• Author:Ben Jones
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Raising understanding of mental health issues in the workplace – stand and deliver?

It’s always a dilemma. To sit or to stand. To lean on a table or look for a lectern to grab. To walk or stand still. 

Giving a presentation is one of the things that people label as highly stressful at work. Talking to a group of people – whether colleagues or those outside your organisation – is an exposing experience. All eyes are on you. Your every mannerism is being observed and perhaps judged. The audience can see your hands or legs shaking. Your palms are sweating. Beads of sweat are appearing on your forehead. At least that’s how it can feel. The definition of workplace self consciousness.

Yesterday, I was asked to speak to a group of LJMU colleagues about my own mental health story – my own lived experience – at an event in Liverpool with The Brain Charity. I therefore faced that classic presentation dilemma.

The purpose of the session was to talk about mental health at work and to talk about how we help each other to talk about it more. My session on lived experience – done alongside another colleague who told his own story with great honesty and clarity – stimulated a long and lively discussion. And lots and lots of great questions.

It was fascinating to field the wide range of questions and comments that followed the presentations – questions went all the way from those about how it feels to be going through a period of depression (like wearing very dark sunglasses all the time for me whilst carrying a ton weight on my back!) to what do you do it snap out of an episode (try lots and lots of things but mostly it just goes away when it’s ready to go), right through to how do you get an appointment with a psychiatrist. 

The spectrum of questions and topics that were raised reinforced the point of the session; to create a safe, open space where people feel they can ask questions, challenge their own assumptions and beliefs and where they can learn about something they may never have encountered in their own lives. A chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a few minutes and imagine how life and work may feel from their persecutive. The idea is that by doing that they may be better-placed to have a good conversation – or indeed any sort of conversation – with a colleague who may be longing for a way of getting stuff off their chest or may be heading for a mental health crisis. 

Being in Liverpool, there was a healthy dose of humour in the room – often a mask we wear to hide our discomfort or fears – and some touch points we could all relate to. Judging by the reaction in the room, most people could see something of their family and friends in the descriptions that my colleague and I gave about the love and support we had both received from those closest to us but also some of the less helpful remarks we’ve encountered. 

It is often these less helpful interventions – “I’m not sure what he’s got to be depressed about/I don’t allow myself to be depressed/depression? He wants to walk a day in my shoes….etc etc” – which helped those in the room who thankfully hadn’t been down the road I have been down to perhaps recognise their own or other’s attitudes and feelings towards mental health. The idea that it is something to dismiss; to give tough love to cure; to see as it’s just your personality as someone said about a description of someone who had chronic, crippling social anxiety. 

The Brain Charity did a great presentation and some exercises on working out the difference – where one exists – between a mental health issue and a neurological condition. They also helped us think about the origins and perpetuators of stigma towards people with mental health problems, including from the movies and TV. The language we grow up with about people being mad; mental; crazy; a loon; threats of being sent to Rainhill Hospital or another place as a punishment, not as a recognition that hospitals can help; the whole horror movie/fancy dress obsession with straight jackets, padded cells and men in white coats. It is everywhere; all around us. The fear of the mad women in the attic. Not compassion or a willingness to talk or to listen.

The work being done now in workplaces all over the country is helping to repair the damage down by years of careless or malicious language; the mis-labelling of people and conditions; the discrimination that those of us with mental health conditions have experienced – from being passed over for the next project or promotion for fear it will be too much for us, or more likely be a risk for the organisation – to being whispered about in the corridor or tea room.

The session we did yesterday fills me with great hope; a belief that the inherent goodness that we find in each other – and our desire to help each other – will always try to overcome the discomfort we may feel about dealing with issues that are full of complexity and difficulty. These sorts of sessions and the willingness of people to ask their question and say that things they are not sure whether it’s ok to say, is what helps us to remove stigma and raise all of our understanding of the issues that at least 1 in 3 of us face. 

In two weeks, I go again. I am doing a session at a LJMU conference on work-life balance, in which I will talk about my own breakdown, recovery and ongoing efforts to stay well. So far, nearly 100 people have signed up to attend my session. This chance to talk with and listen to so many people from across the university is both exciting and daunting. But it is also a wonderful illustration of the huge appetite that exists in workplaces up and down the county to do some more talking about mental health. To work together to help each other. To ask questions and challenge stigma.

Just in case you are wondering I decided to sit down yesterday. As I said when I started, even if I’d have stood up, it wouldn’t have made it much easier to see me!