Mentally coming out


Last night I found myself writing a blog post ready for today on facilitation techniques, which will now probably go up early next week.  However, as I got on with it, I started to listen to a simply brilliant programme on the BBC in the background, in which cricketer Freddie Flintoff spent some time talking to other sporting greats of recent years (and Vinnie Jones) about depression and mental health.

As it wound on I had to leave the relative safety of the keyboard and sit on the sofa as I found myself captivated by it all.  On screen were icons and heroes; people I had read about in the papers for years and who seemingly had the world at their feet – Flintoff, Hatton, Harmison and more – yet all found themselves suffering from mental health issues.  These issues had been hidden at the time they surfaced, covered up with reports of injuries or simply shoved firmly into the background when the white line on the side of the pitch was crossed.  However, all of these people eventually accepted they had an issue and began to find ways of dealing with it.

Mental health is something we have covered on this blog before, and I urge you to take a quick diversion to read a piece from last year which  detailed one officer’s angle on their own mental health struggles.  But have things changed since then?  Have we all come to understand mental health and appreciate the impact it has in the workplace and things we can all do to help others?

In my experience, not yet.  Cultural change on this level will take a long time to bear fruit, but now is a more than opportune time to think about how local government deals with mental health issues affecting its staff, and whether we really are on the road to better places organisationally.

Recently we brought up the tricky issue of racism in the workplace, with a blogging colleague finding themselves shocked that it still existed having not personally ever felt affected by it.  It took someone who felt they had gone through racism issues to point out to them that, whilst local government has come a long way over the years, there was still a long way to go before racism was truly deemed an issue of the past.

One’s race or ethnicity is not really something which can be hidden, it doesn’t require an individual to ‘come out’ as being from a certain background before discrimination can begin.  Conversely, this lack of requirement to declare that one may be subject to racism – however unintentional that racism may be – also allows programmes and support to be offered more easily by a council, and monitoring to be undertaken to address concerns.  It may not be easy to solve quickly, but it is happening.

Mental health on the other hand is entirely dependent upon an individual firstly accepting to themselves that they have issues and secondly feeling comfortable openly declaring this fact; something which quite obviously is not usually likely.  The challenge of developing support schemes for depression sufferers is monumental when there is no way of knowing how widespread the problem is, nor how it affects each individual, nor what can be done to address it.

Equally, openly declaring that you are from a particular ethnic background is often seen as a mark of pride.  Conversely, openly declaring that you have mental health issues is, to put it simply, seen by many (wrongly) as a mark of weakness, a flaw, something which will substantially and detrimentally affect how that person works.  Speaking personally, the fact that I have had mental health issues for the past nine years and have managed to achieve all that I have is irrelevant – the perception I have (probably also wrongly) is that as soon as I share this information with colleagues that they will immediately regard me as being at high risk of falling apart and will negatively alter our working and social relationships.

One of the phrases that Flintoff used in a discussion with one of his interviewees was that he felt that he should have ‘owned up’ to being depressed.  This struck me as a slightly odd phrase to have used, although I’m not sure he meant it as anything other than a turn of phrase.  Do we own up to having cancer?  Do we own up to having appendicitis?  No: we simply have it, and have to address this physical health need.  Subtly using language such as ‘owning up’, which has been drilled in to us over our entire lives, implies that depression is somehow shameful, and that it’s a choice that has been made.  Mental health is as controllable as physical health – some things can be prevented, but some things will knock even the hardiest of us sideways, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.

I was lucky enough to once work in an organisation which was exceptionally successful in addressing LGBT issues in the workplace.  Without going into too much detail, there were examples of successful LGBT staff from the Chief Executive to part time sessional staff.  Some were openly gay and happy to make this fact an obvious part of the persona they projected, others felt it was simply part of who they were which didn’t need to be shouted from the rooftops.  This encouraged an attitude of positivity, where someone’s sexual orientation has not a thing to do with their performance: if they were good enough and could do their job well then that was more than enough, and rightly so.

How long will it be before we see staff at all levels feeling comfortable to ‘come out’ as a sufferer from depression?  How many successful senior staff are you aware of who suffer, have suffered or who may not suffer but have to actively manage their mental health?  And if you are aware of any, how open are they about this fact?  I may be doing a huge disservice to many, but in my limited experience I am yet to meet any senior officer outside of those who work directly on mental health issues who have done so.  Statistically this doesn’t add up.  One in four of us will suffer from mental health issues at some point in our lives, so unless every officer and manager you have ever known has been exceptionally lucky, odds are a sizable number faced their own battles but hid it.

I firmly believe that – despite protestations to otherwise – there have been jobs I have got in the past which had I shared my mental health issues on the application form that I wouldn’t have got.  It remains an issue which most would rather not deal with, as if it was success-threatening or (and it has been said to me in the past) it becomes contagious.  It really is a huge taboo, and one which needs to be addressed.

Black people can run successful teams.  Gay people can devise strategy.  Wheelchair bound people can deliver presentations.  Blind people can manage budgets.  Deaf people can write scoping papers.  Depression sufferers can be successful.

The sooner we all realise that mental health is an integral part of who we all are, and that with adequate support it need not limit ambition or potential, the sooner we can move towards a healthier workplace, in body and in mind.

For a bit more information, visit the Time to Change website.  For a bit more help, have a chat with someone you trust.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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3 Comments on “Mentally coming out”

  1. Tim Turner Says:

    The routine of a job, the support of colleagues (whether they know about an illness or not), and the security of a wage can be as helpful to someone with a mental illness as the therapy they received. I know two people who ended up dependent on anti-depressants who finally took control of their lives and their illness by going back to work, in both cases with great success, despite no miracle recovery. And of course, as you’ve already said, depression is not a barrier to talent, or inspiration. People with mental health issues should not be stigmatised, and workplaces that allow such stigmas to persist risk unfair discrimination and the loss of worthwhile staff.

  2. tomsprints Says:

    I found the Flintoff programme a tough watch, but I’m grateful to you for blogging about it so soon after. My own experience of severe depression is sport-related too. Not the megabucks, mass publicity end of it, but nevertheless, at top flight amateur level, and while holding a real job in local government.

    I’m very happy with the expression “owning up”. It captures some of how I felt myself at the time. Crucially, it can also be about “owning up” to yourself as well as to colleagues. In my case, I’d been aware that something was wrong with me for quite a while. The thought that it might have been depression never entered my head for much of that time. Nevertheless, like many others, I suspect, I became adept at the cover-up. I found many ways to explain away lacklustre performance, loss of drive at work, and all that sort of stuff that places burdens on one’s colleagues. Finally I reached the point where I admitted to myself I needed professional help, and spoke to my excellent local GP. Diagnosis is often a relief in itself, of course.

    Very soon after that I “owned up” to my colleagues that I now knew what was going on with me, and shared with them that, although we’d never discussed it, I was certain they’d noticed things “hadn’t been right” for a while (in my case, probably three months). It was some time later before I could bring myself to let my sporting colleagues know, however. I did that in a blog at http://tomsprints.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/time-i-levelled-with-you/ I think this highlights some of the difficulties with depression in sport – much harder to acknowledge amongst sports-people.

    My local government colleagues (mostly) understood immediately. Privately, some shared their own stories with me, and the team bond became stronger, I think. Sadly some didn’t “get it”. After all, it was sport, wasn’t it. Hardly real life, eh?

    You’ve written a valuable blog here. I hope it gets widely shared.

  3. Performance officer Says:

    I hope my comment doesn’t come across as insensitive – but I think mental health and depression are different from ethnicity or sexuality.

    We understand that your ethnicity and sexuality have quite literally no imapct on how good you are at your job, so its easy to be very clear on that these shouldn’t be discriminated on.

    Please, bear with me during the next paragraph.

    Mental health problems, at the point when they strike, do have an impact on performance. The response above cites loss of drive, enthusiasm and lacklustre performance. This clearly IS a problem and needs to be addressed (with support and help, in the same way someone with a back problem is supported with better chairs desks etc). But there is an issue, and it is negative, and its foolish to pretend that there isn’t.

    Of course, the answer is that people should be aware that support is available, and allowed to accept that, without being thought that ‘they might fall apart at any time’. And that colleagues need a much better understanding of how if affects people without there being such a stigma. And that a previous episode doesn’t mean that someone is an automatic risk for ever more.

    But it is genuinely different from sexuality or ethnicity and any response that fails to recognise that will in itself fail.


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