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Mental health with a human approach: Interviewing Santcus founder James Routledge


By Angela Sharda
Deputy editor
19 June 2018

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‘We want to put the world’s first mental health gym on the high street,’ James Routledge, founder of mental health business Sanctus, tells deputy editor Angela Sharda

James Routledge started his first business with friends at university, raising $1m from angel and venture capital investment. In the process of building the business and dealing with its challenges he felt burnt out, suffered with anxiety and had regular panic attacks.

Some years later, in May 2016, James found himself setting up Sanctus, an organisation to promote good mental health. James says the idea for Sanctus came when he wrote a blog post on mental health and business start-ups. The article went viral in the start-up community.

After that, it became his mission to change the way mental health was approached, and that became the Sanctus brand – where mental health is talked about freely and openly. Here he outlines the support that Sanctus provides to people with mental health problems and the difference he hopes to make.

Q Tell us about your mental health journey.

A I started a business straight after university. Mental health wasn’t on my agenda. I knew nothing about it. I was the founder of a business, entering the start-up world at a young age.

I was surrounded by people with more experience than me, with more credibility and a different pedigree as they came from Microsoft, Amazon and Google. So I felt the pressure to keep up appearances and show that we were doing really well, and that things were great all the time.

But they weren’t. On the inside I was lonely. I didn’t know myself that well, didn’t know what my purpose and passions were. In the end, the business failed and we shut it down, which was the trigger for my own mental health problems to emerge.

I started a job in a small business, working closely with the chief executive. That’s when I started to feel anxiety, have panic attacks and lots of self-doubt. I was also living an unhealthy lifestyle and drinking at the weekend. Once you start to have physical symptoms it becomes obvious that there’s something not right internally. I looked externally, blaming my job and my lifestyle, but eventually

I realised that there was something going on in my head. It took me a long time to really open up. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I thought I would be judged. I thought I would lose my job and then my friends. I have really close family and friends, but I didn’t know how to speak to them about mental health and to say that I was struggling.

Then I wrote a blog post on mental health and start-ups. It was like coming out, to be honest – saying, ‘this is me, this is where I am and this is what I have been going through’. The piece went viral in the start-up world and I had people coming back to me and saying ‘thank you for sharing this’. Then it became my mission to talk about mental health in a much more human way, in the same way we talk about physical health.

We currently only focus on the dark and negative side of mental health – stress, anxiety and depression. But we need to talk about what good mental health looks like.

I was in a difficult place but then when I started to talk, I wanted to go beyond that, become more self-aware and conscious of what I need in my life, what’s good for me and what’s not, what relationships I want to be in and the relationships I don’t want.

All this amazing positive stuff. No one talks about this really good side of mental health.

Q What is Sanctus’s mission? What do you hope to achieve?

A Our mission is to get people to look after their mental health in the same way that they might look after their physical health. Like the gym for mental health. We have personal trainers for mental health.

We want to have trusted, confidential, one-to-one coaches so someone can walk down the hallway and chat about their mental health. That could mean anything. It could be someone who is stressed and anxious, or someone who is furious or in a good place. They should be able to talk about anything.

Q How did the idea of mental health fitness come about?  

A The first thing to stress is that we are a company, not a charity. I wanted to prove that people value their mental health and will pay for it, just like they pay for a gym class. That was important to me – not for reasons of making loads of money, but to ask if this is sustainable and will be a vehicle for change.

The second thing to stress is that we place a coach in a business and give people an impartial place to talk. This is the biggest change. There are a lot of products out there, some of them tech based, where you can talk to a chat bot, meditate or do yoga.

While these have been proved to benefit mental health, they are things a person might do alone. They don’t necessarily encourage you to connect with someone else. I think that connection is something that the world is missing.

The times when I experienced the biggest growth and change in my mental health were always through talking to someone, whether it was coaching or therapy.

Q Who pays for these services? The business or the individual?

A A business will pay us for a day or multiple days of Sanctus coaching.

They will pay for us to be on site and for any member of their team to be able to come and talk to us.

We work with businesses of all sizes, including bigger organisations such as Red Bull, Vic, Boston Consulting Group, Aviva. We also work with a range of start-ups and smaller businesses, 20-person recruitment businesses and consultancies and earlystage investment companies.

Our coaching and our practitioners are creating a brand of quality and trust. The NHS is struggling to support the mental illness epidemic.

Waiting lists are very long. People go to the NHS and the GP typically when they are in crisis. Sanctus is about people treating their mental health as they do their physical health as a way of improving in our lives or maintaining where they are currently.

We offer traditional therapy and coaching, and have a specific style and values. These ensure a quality and standard across all the coaches and make them more accessible to people.

Q What challenges have you found along the way?

A My own mental health, for a start. In the first business, we made so many mistakes. We started it for the wrong reasons. We didn’t have a real passion or connection to the mission. We started a business because we thought it was cool and everybody was doing it and we wanted to make money and all that.

Now in this business, I am not claiming that we haven’t made a lot of mistakes, but we have certainly learned from the mistakes we made in the first business. And the challenges with Sanctus have been in practising and living by these values.

We talk about looking after our own mental health and putting ourselves first and we have to do that alongside a fairly fastgrowing business, which will always be a tightrope for us to walk along.

Q Do you think there needs to be an initiative to tackle mental health problems in schools?

A Yes. So much more needs to be done about mental health. I think it’s the biggest challenge that the world is dealing with right now and it has to start at a younger age. We’ve started doing work in schools with talks and workshops, but that would be a whole different arm of

Sanctus which we’d love to establish in a couple of years. Mental health should be on the curriculum in the same way as sex education and physical education are.

Q What has been your biggest success story so far?

A We have a few we are very proud of. On a business level, we have seen some businesses where it’s safe to say the stigma of mental health problems has gone.

There are certain businesses we work with where people freely and openly talk about mental health in the same way they do about physical health. That doesn’t mean everyone’s coming into the office crying and sharing their life story all of the time. But it means mental health is normalised as a broad subject, which is brilliant.

People talk about whether they have attended their Sanctus session. Or they might swap it with another person or encourage other people to go. They might talk about it with their bosses and their managers.

On an individual level, we have seen loads of successes. This sounds weird, but we have seen people who change jobs – that’s a success story.

People who were in the wrong job or the wrong company, they talk to us and decide to make a change. That’s a success. We also see people who have learned more about themselves. These individual successes might be so many things.

We see bookings go up and our attendance rate is around 90% across the board.

I find myself wondering who they were talking to before. All these things people are carrying with them. All these emotions and feelings. Before Sanctus, they were maybe coming out in unhealthy ways.

Now we have created a dedicated place to share these things. That’s what I am really proud of; creating a space where people don’t feel judged if they talk about these things.

Q What would you say needs to be done by the NHS or the Government to reduce the number of people suffering from mental health problems?

A I think mental wellbeing is one of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now. On a cultural level, the conversation about mental health has to be normalised.

More people must come out, share their stories and invest in their own mental health, so that we have this societal movement to change the perception of mental health problems and to normalise conversations about it. That has to happen and it is happening. We can all take part; it’s a very grassroots thing.

From the perspective of an entrepreneur and as someone who has founded a business, I genuinely think the world will benefit from mental health becoming a competitive market. It will mean that other businesses will try to create more value in people’s lives. It will sell mental health services in a better way.

I believe that mental health will become a market, just as physical health has become a market. Just think how many gym chains there are; how many healthy drinks and dietary supplements.

A million and one things have been commodified and commercialised in the physical world for health and fitness, I believe the same thing has to happen to mental health.

This would take a massive weight off charities and the NHS because it will be prevention – so the people who do go to their doctor and need more critical support for mental health conditions will be able to get the support they need.

Q How does your team work together to make sure that each person that comes to you receives the right level of care?

A There are a few things we have done. I think we possibly underestimated a few things, like how intense it can be working for Sanctus. We are surrounded by mental health questions every day, which can lead to emotional whiplash. Family and friends talk about it too, so I think we have realised as a team that developing our own resilience is really important.

We tackle this in a number of ways. We have group spaces where we can share as a team what is going on in our personal and professional lives. We have our own Sanctus coach who we can talk to about our own mental health and new starters get specific support from one of our coaches for the first three months.

For our coaches, we have developed rigorous standards which they have to adhere to. They are all in supervision, coached group supervision where they talk about the clients they see every month.

We limit the number of days they can coach at Sanctus so they don’t get burnt out. And in terms of the level of accreditation they need to work with us, they already have to be quite experienced – either as coaches or in their field.

James Routledge is founder of Sanctus

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