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Four things you need to know about mental health and the workplace

Curium

I have recently been told by my work colleagues that I am brave.

I am brave because last week I spoke up about my struggles with my mental health.

When I sit and try and think about when it first started I can’t identify a particular event or flick of the switch moment, but I know that for most of my adult life I have experienced poor mental health on and off through the form of depression and anxiety.  

I’ve always considered myself as open to talking about my personal experience but what I’ve come to realise is that there is a BIG difference between mentioning ‘I struggle with depression’ or ‘I’ve had problems with anxiety in the past’, and announcing my current mental state on a call with 24 colleagues staring back at me.

Now I am fortunate. I am part of a team of compassionate and supportive people who really care about each other. But it got me thinking, with the conversation around mental health coming on leaps and bounds in the last few years, why do we still struggle to be open about it in the workplace, and in the fight to #endthestigma what is still holding us back?

These questions have led me to reflect on my own experience with mental health and the workplace, and why for some it could be still be keeping them silent.

  • First up is the desire to not be classed as ‘different’. I listened to a TedX talk with Vikas Shah and he described people who suffer with long term poor mental health as good actors. Not only did this make me chuckle but it really resonated, particularly in a work context. For me, when things were feeling bad on the inside it made me hyper aware of what I was projecting on the outside so that I seemed to fit in and belong with the people I spent a good proportion on my day with.

 

  • Success and mental health don’t mix. Successful people are often coined with terms such as, strong, driven, resilient, all the things that unconsciously we don’t associate with poor mental health. In my early career I was so obsessed with being viewed as successful by colleagues and classed as ‘talent’ that I prioritised this over my mental wellbeing. The thing is lots of successful people either suffer with poor mental health or have experienced it in some way, but sadly its rarely talked about. This creates a perception that being ‘successful’ means that you have it together 100% of the time.

 

  • People want to find a solution where there maybe isn’t one. When presented with a problem there is a natural instinct to ‘fix’ or rationalise it, and we are quick to roll off a list of suggestions or explain away feelings. But when it comes to mental health the solution is never that simple, and for the person suffering it can create more anxiety and pressure to just feel better.

Being presented with questions such as ‘What would make it better?’ (answer in my head ‘I wish I had a clue’), or at the end of a conversation ‘Are you feeling any better now?’ (verbal answer: Yes, thank you…. In my mind: NO!), whilst to the observer it might seem helpful and supportive, in all honesty it often just really isn’t.

  • The ‘stigma’ might have reduced but it hasn’t completely left us. I cannot tell you the number of times, when mentioning my depression or anxiety in conversation, the response has been ‘well I would never have thought that of you, your always so bubbly’. This makes me question ‘Can I not be both?’. There is a general perception that people experiencing a period of poor mental health walk around under a little black cloud, and for some of the time that is to some extent true. But we can also be engaged, find jokes fun and have moments in the day that we can forget how we are feeling.

What I’ve come to realise is I can hide away my truth and not be honest with those around me but as a collective that encourages the status quo. However, if I decide to be open and talk freely about my mental health then I am part of something much more powerful, I’m part of progress. Maybe my challenges with my mental health are my gift, a gift to others to create an environment where its ok to not always be ok. This might encourage someone to talk or it might just let someone know that they are not alone. And that is a beautiful gift to give.