Aged 59, Suffolk UK
I grew up in an era where mental health was not a topic on the ‘common agenda’. It simply wasn’t discussed. As a child, I understood that people were either ‘normal’ or ‘loony’ and if ‘loony’ they were locked up and definitely best avoided. How ridiculous, but I knew no better and just accepted that was how it was and didn’t think about it. Of course it’s not that binary, and was often muddled with special needs. I didn’t know anyone who was a ‘loony’, although of course I would have known many who were suffering to one degree or another with mental health challenges in private. Stigma was so rife.
In more recent years (and now approaching 60), I have become increasingly aware of what mental health, or more specifically mental ill-health means. I’ve learned that several people I cared about were suffering, often in silence, and not feeling able to discuss the topic as they were gripped by the fear of stigma and judgement.
One such person was a young colleague who had joined my then firm on a highly sought after graduate scheme. She stood out as ‘top talent’. An Oxford graduate, a highly accomplished musician and sportsperson. I learned that she had been a high-achieving child, often pushed by caring parents to be better and better. What could she possibly have to complain about? Surely she should just be grateful for what she had, which was so much more than the average person. But that’s precisely the point; mental ill-health is not based on your status, your achievements or your privilege. It’s indiscriminate and can affect any one of us.
Despite all outward appearances, I also saw someone who was at times scared and vulnerable (a view she adamantly disagreed with). She performed professionally and rightly gained a great reputation early in her career. Yet, I also sensed she was fragile. She at times would get overwhelmed, like a rabbit caught in headlights. There were tears and real sadness. I became her mentor and we worked on all sorts of topics and issues, but after some encouragement we talked about her mental health struggles. She was getting the right professional help, but at work I wanted her to feel safe. For her to know that I was there for her when she needed me to listen or to reassure her, for a pep talk, for a conversation, or just for a walk around the block. After much talking, she opened up and I listened. A lot! This was an education for me. She talked of anxiety, depression, anorexia, self-harm and panic attacks. Almost all of these were new concepts to me.
I liken her to a Ferrari. Someone who on her game would sail past me in the fast lane like a high performance car. But like all supercars, she works best with regular maintenance, being handled with care and respect, and frequent fine-tuning. I’m just an old, yet resilient Ford!
Through our conversations, I took a greater interest in the whole topic and became better educated and more knowledgeable. I read. I went to amazing talks and events. The company I worked for at the time was moderately progressive and had topics around wellness and resilience with plenty of information and a genuine willingness to put mental health on the corporate agenda, including the appointment of mental health first aiders. I was even asked by HR to become a ‘Resilience Champion’. Where I saw others struggling, I encouraged them to talk and to share, knowing there was a culture that understood and would be supportive. Several did.
As people, we all generally don’t like to see others struggle or upset and so if we can, we try to help. But my greatest fear around mental ill-health is around suicide. This is an illness that kills. We are all too sadly aware of people either in our personal circles, or in the public eye who couldn’t carry on. Actors, musicians, sports stars, comedians, captains of industry. Those who we often look up to and perhaps wish we were. It’s always a shock when we hear that someone took their own life. It’s so very sad and always such a ‘waste’. Of any life.
I’ve learned so much from her. That mental illness (or illnesses depending on diagnosis) can be treated with medication, therapy and a lot of self-help through mindfulness and following healthy routines around sleep, exercise and nutrition. There are, to my knowledge, no instant fixes. No course of antibiotics, nor a mental health plaster cast. The key thing I have learned is that mental illness can be debilitating for those that suffer, but there is always light at the end of the dark tunnel. It takes patience and effort and there will be setbacks and falls. Often it’s two steps forward and one back to coin a cliche.
I am not an expert, nor a therapist, but what I have learned is to be open to talking about it. Above all to listen. Use every ounce of your own emotional intelligence to be supportive and to show real care. You really can help, and it’s one of the most rewarding things you can ever do. My colleague eventually came to work directly for me. When she left earlier this year pursue a new adventure, she was kind enough to write to me and with her permission I quote an extract of her letter…
‘’The patience you showed me constantly when I was in the deepest throes of my latest mental health decline… It’s a testament to you that my safe place through all of that was in the office next to you, rather than signed off in bed at home. I will never forget your kindness. The way you helped me out of some of the weird scrapes I found myself in and helped me see some light in my darkest times… Without you, I never would have got to where I am today. In so many ways. To a place of direction, purpose, confidence and self-worth’’
Trust me, when I read that and shed a tear I felt proud. Not just of her and what an amazing person she has become, but I also felt proud of myself that I could be there to help and to make a difference. We all can. Please do become an advocate. You truly can be the difference.