Tuesday 10th October is the annual international awareness day on mental health. The theme this year in on mental health within the workplace.
Awareness day’s are helpful and I believe that in the last 12 months or so within the UK there have started to be more open conversations around mental health. That needs to continue, as while those conversations are much needed (and let’s face can save lives), there remains a stigma to opening up about mental health, which too often leads to discrimation, often at work. I should state that I had a supportive employer and a manager who really helped me, for which I feel lucky compared to a lot of other people’s experience.
It’s also the case that for many people, both those with the issue and those supporting them, it’s very hard to talk about current problems. Matt Haig recently tweeted that people are more comfortable hearing about mental health issues in the past tense. There is a lot of truth in that.
There are positive signs though – a few months back the National Attitudes to Mental Illness Survey reflected an increase in positive responses to questions about working with, living with and living nearby someone with a mental health problem.
While awareness is increasing timely support and intervention remain challenging. This week the UK government restated its election manifesto pledge to replace the Mental Health Act, starting with an independent review. As well as the legislation, that review should also be looking at the underlying issues that are present in the mental health services in providing timely and appropriate support.
Ahead of WMHD I had considered posting information and statistics around the growth in mental health issues, the poor funding within the NHS and the challenge that presents to people at a very vulnerable time. I expect that will be covered in the media and by the mental charities in more depth around the 10th, so instead I thought about something that might help you or someone you know, to keep the conversations starting and continuing. This is relevant to any relationship, but given this year’s theme, perhaps taking some time within work to have an open conversation could make a difference to you and someone else.
So here are a couple of suggestions for consideration.
To help you – at a point during the day, just stop. Don’t do anything except simply ask yourself “how am I today?” Be honest, this is a conversation with yourself. Then consider, if you could talk with someone about one thing, something that may worry you or is playing on your mind, with no other intention than simply talking it through, what would it be. How would you feel , would that be comfortable or uncomfortable. Notice how you feel physically when thinking about it. Does just stopping to think more around it by yourself help ? Even if it does, why not be bold and have a conversation with someone about it. It doesn’t matter what the thing is, it could be simple or complex, just a “I have this thing that is bothering me, could we have a chat about it. You don’t need to help me solve it, just to listen“. You may be surprised by the result.
To help someone else – next time you are interacting with a friend, family member or work colleague and you notice they are looking concerned, distracted or just not their usual self, just ask them “how they are today?” Often we shrug our shoulders and say something like “okay” or “busy!” or “not too bad”. Or my classic response which was “Surviving!” – how little did I realise saying that in jest was actually the truth. So perhaps add something like, “You look like you have something on your mind. I felt like that the other day, it was really bothering me, but I had a quick chat and found that really helped. Would you like to talk about it, I’ll just listen.”. This isn’t about taking on the other person’s issue or trying to solve it for them. You don’t need to offer any advice, just listen. Again the result may surprise you both.
It’s not easy to open up conversations like this. This isn’t about having some big, deep conversations about mental health issues (although if that happens that’s great if it helps with a serious health concern). Rather the point is that if we have more of those kind of open conversations, about our worries and concerns, we can perhaps help prevent things from building up. If I had held more conversations like this perhaps I could have handled my anxiety and depression better and crucially at an earlier point.
Through open conversation I believe we create empathic and compassionate relationships, while creating a society and culture where it’s absolutely okay to say I am not okay.
And if that happened we would not need an awareness day.