The Mental Health Can of Worms

It’s natural that we feel embarrassed talking about this sensitive topic – fear of the unknown and what might jump out of that can, often hold us back. But remember how much progress we’ve made talking about ‘the Big C’ cancer, we can do the same with the ‘big MH’ mental health.

We’ll address those fears and debunk some myths in a moment, but first, the funny thing is even just the words ‘mental health’ create discomfort, and yet think about it…

We all have mental health, just as we have physical health.

A way to understand mental health is as a continuum, the original model put being mentally healthy at one end and having a mental illness at the other end. So at the mentally healthy end could be every day feelings that might include being anxious about exams or a job interview and day to day ups and downs. You would move along the continuum for anxiety disorders and depression, further along for conditions such as Bipolar (manic depression) and Schizophrenia would be at the severe end. However, this model based on medical diagnosis alone, is less favoured as it doesn’t tell the whole story.

What about Mental wellbeing?

Did you know you might not have a diagnosis of a mental health issue, but currently have poor wellbeing. So equally you can have had a diagnosis of say Bipolar disorder but be managing it well with medication, self-help strategies and support, so have good mental wellbeing. That doesn’t mean there might not be serious challenges along the way but that can apply to any of us since mental health is fluid and changes over time. Support, compassion and hope are central to recovery and successfully managing symptoms, and we can all play our part.

So now to some of those fears & myths:

Fear – If we start talking as a workplace about mental health, our sickness rates will increase as everyone will have an excuse to take time off

It’s a Myth – Not talking, in other words doing nothing, costs around £1000 per employee (Source MIND). People sometimes disguise a mental health issues as a physical illness e.g. a sick bug, because of the stigma. And if someone is off sick for any length of time and there’s a lack of any or appropriate contact, an employee can feel less able to return. They are likely to be off longer and less likely to make a successful transition back to work. Early, regular, sensitive contact is key.

Fear – I might say something wrong and make it worse

It’s a myth, so long as you approach the discussion with compassion and a non-judgemental attitude! Yes you might not get thanked for caring every time, mental health issues are complex. But more often than not, done in a non-threatening way, it will ultimately be appreciated, even if it doesn’t initially seem like it at the time.

Fear – I might say something wrong and cause a future legal case for my company

Another myth – yes we need to be mindful of discrimination due to mental health, but not addressing an issue, such as concern over increased absences or a decline in performance will save up problems for the future. Again, the key is to have those courageous conversations with compassion.

Fear – If I mention concerns about suicidal thoughts when they are already vulnerable, I might put the idea in their head or encourage them

It’s a particularly dangerous myth, this topic is of course so hard to address, yet address it we must! 6,188 suicides were registered in the UK in 2017 and 451 in the Republic of Ireland. Shockingly, suicide is now the main cause of death for men under 50.

Although women are less likely to die by suicide than men, the rate of female suicide is the highest in more than a decade. The reasons for this are complex, but the key to take away is that the only way to address the issue is to ask someone directly about their suicidal intentions. Enabling them to articulate suicidal thoughts may reduce their isolation and anxiety and be the first step to being able to find support. Samaritans guide to difficult conversations

Fear – I’m not an expert so I should leave mental health to the experts

Yes, a myth! You don’t have to be an expert to have a compassionate conversation and we could all do with brushing up on our listening skills. Sometimes giving someone the space to articulate how they are feeling can help them find a way to move forward. Seeking professional help can be a challenging journey in itself, so we can all help lighten the load by enabling someone to talk openly about their mental health and wellbeing, if they choose to do so. If they don’t feel able to, we can indicate we’re around should they change their mind.

But my workplace doesn’t even have a mental health or wellbeing policy, so there’s nothing I can do?

Of course that’s a myth! Maybe your workplace doesn’t have an official strategy, or at least not yet, but regardless of this, we can all make a difference and that could be in our home life as well as work. It might just be saying: ‘How are you doing, I’ve been a bit worried about you’ or ‘let’s go for a walk and catch up’. So often it’s the little things that help. 5 tips on how to start a mental health conversation

End the stigma, it’s a double whammy! – So we all need to get a bit more comfortable around the words ‘mental health’, and start to reduce stigma and fear. It’s bad enough experiencing symptoms of depression, that could include feelings of despair, a sense of being overwhelmed, unable to make simple decisions, maybe even emptiness and a lack of hope. Now imagine you’re too ashamed to share these feelings, particularly with your manager, and have to wear a mask to pretend everything is ok.

The BITC has a free step-by-step guide Listen up: Let’s talk about mental health BITC guide

It’s not about revolutionising workplaces practices, but we should never be more than one conversation away from getting help, so let’s make a difference, one small step at a time.

The BITC Mental Health at Work report states:

‘Employers have a duty of care to their employees to respond to mental ill health just as they would to a physical illness.

Organisations should equip their managers with the tools, support and organisational culture they need to do their job well, which must include managing employees with mental health issues.’

Only 11% of respondents said that they’d discussed a recent episode of mental ill health with their line manager, and only half said that they’d speak with their line manager about their mental health!

Less than 4% of employees said that they would discuss their mental health needs with HR and only 2% had actually done so during an episode of mental ill-health!

SOURCE Mental Health at work report: National Mental Well-being survey BITC 2016


If you’d like to find out about how I can help you to give your managers the tools and support, including delivery of workshops, such as ‘Mental health – what managers need to know’ and the internationally recognised Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), just get in touch

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