I arrived at my interview for the position of Housing Support Assistant armed with a wealth of lived experience, a handful of common sense and a hint of naivety. Before entering the mental health supported housing scheme where I was applying for a job, I knew how to employ my own mental health challenges in a positive light, and I was unshaken when it came to disclosure.
Crippling lows, hysterical highs and nail-biting anxiety had all played such a significant part in my life, and in sculpting me into a proactive and resilient young woman, that I didn’t see why I should hide all traces of them. Luckily my interviewer displayed outstanding empathy for people experiencing distress and telling them about my mental health problem came naturally. Without a second thought I laid all my cards on the table, and on the train home I enthusiastically accepted the job. Two years on, however, it’s not only my clients that I risk assess, but whether to disclose my mental health struggles too.
I had never felt the need to keep my mental health challenges a secret at work until I encountered stigma earlier this year. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that people could have such obtuse views relating to mental health, because aside from negative experiences at school, disclosure had been positively encouraged throughout many areas of my professional life.
I worked at the aforementioned supported housing scheme for a year until external factors triggered a colossal relapse, in which I watched the life I knew and loved collapse around me. After months of debilitating sick leave, my tolerant and empathic senior manager redeployed me within the organisation; giving me the shreds of hope I needed to entertain recovery again. But recovery is not a linear process, and within six months of beginning my new role I was signed off again. This was my new line manager’s introduction to my mental health challenges.
I spent a month recuperating before I returned to work. My reception was frosty at best and I was banished to a tiny, windowless office where I spent a fortnight shredding old files. Despite being back on my feet, my manager treated me with contempt and hopelessness, and due to my lingering vulnerability and scant self-esteem I was unable to see the bigger picture. I saw it as punishment for being off sick.
My absence review meeting was fast approaching and I was petrified, but in the presence of our HR Officer and a compassionate ally whom I had enlisted for backup, my manager appeared reasonable and understanding. We discussed constructive measures, such as regular supervision, that might prevent future episodes of prolonged absence and I came away feeling positive about the changes ahead.
I expected my working life to return to normal, but instead found myself on the receiving end of frequent displays of passive-aggression. The regular supervision we discussed didn’t occur on a single occasion. Despite discussing aspects of my wellbeing in the absence review meeting, nothing improved. Rather than bearing the brunt of contempt and hopelessness, I was merely ignored and undermined. Had the measures we had spoken about actually been implemented, I feel the outcome could have been different.
A short while later, my manager resigned. I began to enjoy working again and was given duties in line with my skills and experience. I opted to support Time to Change as an Employee Champion for my organisation, and was approached to share my recovery story as part of the #smallthings campaign.
The campaign was delivered to around 2,500 staff inboxes as everyone was eating lunch, and on screens all around me I saw my photo pop up. I felt exposed and hid behind my sandwich, unsure what to expect. Within minutes, I had received three emails from colleagues, all dazzlingly positive. The words of encouragement flowed throughout the day from people I knew and those I didn’t, each message filling me with more hope and confidence than its precursor.
After my negative experiences with my previous manager my self-worth was in tatters, and I dreaded the idea of disclosure. But despite being an unpleasant and hurtful experience, I feel I have developed as a result of this and the #smallthings campaign, which somehow left me feeling more visible than either of the newspaper campaigns I had taken part in previously. I can walk into my office not fazed by the fact that everyone can read about my mental health challenges, and I am treated equally, with dignity, not disdain.