Please note that the below blog is about the authors' struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Some readers may find its contents potentially triggering.
If having read this blog you feel you need some form of help or support regarding your mental health please visit Urgent Help - Mind in Greater Manchester.
On Friday 7 May, we ran a Coffee Chat for our Supporters and Members. This was a chance for open conversation about mental wellbeing, which Andy attended - and he chose to share his experiences further to raise awareness.
These last 18 months have certainly been interesting for all of us for many reasons. For some it has meant the loss of income, loss of jobs, a new start, finding ways to cope with change, taking extreme measures, being trapped indoors, worrying about being isolated and coping with the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of us have been lucky enough not to have been affected by this terrible condition, some have fallen victim to its devastating effects and have passed away, whilst many more have endured terrible suffering and have learned to cope with the short and long-term effects of the disease. However, the pandemic I write about is not COVID-19 but the global pandemic of poor mental health.
What is the Mental Health Pandemic?
There have been millions of mental health sufferers in the UK alone. Of those millions, there have been many who have lost their lives to this appalling condition. Giving up the fight to stop the torment and feelings of worthlessness. Many more continue the struggle every day using mind-altering medication to try and obtain that normality and but rarely find it. Whilst there are even more fortunate people who do somehow recover. Like COVID-19, mental illness is non-discriminatory. It as soon attacks children in the innocence of youth as it does the elderly in their twilight years. Without concern, it affects each of us either as a sufferer or as someone living with a sufferer. I wanted to tell you how it has affected me.
I thought I understood it all!
I have worked for 20 years in Human Resources. In that time, I have met many people from all walks of life who have fallen victim to this appalling condition. Before I became unwell, I believed I understood what depression and anxiety were, and that I could empathise with those who had fallen victim. How wrong I was. It is impossible to understand it until you have suffered with it. It’s like trying to explain what salt tastes like without actually tasting it.
Poor mental health is a devastating illness. It affects you mentally in that it robs you of your confidence to do even the most basic things you have always done, even things that once gave you pleasure are unbearable. Your drive to succeed is taken away and replaced with exhaustion, self-doubt, and an inability to function even at the lowest level. It takes away a person’s dignity and self-respect.
Personal Experience of Mental Illness
Everything that you thought was a stable anchor in your life is tipped upside down. It removes intimacy from your relationships and the best you can do is sleep. In sleep, there is none of the depression and anxiety. It is a safe haven against these terrible feelings of fear and impending doom. You feel totally alone because your low self-esteem makes it impossible to admit there is something wrong. So, despite its enormity, you hide it away for no one to see, until it can’t be contained any longer.
At this point there are two options, to end the suffering and life itself or to do the unthinkable and tell someone you can’t cope any longer. It is at that breaking point that others become aware of the terrible battle you have fought for so long and so hard. Clinging to life itself, you admit this shameful thing you have been hiding. The tears flow without control and the emotions pour out like some flood gate being released or a dam bursting open.
The release of this struggle is liberating in itself, but it is not enough. Talking about the feelings and issues you are fighting is the only way to recovery and coping again. Like at the times of the loss of a loved one, the people around you know of your plight but don’t know how to help - so instead of saying the wrong thing, they don’t say anything.
At its worst, I found myself out of work, with no money, reliant on my family, and even suicidal. I reached out to my GP for ongoing relief. It took months for the right medication to finally settle my uncontrollable tears, and several months of encouragement before I could consider counselling and other therapies. After about 18 months, I began to recover back to some sense of normality though my anxiety never really went far away.
Starting Again with a Good Employer
I found myself back in employment with a wonderful company that embraced the new me. In the workplace at my interview, I saw a sign on the wall that said “you can talk about mental health here”. So, with great trepidation I did, and I shared my journey and the challenges I had faced. My manager was very supportive and opened the door for me to share my feelings and how I was doing. Several difficult months passed and I found myself floundering in the sea of anxiety and depression once again.
I hadn’t gone fully under but was flapping around on the surface trying to survive. Several of my colleagues were there for me and talked to me constantly offering support and encouragement. Without that I would surely have succumbed. 4 weeks into my new job, a lockdown hit which added to my stress levels.
What can employers, and managers, do to help those suffering?
I know you don’t know how to approach a person who is suffering in silence. You might be put off as you don’t want to upset the person with the illness. Or you might not know how to manage a tearful situation. These are real concerns.
The best thing you can do to help someone is to be that release mechanism for them. The pressure on that person builds every day bit by bit. You can be the instrument that allows that pressure to be released. If you know someone who is suffering from mental health issues, be gently direct.
Let them know that it’s OK to talk about the illness, without any fear of shame or judgment. If the person had a broken leg you would see that plaster cast and be happy to discuss it, even sign it for them. How often do you hear people ask: how did you do that?
Mental health is no different. See the issue and talk about it openly. You might start by saying something like ‘So how are you feeling? What support have you been getting? How are you finding coping with your work? Is there anything I can do to support you? How are you coping in yourself? I have noticed a change in you how are you doing?'. This could be a positive change or negative change - I love it when people notice I am having a good day but really appreciate it when they notice I’m quiet.
Does the employee understand the triggers that make them feel down? What are the coping mechanisms they have identified? Is there a sign they could give you that lets you know things are not good, without having to say I’m struggling?
A sufferer will keep apologising for being emotional. I don’t hear anyone saying sorry I've got COVID, or sorry I’ve got cancer. Don’t accept it, and encourage that person not to be sorry about it, but help them feel better about where they are at.
When someone offloads their burden, don’t be fooled into thinking they have offloaded it for good. When you’re not looking, they will pick it back up and carry on. But you have given them a temporary moment of rest, and hopefully some of what they were carrying, falls out of the bag and they don’t pick that back up.
All the above I have found to be really helpful. It starts with a simple question. If the person gets upset, did I let them talk? Did I ask open questions to encourage them to get it out? The crying is just an outward expression to let you know how they are feeling. It is a wonderful gift you can give a sufferer to help them offload that burden which they carry.
The key here is trust. As you move forward together, you will find the employee will feel more like discussing how they are doing. They will become receptive to you and relaxed about their illness. You will start to understand their triggers and help them when you know that certain things are difficult, not to avoid the issues but to help them over the rocky path that might otherwise have stopped them.
A sufferer will begin to express gratitude which is a sure sign of recovery. I thank you so much for reading this message and for the opportunity to share my experiences with you. I am filled with emotion at writing this and especially for those special people who continue to help me down the path. They know who they are! I sincerely hope you can be the one, in whom someone, in the darkness, can find a guiding light.
This blog is part of a two-part Mental Health series, following Mental Health Awareness Week. In the other part Stewart Lucas, from Mind in Greater Manchester, explores Mental Health throughout the Pandemic, coping strategies, and how we can help others. Read here.