Recently, two members of our household of four have been suffering from mental health issues, me being one of them. We’ve both been lucky enough to have very understanding, and very empathetic other-halves who have supported us and looked after us when things have become bleak. I’ve also had some very caring and helpful support from the NHS – my GP and the county mental health services. The latter, unfortunately due to being well over-subscribed and under-funded, has taken a long time to get moving, but they’ve been excellent despite the waits.
Sadly, that’s not been the case for everyone we’ve been in contact with, not least certain colleagues and management at our respective employers. Now, I don’t want to make this a ranty post about being taken seriously. I try not to take anything seriously if I can get away with it. However, and I’ve been guilty of this in the past too, you really don’t know how much of an uphill struggle explaining mental health is to someone who has never experienced it, or had any experience with it.
Many people simply have no grasp of the difference between depression and anxiety, and being sad and being a drama queen. The former is a very serious and debilitating illness, the latter is attention seeking. The other member of my household who has been struggling recently had an awful experience at work the other day. While they were in the middle of a full-blown panic attack, rather than being sent home, which would have been the sensible thing to do, they were told they had to stay as the department was too busy. Their employer thought the best way to deal with it, would be to place them in a small room on their own, with a mountain of work because “it would be quieter.”
The reactions of their colleagues while the panic attack was in its nascent phase were also quite sickening. They essentially ignored it, and said useful things like, ‘Well you’re getting married soon, think about that’, or ‘just think happy thoughts’.
From the perspective of someone suffering these episodes, that sort of language is akin to this:
Helping someone with a panic attack can indeed be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The things you can do are actually quite simple, but essentially, stay with them, be calm, even if you are also anxious, and try to remove the cause of the stress or trigger. In this case, it was a busy office full of people being poisonous wankers. What they did wrong here was not remove the source of the stress – by allowing their partner who had driven across the city to help, take them home – or stay with them. They were walled off in a room, alone.
I have had a similar experience while trying to return to work after a long period of absence. I don’t want to describe what happened as it may get contentious down the line, but suffice it to say, how I was dealt with by an individual, has set my recovery back a long way. In fact, I’m probably worse now than I was when I first admitted I was ill.
Sadly, this is all too common. In general, mental health is not taken seriously by too many people. Many of these people have a duty of care to those suffering from mental health issues, and are failing in that duty of care. If I had fallen down and broken my wrist at work, I’d be sent to A&E. I wouldn’t be shuffled off into a back room and told to ‘use my other hand while it gets better’.
It’s simply a mater of education. I’m sure most people have heard of the term ‘first aid’, know to provide pressure to a bleeding wound, and to not move someone with a suspected head or neck injury. Why? Because we’re told these things. It’s on the telly, in books and other media, taught to us in schools and in Health and Safety briefings at work. So why aren’t we taught about how severe mental health issues are for those who suffer from them, and how we can help people who are obviously struggling?
More importantly, these days, the information is abundantly clear. A quick search using your favoured engine, would reveal millions of pages of advice on panic attacks, anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, etc., and how you can help people. It takes minutes. Hell, if you Google ‘how to help someone suffering from a panic attack’, Google actually summarises it for you, so you don’t even have to bother clicking through.
The answer to someone who tells you they are suffering from depression isn’t to ask ‘why are you depressed?’ What you’ve done is mistaken depression for sadness. It’s possible to be suffering from depression and still be outwardly happy. Another phrase I’ve heard used is ‘well, you don’t look depressed.’ You might also be suffering from an exotic brain-dwelling parasite that could kill you at any second, but how would you tell by looking at them?
There isn’t really an excuse for employers to be ignorant about mental health. Put simply, it’s about time everyone took it more seriously. I used to be, not sceptical, but certainly wary of people who openly discussed mental health issues. My reasoning was that if they could consciously identify that they were suffering from it, why could they not just stop it? Well, trust me, when I finally admitted – and admitted is exactly the correct word here – that I was suffering from depression, I bloody well tried it. And guess what? Doesn’t work like that. In fact, if anything, I reckon I exacerbated it.
While I don’t expect everyone to become an expert in mental health all of a sudden, wouldn’t it be nice if employers acted on that duty of care? Depression isn’t some terrifying thing to confront from the outside. From the inside, it most certainly is, but for everyone else, a bit of empathy goes a long way.
If you want a good idea of what it feels like then you’d do worse than read this: