People won't always know if you're struggling. Sometimes it feels like being silent is the only viable option. After all, why would you want to burden someone else with your problems?
When I was at sixth form college, I found it hard to balance college assignments with my part-time work. Evening and weekend shifts were taking up a lot of free time. I was burning myself out. The anxiety around achieving the right grades for uni was making me stressed. My workplace was not supportive when it came to my mental health challenges. Feeling depressed wasn't a choice. It was a natural reaction to my personal circumstances.
My GP recommended activities to help me feel better. Some of these involved going outside. Work penalised this by issuing written and verbal warnings. The reason being that I wasn't housebound during my sick leave. The worst moment was when I tried to confide in my line manager that I was experiencing severe depression.
My sick note had "stress" as the reason because that is what I asked my GP to write. I asked them to write this because I found it embarrassing to be honest about the true nature of my illness. My line manager scoffed when they saw "stress" on my sick note. How could someone of my age feel stressed?
When I said it was depression, they started laughing at me. This made me feel like a joke. My depression felt invalid.
I ended up dropping out of college during the second year. At this moment in time, it wasn't right for me.
It wasn't until a few years after when I moved on from my part-time job and started an apprenticeship in the public sector. This was a different experience. I found it easier discussing my personal circumstances with my new line manager. My circumstances included ongoing domestic abuse, and long-term consequences from historic abuse. This was affecting my performance at work, and even my ability to arrive on-time. I ended up sharing a lot with my line manager over the course of my apprenticeship.
They never laughed at my circumstances, nor any of my speculative diagnoses. My depression was not invalidated.
I learned something valuable from these two very different experiences. Both involved me opening up about my struggle with mental illness. Both involved line managers, who provided contrasting reactions. What I learned was that the reaction you receive says more about that person than it does you.
In 2017, I attended a mental health hospital as a voluntary in-patient. I am not afraid of telling you that the reason for my admission was acute psychosis. My anxiety was getting out of control and I was experiencing delusions. I believed that I was not safe outside. I believed that everyone was watching me. This time, I was honest from the beginning about why I needed time off work.
My line manager was understanding. They had the emotional intelligence not to penalise me for a lapse in my mental wellbeing. I was in hospital for over one month before being discharged back to my GP. I met with my line manager outside of work for lunch. We talked about the best way to help me return to work and college without burning myself out.
We agreed on a phased return to work plan. I received flexible time off to attend mental health-related appointments. I could not have asked for a more understanding and empathetic line manager during this time.
The same can be said of my college tutors. They were aware of the recent events, and had regular check-ins with me. I didn't always feel like I deserved their time and attention. I even said this to them at times. They always assured me that their job is to help me achieve the best of my ability. I am grateful for the time and efforts from my line manager and college tutors. It is thanks to them that I not only completed my apprenticeship, but also developed the skills to progress to a new position. I'm still in the public sector so that pension pot is still growing ;)
You can't assume everyone will react the way you want when you open up about your mental health challenges. But you won't get any reaction unless you speak up.
Hold on. What if I’m on the receiving end? What’s the correct thing to say? What kind of reaction is right?
It might be easier to first tell you what kind of reaction I believe is wrong. It's one that dismisses what you've been told as nonsense or something silly. For example, I recently revealed some details about my anxiety to a work colleague. I told them that I am always on edge. No matter where I go, I can't seem to relax.
They told me to "just chill out".
This was a bad response and demonstrates weak emotional intelligence. In this scenario, it would have been acceptable, and intelligent, to ask questions like:
"Has there ever been a time when you didn't feel like this?"
"How do you manage those feelings?"
Or, and this one works in many situations,
"Is there anything I can do to help you?"
A simple offer of help can go a long way. It could even prevent someone from taking their own life. It's why I'm still here.