Staff Wellbeing Week – Mental Health
17th-21st June 2019 is CCCU Staff Wellbeing Week and with the recent launch of the university’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework, it seems that more than ever we are understanding the importance of openness and empathy around mental health (MH). In this spirit, I’d like to talk a little about my own experiences with MH both within and outside of the workplace, and as June is Pride month I’d like to explore the parallels I can draw between existing in this society as an LGBT person, and as someone with depression and anxiety.
There’s something I want to tell you…
There is an element of ‘coming out’ when you have MH issues. As someone who has repeatedly come out as both not straight and not mentally well, I have found that there are some similarities between the processes of disclosure and the reactions provoked. It’s not often easy to open up about mental health and takes a degree of courage, as well as carefully judging your situation and audience in order to make the reveal. And often you’re met with mild surprise, perhaps some awkward fumbling for an appropriate verbal acknowledgement, and caring reassurance. Sometimes, rather than kind, the rejoinder is confused, disappointed, cold. Which is part of what makes it so scary each time to be honest and frank with someone new, to share again the outline or major plot points of your story. When you come out as LGBT, you don’t just do it once. There is the big, initial coming out to your family and/or friends, which is often thought of as the main, if not only, event. But you also do it every time you get talking to someone new, or start a new job, or fill out a form. It’s a similar case with MH.
I am what I am
But I have found that it’s worth it. Because my MH is as much a part of who I am as my sexual orientation. It doesn’t define me as such but it’s an intrinsic part of me and influences much about how I interact with the world and how it interacts with me. It can take a while to reach a point where you are ready to acknowledge and accept certain truths about yourself. For years and years I was convinced that a heterosexual life was the only route available to me and I was not prepared to acknowledge a fundamental facet of myself. It also took me a long time to realise I was depressed and that I essentially had been for years, and to seek help. The more I talk about it, the more able I am to work towards reconciling the trauma, toxicity, and myriad emotions that have altered the chemicals and shaped the neural pathways in my brain. It’s slow going. But often the most rewarding processes are.
You don’t have to be mad to work here…
I actually ‘came out’ as both bisexual and depressed for the first time at work when I was still in London. I had recently got together with my partner (now wife!) and so it seemed I couldn’t avoid outing myself as in a same-sex relationship when chatting in the office or kitchen about weekend plans, plus ones to social occasions, general dating experiences and advice, etc. But when I then found myself experiencing a major depressive episode, I made the decision to let (some of) those colleagues know. Granted, I needed time out of my working day to attend therapy so my line manager and immediate team members had to be made aware of the situation. But, daunting as it was, I found myself wanting to cautiously unbolt the gate, open it a little and begin to let people in to the dysfunctional workings of my head. After all, the reaction to my news about having a girlfriend had been kind, supportive, and enthusiastic. I did not regret my decision.
By letting your colleagues know what’s going on, even if it’s the just the bare minimum of detail, you can allow them to help you in the ways that you need. It’s incredibly important to have a support network and this might mostly be made up of your friends and/or family but your colleagues, who you often spend so much time with, can be a vital source of assistance. You and your co-workers are employed to deliver the strategic aims of the institution but you’re also here to encourage and prop one another up. Your workplace can be so much more than where your income is earned. It can be a source of immense personal pride and accomplishment, where your passions are ignited and your skills honed. It can of course be strenuous and fret-inducing, but hopefully alongside this there are highs to experience. And if your work is the cause of much more tension and upset than enjoyment, this is something that should be addressed. Misery and burnout benefit no one and nothing is more important than your wellbeing.
Hello darkness my old friend
As mentioned before, depression and I are old friends; we go way back. But anxiety is a relatively new acquaintance, who came to join the party about three years ago and made me fully understand what people mean when they use the term ‘panic attack’ (0/10, would not recommend). And so I found myself coming out again. The nature of my MH problems had altered and therefore so had my ability to live my daily life and the help I needed. Having previously opened up about my MH made it easier to speak up when I found myself facing a new struggle and the support and reassurance I was given made it much easier to navigate. I knew from previous experience there was every chance I would find myself overwhelmed, exhausted and fraught, which would have only compounded everything and sent me, and my workload, spiralling. I also have a chronic illness which is affected by stress, which doubles the impact on my ability to get by during an episode. I am incredibly lucky to have the support that I do and a large part of that comes from work. I have colleagues that understand and act with empathy and kindness, and never make me feel anything other than respected and valued. I don’t quite know how I’d cope without them.
A little more conversation AND a little more action
Speaking about the nature of the change in my MH reinforced for me how important it is that we don’t consider MH a closed subject. Once the conversation is open, we need to keep it going in order to normalise it and create the understanding, supportive environment we all deserve. In a way somewhat akin to my bisexuality not being a phase and my orientation not being defined by the gender of my partner at any given time, my MH is a permanent fixture and a good day or week does not mean that I am ‘fixed’. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the good times because I absolutely do. After various treatments I have in the last six months or so found an antidepressant that suits me, and a programme of talking therapy which is giving me hope for lasting positive change, but I am all too aware that I am likely to experience occurrences of depression and anxiety for the rest of my life. I might feel hopeless and helpless when stuck in the murky depths of a depressive episode and/or gripped by anxiety and panic but I can remind myself that this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, and that small nugget of knowledge, when gripped with enough determination, can become a diamond of hope that twinkles at you in the dark to let you know that
So if you can, take advantage of Wellbeing Week to focus on yourself and your colleagues, and try to carry that attention and time for MH and wellbeing through the rest of the year. Information about the initiative and the programme for the week can be found here. Try and talk about what’s on your mind and share the load of your stress. The full range of policies, guidance and services available to support you at CCCU can be found here; look into ways to alleviate strain, whether it be finding a new activity or hobby, attending an event, or looking into CBT or counselling options. There are also a number of staff networks supported by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Unit, which are an excellent source of support and action for awareness and change. Be open and listen to those professing their truths. And if you are one of those brave enough to share, remember to acknowledge and take pride in your courage. In short, as Bill and Ted would say: