Mental health: why it’s time to talk
We speak to the experts about how we can begin to tackle the taboo around mental health
Mental health issues like anxiety, depression and stress are incredibly common, affecting one in four of us. Yet despite this statistic, there is still a very real and dangerous disparity between the normality of mental ill-health and how it is viewed. On a mission to bridge this gap is Time to Change, a social movement that believes that simple, frank conversations can make a very real difference to those suffering. The charity has set 7 February as Time to Talk Day, a widespread campaign entirely devoted to mental ill-health and communication.
The movement seeks to change the fact that mental ill-health is not broached in the same way as physical health. According to Andrew Berrie, Time to Change, employer programme manager for fundraising, there is a real miseducation that means mental health does not hold the same status as physical health. “An employer would never suggest that a person with a broken leg ‘man up’ and just hobble about the office. Yet many might be guilty of suggesting that a person experiencing a mental health issue ‘cheer up and get over it’, due to lack of understanding.”
A consequence of this miseducation is that people feel uneasy talking about how they are feeling, a problem which particularly resonates in the workplace. Here, it’s likely that you know a colleague from a more distant, professional perspective. At work, people feel unable to speak up for fear that they will be misunderstood, or even that they may no longer be trusted with their own job. As part of the campaign, Time to Talk is on a quest to normalise mental ill-health at work by making sure that the place we spend the majority of our day-to-day week is a space where we feel comfortable even when we are feeling blue.
Part of the event will prioritise a positive culture, education in the workplace, and upskilling managers and colleagues through awareness-raising. Time to Change also encourages employers to sign the Time to Change Employers’ Pledge that demonstrates a commitment to employees.
Such campaigns and programmes are getting the word out there and ensuring that businesses are clued up, but recognising that a colleague is in need can still be tricky. Look out for how they are completing work tasks. Are they more tired than usual or making uncharacteristic mistakes? Are they demotivated or is time keeping slipping?
Vicky from Mind says that other common symptoms of mental health problems at work include physical signs such as panic attacks, psychological signs such as memory lapses or confusion, tearfulness, anger or aggression, risk-taking behaviour or increased absence from work.
It’s not just about helping those suffering in silence, according to the Mental Health Foundation, addressing wellbeing at work also has the effect of increasing productivity by as much as 12%. Andrew insists that: “by creating a workplace culture where employees feel that they can approach their colleagues to discuss their mental health, these employees can be appropriately supported in the workplace on an ongoing basis, or in their recovery of a particular mental health problem.”
FIVE WAYS TO START THE CONVERSATION ON MENTAL HEALTH
1. Take it seriously It can feel embarrassing and exposing to talk about thoughts and feelings, but don’t be tempted to laugh or treat it like a joke.
2. Listen and reflect You don’t have to have all the answers – just listening can make a big difference. Try and show that you’re taking on board what they’re saying. You can do this by reflecting – that is, saying something simple like ‘that sounds really difficult’ or ‘thanks for telling me’, to show that you appreciate having the conversation.
3. Ask questions We worry about prying when it comes to others’ mental health, but it’s better to ask questions. It can help them to get things off their chest, and by keeping the conversation going it shows that you care. Some of the questions you might ask: ‘What does it feel like?’, ‘What kind of thoughts are you having?’
4. Don’t try and fix it It’s human nature to want to fix things, but expecting things to change right away isn’t helpful. It’s not your job to make their mental health problem go away – it’s often more helpful just to listen, ask open questions and do things you’d normally do together.
5. Build your knowledge You might find it helpful to learn a bit more about what they’re going through. If they mention a specific diagnosis, you could learn more about it and read personal stories from people who have experienced similar things. You might want to learn about the professional help that’s available to them and suggest that they explore those options. Mind has a handy guide on seeking help for a mental health problem, and Rethink Mental Illness has great advice on what to do in a crisis.