From the TUC

Mental Health – more honesty please

18 May 2015, By

Mental health has certainly risen up the workplace agenda in recent years, with increasing numbers of workers reporting anxieties, depression and stress. It’s good to see more thinking going into this because it is clear that our approach to mental health is sadly lacking and leaves us all more vulnerable as a result.

Union reps are working daily to support colleagues, too often from employers who fail to recognise the centrality of mental health to a safe, healthy workplace.

Given the increasingly precarious nature of work and an ever more atomised, competitive society this is perhaps unsurprising. Moreover, with the proposed deep cuts to public services to come in the next few years, we have a ticking time bomb. Mental health services increasingly stretched with demand going up. We simply have to grasp the nettle.

So what is mental health? It is widely known that hundreds of thousands of people in the world of work are suffering at the moment. But suffering from what? depression? anxiety? low mood? psychosis? The types of problems are multiple, the experiences of each unique to every individual. And remember that we all have mental health in the same vein that we all have physical health. Sometimes we are well and sometimes we are not so well.

It is often said mental ill-health is not like a broken bone – a hidden illness. This is undoubtedly true. But what is often overlooked is that the diagnosis of a physical health issue is relatively easy – we all break a bone in the same way and our bones will mend the same way. But with mental health we are all different. For example, some people with depression are unable to get out of bed, unable to move; whilst others are able to carry on, to disguise the depression. But both can be equally debilitating and yet, because the outsider cannot know the mind, thoughts and feelings of the individual, it is easy to judge and cast aspersions. We have to accept that the person with dark depression who ‘appears’ happy and contented could just as easily end up committing suicide as the person unable to get out of bed.

The recognition of mental health as unique to the individual has to be the starting point if we are to understand how we can help support people in the workplace and to stop putting people into particular illness boxes. This is not an academic debate to try and unravel the nuances of labelling or differing approaches to mental health. Rather, this is a plea to radically reconsider our understanding and approach to mental health if we are to address a genuinely deadly crisis. More people commit suicide each year than die on the UK roads. A statistic that should spur us all to seek ways to improve understanding.

Despite the fact that mental health problems are a killer, result in countless lost days at work, destroy lives and affect us all, why is it that mental health has for too long been the Cinderella service in the NHS? It really is a scandal that waiting lists for mental health services are so long. When a person is in crisis they need help immediately, not an indefinite waiting list that could mean many months to simply talk to anyone let alone access support. We would not accept such huge waiting lists for physical health, why do we seemingly accept such waiting lists for mental health? We simply have to provide the funding that mental health services need.

Looking beyond statutory services, it is also time that employers did more to recognise the importance of mental health in the workplace. Employers could be doing more to work with unions (who are often the people facing the realities of poor mental health daily) to improve policies that make it easier for people to be open about their health issues. The TUC’s Representing and Supporting Members with Mental Health Problems at Work is a good place to start.

Time for radical honesty.

Too often we hear platitudes and words of sympathy about mental health from people at the top. Yet we hear painfully little from voices at the top saying “you know what, I get screwed up too, I have my anxieties, I get down.” The dominant management culture still exudes a typically male definition of strength. Hence power-dressing and concepts of ‘strong’ leadership. Perhaps genuinely strong leadership would involve more humility and honesty about one’s own insecurities? Just imagine how our workplace culture would be radically different – and healthier – if ‘leaders’ could openly admit their frailties, insecurities and worries? Wouldn’t this feel more human?

It really is too easy for people and organisations to state ‘we need to tackle stigma’. Indeed, I have lost count of the multiple well-meaning newspaper articles that have been written in recent years calling on us to tackle stigma. But, as the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words. Just check out the awful headlines following the German Wings tragedy about the depression of Andreas Lubitz. Is it any wonder that people are afraid to open up?

What’s more just think of the words in everyday use that simply add to the problem. Fruitcake, mad, crazy, nutter, loon, schizo, loopy, nuts to name but a few. The reaction to the Prime Minister’s description of UKIP members as ‘fruitcakes and loons’ is illuminating. David Cameron was ridiculed for being disparaging about the UKIP members, yet his use of stigmatising language was never commented upon. If the language had been sexist, racist or homophobic, the Prime Minister would have rightly been condemned. But lazy, unthinking language that reinforces negative attitudes to mental health simply passes unchallenged. Again, I ask, is it any wonder that we all hide our insecurities and worries?

For my own part, is it surprising that I am comfortable acknowledging the physical illnesses that have afflicted me over the last couple of years? I have no qualms telling people about the two sets of medication that I now have to take for life, or about the early onset of osteoarthritis. However, I am reluctant to even tick a box on an equalities form to reveal that I have had some difficulties with my mental health. I don’t feel safe. This is not healthy.

During the first draft of this article I penned a few anecdotes about my own experience. Yet counsel from people close to me, added to my ongoing doubts and worries about how people would respond, mean that I have self-censored. This speaks volumes. Perhaps one day I will be able to be fully open about some of my past issues and ongoing insecurities. But not yet. This is just my small, incomplete, partial contribution in the call for honesty I suppose?

But please don’t read this as ‘bloke x survives mental health episode, recovers and imparts wisdom to others’. That, I think, would be misguided, miss the point, and paradoxically helps fuel the ongoing societal deceit about concepts of strength and weakness. My experience was unique to me. And my ongoing metal health will be unique to me.

My – and your – mental health is on a continuum. Sometimes we go up, sometimes we go down – sometimes very down. But the important point to remember is that we all exist on this continuum and we are always moving around it. So whilst our individual experiences are unique we are all common, we all have mental health, we are all human.

Quite simply we need to care for each other and to look after one another, for we will spend more time on the positive side of our mental health continuum when we have the right support in our workplaces, homes and communities. And, I sincerely believe, a more emotionally honest and open culture, both in the workplace and wider society, would deliver tremendous benefits for us all.

So let us start by asking ourselves, and telling each other, about our own insecurities – something I am painfully trying to do, however incomplete. For by being open and honest we can start to truly tackle stigma, and move us towards a place of greater emotional and mental resilience.

Here’s to a future of radical honesty.