Paignton Zoo Guest Experience Manager Dale Triffitt shares his thoughts on the many ways in which the zoo can help guests, staff and volunteers with mental health issues.

I came to the zoo to be the Guest Experience Manager in March 2019, and have seen how much the place can do for the mental health both of its guests and its staff and volunteers, so I thought I would share my story.

Mental health. It seems that times have changed and mental health is starting to lose the stigma it once carried. More people are talking about it. Charities, celebrities and people on social media are sharing. Employers are looking at ways to help their employees. All of these, I’m sure you will agree, are very positive steps.
The words mental health can mean so much and have different implications for different people. For example, there are 5 recognised major categories of mental health:
•    Anxiety disorders
•    Mood disorders
•    Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders
•    Dementia
•    Eating disorders

If you or a family member have suffered from any of these, you may know it can be hard to move on and hard to ask others for help. It affects the whole family. I have seen this for myself. My mum had some mental health issues 25 years ago. At the time there wasn’t any support; she ended up taking her own life 10 years ago. I’ve seen personally how this can affect families.

I came to the zoo at a time in my life when I thought I knew who I was, I knew what type of father I was, what type of employee and manager I was. I had run my own business for the last 5 years. Before that I was a supermarket store manager for 10 years. I had seen and experienced most situations.

But this was also a time in my life when I was experiencing a lot of change; my marriage had broken down, as part of this I found myself becoming a single parent to two teenagers and leaving the business I helped build to start a new job. For most people, that could feel quite daunting.

What I experienced at Paignton Zoo as an employee was a real sense of family. Everyone seems to have your back, from the senior management down, everyone talks to you, makes a real effort to get to know you and offers help if you need it. I haven’t experienced this type of community in a workplace anywhere else; it’s quite heart-warming.

The zoo also recognises mental health issues and actually has some training for all employees to complete, so they can recognise in themselves signs of poor mental health and learn techniques to help. They also learn what to look out for and how to help colleagues and guests.

There’s a lot around the zoo to help with mental health. The many different smells, animal noises, the beautiful botanical gardens and watching the animals play – all these things can positively affect your mood and how you feel and think. Talking to guests, it’s clear lots of people feel the same and enjoy their visit to the zoo to help them de-stress and take stock of their emotions.

Many guests take an interest in photography and post pictures on social media using hash tags such as #paigntonzoo #zoophotography #animalsofinstagram, bringing likeminded people from all over the world closer together. Posts using the hash tag #mentalhealthawareness are helping people through hard times; the more people talk and share how they are feeling, the more you may realise you are not alone and everyone has their own stuff going on. Not many people lead the “perfect life” although their social media accounts may suggest they do.

I’m very grateful to all the staff at the zoo - what could have been an extremely difficult time turned out to be the start of a great adventure.

If you are suffering with any sort of mental health issues, even the smallest bit of anxiety can turn out to be a huge deal if you don’t recognise it in yourself. Make sure you identify in yourself when something doesn’t feel right and ask for help, Think about a visit to Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts or Newquay Zoo and see if the sounds, smells, and animals can help positively. You’ll also be supporting our vital conservation work around the world!

More importantly, try and recognise when someone else may be asking for help without actually saying the words “please help me”. If you were asking for help, how would you feel if nobody stepped forward to help?

I try and live by the motto “Treat every human being the way you hope they would treat you”.

Dale Triffitt, Guest Experience Manager, Paignton Zoo


For more ideas about how Paignton Zoo can help improve your health and wellbeing, take a look at our Wellbeing map.

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