Next time you hear someone say how far we’ve come in the fight against mental health, take a moment to consider that statement. 1 in 4 people suffer from mental illness in the UK – around 15 million people. That’s potentially 1 in 4 people you know - one of your close friends, a family member, or a colleague sitting at the desk next to you.
But most of those people suffer largely in silence. Recent global studies estimate up to a third of people with depression receive no support or treatment at all. Why? Because despite what you may read in the media, there is still a massive stigma attached to mental illness. A stigma that prevents many from telling even their nearest and dearest, crippled by an overwhelming cocktail of shame, failure, inadequacy and hopelessness.
Most sufferers of depression will have an experience involving a bad reaction, of some well-meant advice that had the inverse effect. Filed under “What not to say to someone with depression”. Pull yourself together. Snap out of it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. What have you got to be unhappy about? Reactions that show while we may be talking more about mental illness, increased exposure doesn’t necessarily equate to a greater understanding of the condition.
The fear of stigma is even more heightened in the workplace. If colleagues knew your secret surely they’d think differently about you, possibly questioning your reliability or your judgement. At best, they may just feel uncomfortable around you, not knowing what to say or how to say it. At worst, they’ll doubt your ability to do the job.
All this means, for sufferers, divulging mental illness at work is a complex issue – a legal and moral dilemma I faced myself earlier this year, when I started a new job. The industry or sector is not important, because what happened next could have happened in many institutions or workplaces across the country.
On being told I’d got the job, I was invited in for an unofficial meeting to get to know my new colleagues and discuss schedules for upcoming projects. The department consisted of 12-15 people, all of whom seemed amicable, relaxed and funny. I could happily see myself working with these people and felt confident about my new role. That positive first impression lasted of all of five minutes.
As the meeting progressed, the head of the department announced that a date had been set for a mandatory training session about mental health in the work place.
Cue a collective groan.
With mock seriousness, the head of department noted that this was an important session, in light of what happened earlier in the year to Steve. For my benefit, she explained that Steve was a previous member of staff who had suffered “a mental breakdown” at work.
Exchanged glances. Uncomfortable shifting in seats. Stifled laughter.
I’d like to say it was one or two, and that it was frowned upon by the others, or swiftly shut down by the team leader, but that’s not what happened. Everyone involved in that meeting was in on the joke, some accessories only through a silent smirk, others outwardly laughing at Steve’s expense.
The general tone was implicit. Steve couldn’t cut it. Steve wasn’t tough enough. No-one said it. No-one had to.
One or two even voiced annoyance at having to give up their time to attend this awareness session, like the people who complain about rail delays when some desperate soul has jumped in front of a speeding train.
And me? Well I was focusing hard to disguise the fact that my cheeks were blanching, and my throat tightening – the tell-tale signs of anxiety that would give my secret away.
Because I’m like Steve. Sometimes I struggle to keep things together. And as a long-term sufferer of depression, I was experiencing that all too common sinking feeling, triggered by the realisation that this was not going to be a healthy environment for me to work in.
Attitudes like this are exactly why people are scared to confide in colleagues about their condition, myself included. In my working life, I’ve told perhaps 2 or 3 people about this illness since I was first diagnosed 9 years ago. I don’t want to be judged, treated differently, ridiculed or to make others feel uncomfortable in my presence.
Instead, I choose to hide it. And I’ve been hiding it for so long, I’ve become an expert at concealing it from others. Although officially diagnosed at 34, with hindsight I now understand that I developed the condition in childhood, experiencing my first suicidal thoughts as early as 12 years of age. That’s over 30 years of hiding, pretending and lying. It’s become a part of who I am.
For the following month between that meeting and my first day in the new role, I could feel the dark clouds gathering. While I tried to fool myself and everyone else around me, I knew that I couldn’t work in an environment where people had such an obvious lack of respect and compassion for others suffering with mental health problems. They were laughing at Steve, but in a few months’ time they could be laughing about me.
As friends and family wished me luck, I did what I do best – I put my gut instinct to one side and pretended everything was going to be ok. I went in for my first day, going through the motions in a robotic trance.
One of my first tasks was to complete mandatory HR forms. A formality for most. Name, address, National Insurance number. Then the medical declaration form. A small tick box. Asking me to declare any prior mental health conditions. Flashback to that room full of colleagues laughing. Would you tick it?
I somehow got through the day, suppressing my emotions for later. When the inevitable breakdown happened on the drive home, it marked the release of a month of anxiety, worry and despair. I parked my car in a country lane, unable to face home, contemplating suicide. A frantic mess.
But I’m lucky. When things get tough, I have the support of those who love me. Soon my phone was vibrating with texts and calls. My wife first. Come home. Let’s talk. We need you. A close friend. You are loved and valued. My father. We’ll get through this together. Whatever you need.
And once the storm subsided, I did the only thing I could do for the sake of my health and well-being. I pressed send on my resignation email after just one day in the job. I didn’t mention the team meeting to HR. I wasn’t looking to lodge complaints and get others in trouble. This was about self-preservation.
No-one is harder on a manic depressive than they are on themselves. Quitting as I did was another self-perceived failure that had to be explained away. There followed a string of excuses to friends, lies dressed up to help me salvage some dignity. The position wasn’t what I thought. Contractual issues. Anything other than the truth.
The whole episode triggered a complete relapse of my depression, which my GP informed me should now be considered a lifelong condition, requiring long-term medication. I was then signed off work for 4 weeks, from a job that no longer existed. “Do you need a letter?” – “No, I think I’ll be ok.”
So, the next time you hear someone say how far we’ve come, and how much perceptions of mental health have changed, ask yourself this. Would you feel comfortable telling your boss or work colleagues that you suffer from depression? Hearing those colleagues talking about Steve, I know I will certainly always think twice before opening up in future.
And if by chance, you’re sitting next to a colleague who has divulged a mental health condition, instead of looking at him or her as the weak link in the team, consider what strength and bravery it took for them to share that information.