The discussions and interventions in support of people’s mental health have encouragingly gathered pace and importance in the past few years, including in the workplace. And never has it manifested itself as starkly as over the past few months, with employers increasing efforts and resources to help employees cope and adapt through these challenging times.
So why can it still feel so difficult to open up about mental health issues at work?
Let me start by sharing a little bit about my own story.
I was diagnosed with depression back in 2007, putting a name on something I had been experiencing at least since my teenage years, and enabling me to start properly doing something about it. It did however take some time, until I got in a position to say that I am managing it, which fortunately today I can confidently say. I was given medication, which luckily worked effectively for me. The initial strategy however was to take it for a number of weeks, with the intention that it would restore the chemical imbalance in my brain causing the depression, and then getting me back off it again. At the time, I was equally keen to make things work after coming off the medication, as it felt like, although I was feeling much better for taking it, I wasn’t being the true me. It acts as a “mood stabiliser”, and therefore doesn’t just minimise the scale of negative feelings, but the strength of all feelings. Think of it like measuring your feelings on a scale where 0 is neutral, + is positive feelings, and - is negative; while you would normally be oscillating between say -100 and +100, the medication will only let you go as far as -30 and +30. This takes away feelings of utmost elation, and on the other hand deep sadness; the latter may seem like a good thing, however I have always felt disconcerting that no matter how sad a situation is, I am unable to cry - or movie for that matter, not even Simba trying to wake up his dad in the Lion King does it...
Attempts of coming off the medication, and there have been a good few, have however always been more or less short lived, as eventually the dark thoughts and associated struggles would return; the key for me then was to recognise them, and take action before they’d start getting out of control and impact my ability to function properly in all parts of life - and I had become pretty good at it, bearing in mind that the depression itself is trying to make you think that there is no way you can get better, and no point in it either.
After a good few years, nearly 10 in fact, of going back and forth, off and on, and after one episode which, falling into a perfect storm of work pressures and other personal stressors, was particularly severe, my doctor helped me accept the fact that my best way forward would be to remain on medication as an ongoing treatment, and that the side effect I mentioned before were an acceptable compromise. To supplement this, I also took advantage of counselling sessions I was able to get through my medical cover. After a false start there - I would not stress enough how important it is when starting counselling to ensure that you connect well with the person you are speaking to - these 6 sessions ended up being a great additional boost to my mental health.
Of course I should also add that taking up a regular regime of physical exercise, which for me was in the form of walking, hiking, and some light running, clearly contributed to developing a healthy and balanced life, which got me into my 40s in probably the best mental condition I have ever been.
This story, as much as it feels easy and straightforward to put it in writing, isn’t one I have often shared with people, be it friends or family, or indeed at work. For the first few years, this was because of a genuine belief that this would stop me from being able to secure new roles if prospective employers found out, or simply put my employment at risk if I was to be considered unfit for the role I was performing, not because of any performance issues or of my management not being supportive, just because I thought that is what any employer might do. Advances in communication and awareness around mental health, and related discrimination - for which you can find more information on the Mind website - have gone a long way in making it clear that this most definitely should not be the case, providing some reassurance and paving the way for a more open culture. Despite all this, I still felt held back from sharing my story. Why? Probably that underlying feeling that it just might make people feel that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the pressures that come with certain roles, in particular prospective opportunities for promotion. There too I have since learned that it is ok not to be up for roles that come with a great deal of pressure - even though deep inside I still firmly believe that expectations on people should be so that no role should be out of bound to someone who is capable of performing it, because of a perceived need to work long hours, or to operate in a “tough environment”; let’s instead try and make said environment more collaborative and accepting in the first place!
I have often reflected on the challenges and hesitancy of opening up on mental health in parallel with my experience being a gay man. In stark contrast, I have always been very open with everyone about this, talking about my partner and taking him along to work social events. Yes, coming out when I was 19 was a very challenging time, however things got easier from there on, and I have probably been very fortunate never to suffer any derogatory comments, or made to feel uncomfortable at work - despite the odd clumsy joke, or some male stakeholders not always sure initially how to react, having perhaps not often faced this situation.
Being openly gay, and talking about your mental health condition may not be comparing apples with apples, I realise that. Still, I can’t help being puzzled by my own ease with one, and uncomfortable feelings towards the other, especially when the same people showing great acceptance for the first, would be the audience for the second.
When it comes to disclosing mental health conditions, I don’t seem to be alone in facing the same challenge. According to the 2019 Mental health report from Business in the community, 51% of surveyed employees only feel comfortable talking about their mental health issues at work (worryingly that number had dropped from the previous year). The same report however also shares that 33% of LGBTQ+ employees have hidden or disguised their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination at work, that is a third not enjoying the same openness that I have been fortunate to. Knowing how exhausting and soul destroying it is to hide, or even worse disguise, part of your personal life, it is easy to see how this will in turn impact people’s mental health. A further statistic from this same report indicates that 45% of LGBTQ+ employees reported having a formal diagnosis for a mental health condition, meaning nearly half will have the same challenge of not only coming out about their sexual orientation, but also sharing, disclosing and seeking support with regards to their mental health.
45% of LGBTQ+ employees reported having a formal diagnosis for a mental health condition (Business In The Community 2019 Mental Health report)
So how can all of this get better? I can only offer my own perspective on what I felt either has or would have helped me in my own experience:
Role models: seeing people within your organisation, peers and even more so senior leaders, sharing their stories and opening up can make a big difference and show others that it is ok to talk, and isn’t stopping others from being successful in their work. This has helped me in the past, when a senior leader in a previous organisation I worked for opened up about their condition, giving me a chance to discuss their own experience, and importantly showing me how well they have been supported throughout.
Employee resource groups: similarly to the above, finding that you are not alone within an organisation facing a challenge, having groups of individuals to speak to, and who are committed to raising awareness and commitment from an organisation on their support will make a great difference.
Understand that there is a difference between overcoming mental health challenges associated with particular circumstances or events, i.e. stress due to work pressures during a given time period for example, and managing a mental health condition that you are likely to live with for your entire life (i.e. depression, bipolar disorder, etc.). The latter presents a set of additional challenges which will have a more profound impact on somebody’s everyday life and life choices, to ensure it can be managed
Actively challenging myself: a big part in managing depression has been to make extra efforts not to let it get in the way of moving forward with new experiences in life. Now, this comes with a health warning that you need to get to know yourself, and not put yourself into situations that will become stressors, and may be too much to overcome. However, in my case, an example was signing up for treks and walking challenges, something that a few years ago was brand new to me. This made a huge difference in that it helped me to get some focus, something to aim towards, and in this case healthy exercise and a couple of great adventures!
You might have noticed that I use the word “managing” depression a lot, and when talking about my situation, I would tend to say that I “manage” my condition, rather than say that I “suffer” from it. I am lucky enough to consider that, having learned over the years to understand how my depression works, I know what I need to do to mitigate its impact. It doesn’t mean it goes away, it just becomes like a little creature sleeping somewhere in a corner. I know it is there, and can watch it sleep without fear, ready to sing it a little lullaby if I need to.
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