a huge amount of homophobia in the military?
MP:I remember when I joined the RAF in 1991. We had completed basic training and commenced our trade training. I shared a room with three other girls and we all seemed to get on. One day we came back to the room after a day of training to find one of the bed spaces had been cleared of all belongings. It was like no one had been there at all. I, along with the rest of the girls, were called forward to the military police as part of an investigation. The military had found out she was a lesbian and she was instantly discharged from service and removed from the station. It was an offence in the military back then and we had been asked if we knew anything about her, if we knew she was a lesbian. We actually didn’t because she never spoke about it, neither did anyone else for that matter. Anyone who knew she was a lesbian was also booted out of the military; it was a shock to the system and a hard lesson learned very early.
Today in the military is very different, in the UK anyway; it is more diverse and inclusive. The military have LGBTQ networks now and openly promote themselves at pride events.
SS: You work a lot to help people with mental health issues. What is your own personal experience?
MP: My own personal experience happened at a young age. I was subjected to abuse as a child, bullied throughout school and found it very difficult in the early stages of joining the RAF. I struggled mentally because of the abuse and bullying. At the back end of my RAF Career I was deployed out to Afghanistan. I did three tours as a paramedic. My role was to pick up the injured from point of wounding, and that included children. My illness crept up on me but following the third tour I crashed and burned mentally. I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 and to be honest, the two years that followed are a complete blur to me. I pushed a lot of people away and I also lost a few people through lack of understanding. I almost called time on my life because I just couldn’t live in that nightmare anymore. Thankfully I didn’t and I moved through the darkness but not everyone is that lucky. That’s why I do the work I do, in the hope no one else has to lose people through lack of understanding and ignorance to mental ill health. I like to talk about mental fitness and resilience to ensure that people can keep themselves ‘in the game’ as much as possible, but also to recognise when they, or someone they know are falling.
SS: You now go into businesses and deliver mental health training and consultancy with your company Mentis. What has the reaction been?
MP: Gosh, it has been extremely overwhelming. I have been going since 17 September and I have yet to market my business. I started delivering free workshops and courses and through word of mouth and reviews, work has been flooding in. People are recognising a need for this subject to be discussed both in and out of the workplace. Most companies have come to me following the loss of a member of staff through suicide but now I am reaching people before this happens. Rather than focusing too much on all the negative discussion around mental illness I promote mental fitness. For me it’s about people learning how they can stay mentally fit and resilient, learn to spot the signs of when they, or others are dipping, and manage the situation early before it develops into something significant. Not everyone struggling mentally will be diagnosed with a mental illness, sometimes people just need someone to talk to in a safe place with no judgement.
There is still much to be done to encourage people to take their mental health seriously. I have heard so many times, “I’m in a good place”, “It will never affect me”, “I have a good job, money in the bank and a great family, it won’t happen to me”. The thing is, it has happened to people like them, it can happen to anyone because mental illness does not discriminate. We also need to encourage employers to take the course seriously and not use it as a tick box exercise. If we invest in our people, the profits will naturally increase anyway because they will be happier in work.
SS: You are an ambassador for the Invictus Games. How did you become involved?
MP: As a veteran who is part of the wounded, injured and sick community Help for Heroes has a group called Band of Brothers. This group offers respite, counselling and opportunities to move forward with your injury or illness. It’s about learning to live with the ‘new norm’ and having a life again instead of merely existing.
Through that group there was a call out for people to apply for the Invictus Games. I was in a fairly bad place and I ignored the email the first couple of times it came through. Following a third email I decided to give it a go and was accepted to the training programme. I found myself attending my first rowing camp and I was like a rabbit in headlights. I was knocked off course and almost left there and then. I struggled to be in a busy, noisy environment and I struggled to engage with those with limb amputations. This was mainly due to the guilt I carried on tour and beyond. As a paramedic picking up those with blast injuries, some would ask me to let them die because they didn’t want to live without legs. Obviously, our job was immediate life support and keeping them alive, I struggled a lot mentally with this. Seeing people again I initially struggled with but then it became easier because I started to see that they still had a life, have families and carrying out many different sports in the games, blimey people with prosthetic legs can run faster than I ever could!
So I qualified to compete in the Invictus Games out in Toronto. I chose indoor running because it was a sit-down job!!! Oh my goodness it was one of the hardest things I did. I also competed in powerlifting, and although I didn’t expect to medal I did very well and for the first time in my life I had never come last in any sport! The fact the games got me out of the house, eating again and interacting with people, that was my medal. I had the fire back in my belly to want to move forward with my life instead of living in the darkness and wanting to take my life. That is the power of the games and as an Ambassador, I am able to support others through their journey, encouraging them to keep going because there is a way through.
SS: How experienced are you with boating?
MP: Not at all. I sat in a boat once with five other people but never really did anything as I had to leave the venue early. For me, this will be a first!
SS: If you were marooned on a desert island what three things would you want to have with you?
MP: Now there’s a question! I think I would want to take my portable solar panel charger (assuming there is sun), and my iPod so I can listen to my playlists; music sees me through most things!
SS: Who in the public eye do you most admire?
MP: There isn’t really just one person I could say I admire, and I admire people for different reasons. What draws me to people are those who remain true to themselves, their true authentic self. People in the public eye have a platform and they choose how they want to use this. I admire those people who use it for the good of others more than for the good of themselves. Individuals who put themselves out there, laying themselves bare (so to speak), in order to raise awareness of certain issues that would help others, a lot of the time at the detriment of themselves. They are the people that I admire. I also admire the people in the public eye who actually do good things away from the public eye. Both of these traits really matter to me.
SS: If you were the Prime Minister, what would you like to change?
MP: I would like to change people’s opinion on blaming others for things not changing. I would stand up and talk about the fact that change starts with us. If we want change, we have to stand up and be counted, instead of moaning about things and leaving it up to everyone else to change things.
SS: You are currently single. What attributes do you look for in a partner?
MP: For me it’s less about looks and more about what else they can bring, it’s the whole person I look for. Obviously there has to be a spark there, that’s really important, as is the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you truly connect with someone.
I look for the person who makes me want to check my phone to see if they’ve messaged (but not in an obsessive way)! I look for someone who is ambitious and has a purpose in life. Someone who can make me really belly laugh and enjoys silly moments but can have serious times when the need arises; apparently, we have to be serious some of the time.
SS: You’re good friends with actress Denise Welch. How did that come about?
MP: I contacted Denise having seen the trailer to her short film Black Eyed Susan. I had followed her for a long time beforehand because I like what she stands for (She is one of the people I admire). Actually, I first contacted Denise with a question about LighterLife if I remember rightly. I then invited her to show her film at LFEST which is a lesbian festival is run by Cindy Edwards and her team. She came to the festival to introduce her film and follow with a Q&A. I then asked her to take part in a mental health seminar I was running. We have a mutual passion for raising awareness surrounding mental illness and more than anything else, she is a good egg!
SS: How do people go about sponsoring you for this amazing challenge?
MP: We are looking for corporate sponsors to assist in helping us raise 100K. We have some sponsorship packages in place. If anyone would like to take up this opportunity with a great return then please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re not in a position to sponsor, you can donate whatever you can afford via the link: Trans-Atlantic Row