Brent Pope co-founded Elephant in the Room, and he is hoping it will create a real conversation about mental health in the workplace

Rugby coach, TV rugby pundit, entrepreneur  and TV personality Brent Pope has been one of Ireland’s biggest advocates for Mental Health. Brent and his colleagues Dave Southern and Eoin Byrne have recently created a campaign called elephantintheroom.ie. They are asking all employees to have a custom designed poly-resin model of a baby elephant in their office which would show that it’s ok for their employees to discuss any mental health struggles they may be going through, to prove that the employer is inclusive of all employees. You can view their promo video here, and I interviewed Brent to find out more:

  1. Can you briefly outline Brent’s road to becoming a mental health advocate?

I have suffered various mental health issues nearly all of my life, starting when I was a teenager with extreme anxiety and panic attacks. This later manifested with bouts of depression in my early twenties. Unfortunately, in my generation at least, I was asked to be the strong macho, rugby playing type of man much like my father was, the John Wayne syndrome as I call it, strong and silent. Hence, I spent most of my youth being ashamed and guilty of what I saw as my ‘dirty little secret’, and with it my inability to link physical fitness with mental fitness. I, like many in my situation, masked my condition to family and friends for fear of rejection, judgement and ridicule. I suffered in silence yet knew I needed help, but in those days there was nobody to turn to. I come from a small rural area in New Zealand so asking for help was almost impossible. I was often told to ‘Man up’ ‘suck it up’’ deal with it’ ‘real men don’t cry’. So later in life when my story unfolded, I wanted to make a change and wanted to use my media profile as a launch to help others.

 It was hard for my life to be so open when I talked about my life one day living with Ryan Turbidity nearly 20 years ago. I thought my life was over in Ireland, that someone who appeared on television as a strong, macho type figure would be deemed weak, but the opposite occurred. It gave me the strength to take my life down the road, to let everyone that would listen know that there is hope when you think there is none. To educate and push for a better understanding of people that suffer with this disease. To leave nobody behind in a search to stop people taking their own lives. I know, because I have been in that place. 

The reason I went back and studied psychology and also qualified as a psychotherapist is so that I could add the science to a life of experience. I know that I will always suffer, but accepting that and knowing what to do about it is key. In the end I would rather be remembered for my work in mental health than any other thing I have done in my life. It will be my legacy, I will ask myself, ‘I make a difference in my own life but more importantly, did I make a difference in someone else’s?’

  1. Why did you feel the need to create Elephant in The Room? 

Over the years, despite all the great work out there by various organisations to destigmatise or normalise mental health, in many quarters or age groups mental health is still a taboo subject, and regarded as something that many of us prefer not to share with others. Thankfully, times are changing, and I see a lot more awareness and understanding around those very issues nowadays, but for many it still remains their “Elephant in the room’ their ‘dirty little secret’

Anybody that has suffered knows that we mask our fears, often in an alter ego personality type. But sometimes the happiest person in the room can be the saddest, and people need to know that.  But for me it’s more than that, I want to create a movement, to create a society where people feel more at ease to start a conversation around issues that may have previously felt difficult to them. It’s not just about mental health, maybe it’s about gender issues, sexuality or bullying? Nearly everybody has their own elephant in the room, but in my world a problem shared ‘is still a problem halved’.

  1. Can you tell me about your upcoming campaign for Elephant in The Room? 

This is an exciting year for the Elephant in the Room campaign as it’s the first year. At the moment we are delighted to announce that some of Ireland’s best known and respected artists and celebrities have agreed to decorate an elephant in their own unique way. These elephants will then be auctioned with all profits to the Samaritans in the inaugural year. The Samaritans meant a lot to me as a phone call to them in the late 1980’s saved my life, so I wanted them to be the first recipients. Hopefully I can get funding for year 2 and I am presently talking to a few interested parties, that would allow me to have another herd made for next year and so on. I want this to run for many years to come, especially as new businesses come on board. In my opinion it dovetails perfectly into a CSR budget and is 100% tax deductible. 

The celebrity route is just for the initial launch and auction, but most organisations I have approached to date want to commission an elephant in their own brand colours or with one of their existing ambassadors etc., and we can absolutely do that too. We have stock artists in place that will work with an individual celebrity or a brand and make suggestions as to how their elephant can eventually look. They will then go away and produce it, so there are already some great designs in place for company branding, logs etc. From the celebrity endorsement, I have a list of a number of high profile celebrities that have spoken out about their own issues, and for them it just entails a single phone call to the artist we recommend, it’s that easy as I know they are busy. They then sign the complete elephant. Maybe it’s the lyrics to their greatest hit, or a gold medal, all these can all be creatively painted on the elephant.  I already have my perfect hit list, and to date the response from the artist and the celebrity world has been wonderful.

  1. How did you go about getting funding for this project? 

I am already a mental health ambassador for Cornmarket for the past few years, so the obvious first step was to ask them if they would be prepared to become the headline sponsor of the first herd of elephants into Ireland, and I am delighted to say they jumped at the chance to be a market leader in such an important area. More so given the thousands of staff they currently represent, and given the type of membership they have had some pretty tough years of late i.e. nurses, teachers, prison officers etc. They have even gone one step further, and their elephant may even be painted by one of their staff members?

and their elephant will be painted by a member of one of their many organisations or staff. 

This is the type of response that was what I was looking for, something magical created by one of their own. I am also talking to a number of organisations around year 2 and beyond. My goal is to raise 500,000 euros over the next few years, to help prop up and sustain many of the smaller mental health charities that are struggling to survive but do such a remarkable job. So while the charity may change each year, I am also open to working with companies that presently have a charity in mind.  Headline sponsorship for a herd of elephants is around 20,000 Euros, all tax deductible and a perfect fit for a company’s CSR budget. This allows me to get another herd started and represents great brand awareness for a company.

  1. Not for Profit companies or partners are you working with to achieve the goals of the campaign?

The seed was planted for me after I saw some wonderful cats decorated in Kilkenny then sold at auction to local businesses as part of a local fundraising drive. I enquired about who did that, and subsequently met with Eoin, Dave and the team at Art of Fundraising, and they have the experience to make it happen.

 I then tried to think of an animal that would best represent talking about issues that most found difficult, thus the Elephant in the room was born. But I want this to be the start of a movement, not just a fundraising arm. I want the elephant to become a symbol that represents an organisation’s forward thinking in terms of mental health, from the school room to the board room. And I already have interest from the USA, UK and back home in New Zealand, and that is exciting.  One of my first and enjoyable tasks is to have an elephant proudly displayed in the New Zealand Embassy, maybe a black one with silver ferns and signed by some All Black greats. That would be wonderful for me.  I have also assembled a number of high profile speakers in the area of mental health, speakers who I have heard speak before, and who are inspirational and educational. The idea is that this becomes a worldwide brand, and I have already set about organising a potential Elephant in the room summit. I was involved for a few years in hosting the annual mental Health Summit with my friend and creator of the summit Dearbhla Meany, unfortunately it ceased last year, but I want something like that to want to continue because it was fantastic i.e. a day where the public can attend and listen to the best speakers in Ireland. I am looking forward to attending the pendulum summit, an initiative set up by my old rugby mate Frankie Sheehan. This year’s focus is on mental health, so I applaud him.  My speakers will also be available to launch an elephant to an individual company. I have future ideas about an elephant in the room ball and worldwide events. This will become a brand. (Details of speakers on elephantintheroom.ie

  1. Are there any businesses already signed up to the campaign? 

Yes, Cornmarket is our lead sponsor for 2023, and they have simply been fantastic, they even put out the painting of an elephant to one of their members in the form of a national competition. So one in house, creative artists will have their designs on an elephant for the world to see. Cornmarket even want to wheel their elephant too many of their membership events.

  1. If businesses are interested in getting involved what should they do? 

We would love for you to contact us at Elephantintheroom.ie.

My dream is that this initiative is much more than just fundraising, creating a movement that promotes greater awareness and understanding around conversations to be encouraged around mental health. I want this movement to grow exponentially, so that at some stage every organisation or workplace in Ireland has an elephant or representation of one somewhere in its foyer. What a wonderful feeling that would be, to see my dream realised with a national show of support and care. With companies old and new, leading the way in creating a safer and more supportive environment. A place where anybody can come to work or school and where they feel confident that this is also to talk about whatever is worrying them. Just by seeing the elephant it will be a symbol that their organisation is at least prepared to do something positive in creating that environment.  Each organisation that purchases an elephant will be asked to sign a commitment pledge, a pledge on a plaque that shows they are market leaders.

  1. How has the return to work or working from home since the pandemic began impacted the mental health wellbeing of employees?

 It has, as we all know, had a huge impact. Every week I am out speaking to various people about what that looks like for them as a group and for the individuals that make up their teams. For some, the transition back into the workplace has been seamless and welcoming. These people have missed the water cooler conversations, the structure and the motivation that comes with their take on a good work environment. But for others, the move back to work has been traumatic and stressful, and many have felt that change is taxing on their mental health.  Maybe they were bullied at work and now have to enter that world again, maybe they got used to working from home without their daily commute, and more time spent with family. Everyone is different, for some it’s motivating to return or others the opposite. But a successful organisation will cater for both.

  1. What were some of the highlights since launching? What impact have you had? 

As of yet we have not agreed on an official launch date, but it will be mid 2023 when we have the first batch of elephants painted. I have been blown away by the generosity of artists in Ireland. I attended the Art Show in the RDS a few months ago and spoke to a few well known Irish artists who were/are incredibly generous with their time. Many agreed to the project, and nearly all wanted to be involved. They contacted me, not the other way around which is fantastic. It helped that they knew that I also supported the arts, and was myself a gallery curator for outsider artists a few years ago. Johnny Ronan was so generous to give me a gallery space so that I could promote art from the mental health community as well as artists that emerged from untraditional areas, like street artists, tattooists, prison artists etc. I made a commentary on RTE based on my love of art. Brent Pope Outsider art.

  1. Are there any other people or organisations in the area of mental health in Ireland that you’re fans of?  

Far too many to mention, and I am indebted to every one of them and to the great work that everybody does to help. At some stage over the past 20 years, I have worked as either a fundraiser or advocate for most of these wonderful institutions. In fact, years ago I published a series of children’s books with all that fundraising going to various mental health charities. But I still see the area of mental health services poorly manned, and I weep at the fact that nobody has to wait months to be seen in this or any country. I also weep when I see the suicide rates each year, continuing to creep up. Lost and lonely souls who want to be saved, and may have had doors closed to them. It alarms me that I get regular calls from concerned parents or GP’s who want to know of anyone I can recommend to get help. I welcome the day in the future when somebody can open up, and get immediate help. I never got that help or support in my early life, and in the end it nearly cost me that life. I will try not to let that happen on my watch, people need to know it’s not only OK to ask for help but it’s brave, it’s courageous, that should be the message. No more judgement and more understanding. PS if you know of any well-known celebrities that might want to be involved in helping promote the elephant in the room through their social media base, could you contact us?