We need to talk about mental health. It is a big deal. Really. Do you have any idea how many people in the UK have a diagnosable mental health condition?
Of course you do! You can’t escape the statistics, and they have played an essential part in bringing this important issue to the table both in business and the wider community.
So, we are already talking about it. Thanks to fantastic campaigns like Time To Change and Rethink mental illness, we are getting to a stage where people are thinking about how they view mental health, and understanding the impact of discriminatory language and thinking.
But how well are you really talking about it?
How many of you have recently referred to “committing” suicide, effectively criminalising the act? How many have referred to mental health conditions as mental health "problems", or talked about people who “suffer from” mental health conditions?
So, yes - let's talk about mental health. But let’s turn our attention to the quality of that discourse.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. But let’s stop using judgemental, emotive and negative language when we do.
Nobody is “a depressive”. Many people live with the condition, but it no more describes them than blue-eyed describes me.
People who are “just” crying for help, or “only” attention seeking, are doing just that.
How about we give them some help or attention? Mental health “problems” are issues that need to be solved; contrast this with mental health “conditions” - states of being that people can and do learn to live with.
Let’s start talking fearlessly, factually and respectfully. There is some great advice here from the Blurt Foundation.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. But let’s stop thinking that the map is the territory.
It is an easy trap to fall into – we are arguably successful as a species partly because of our ability to categorise things and spot similarities.
This ingrained behaviour, however, serves us badly when thinking about mental health.
Take a diagnosis of bipolar disorder for instance. The BPS describes four different types and that is before we even go into fast or slow cycling variations. The point is that it is different for everyone. Even if it were exactly the same, our response to it would be different (you only need to look at two people watching the same film to see this).
Some recent work I did on reasonable adjustments with call centre staff who had similar diagnoses of anxiety disorders really illustrated this point.
One operator’s preferred solution was to find a way to allow him time off the phones when his symptoms were aggravated. For his colleague, this would have been hugely counterproductive as she placed great store in performing that role consistently. Her solution was to have additional management feedback when her anxiety affected her confidence on calls.
Let’s start to appreciate that each person’s experience is different, and therefore their needs, their desires, and the workplace adjustments that suit them are different too.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. But let’s stop leaving these conversations until things are really bad.
It is probably easier now than at any time in history for people to talk about their mental health thanks to the campaigns mentioned above. But let’s not confuse easier for easy. We still have a way to go in terms of stigma.
Whilst it is great to see the latest BITC data showing that 54% of people feel comfortable talking about mental health in work, we really need to change that for the other 46%.
One way to do that is to talk about how we feel regularly - not just when we feel terrible. If talking about feelings becomes the norm – it is much easier to turn that conversation to feeling down or anxious for example.
Let’s start conversations about how we feel as part of normal life
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. But let’s stop trying to find the reason, or trying to find the fix.
A couple of years ago I was on a mental health panel at an event in a large bank in the City. Alongside me was an occupational physician, and she answered a question from the audience about whether there was anything one could do in their lifestyle to prevent mental illness.
Her answer disappointed me: “If you put anyone under enough pressure, they will develop a mental illness. Everyone has their tipping point.”
I am not disputing that fact, but I worry that it perpetuates an assumption that there must be a cause, or trigger, for mental health conditions.
Of course, there very often is, and it makes perfect sense to build self-awareness to understand what makes people feel bad (or worse) and personal history may well be of use in therapeutic interventions.
But equally important is to appreciate that for some people with mental illness, there is no clear cause, or trigger and it is likely a complex combination of genetics, experiences, society and expectations. Sometimes, it just is.
The lack of a clear cause or explanation in no way limits the seriousness of the condition. To search for a cause may also suggest that there is a “fix”.
According to the NHS, record numbers of people made full recoveries from mental health conditions last year. Many more though, do not recover, but learn to live fulfilling lives with their condition.
Let’s start accepting mental health conditions as they are, and looking for what might help instead of the cause.
One more thing. With all that said. Let’s stop talking about mental health for a minute.
Let’s start listening.
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