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Why don't we talk mental ill health?

Many articles and guides on mental health in the work place begin with the phrase “first & foremost, create an environment where staff feel comfortable discussing personal issues”, which are great at endorsing ongoing workplace campaigns and initiatives. Yet it can additionally pose the question, exactly how do you go about that?

When it comes to mental health matters, many components contribute to such an environment. We can look at those another time. Yes, the old slogan says, ‘it’s good to talk’, but, why don’t we? You’ll have thoughts I’m sure. However, ‘usual suspects’ include shame, stigma, perceived weakness, fear of discrimination, impact on job, career, and relationships, embarrassment, cultural differences, and many more, across many levels. Bias, prejudice, misunderstanding, ignorance, derogation, incomprehension often exist too. 

Thinking about my experience though, why wouldn’t I talk? Interestingly, stigma or discrimination weren’t reasons, but these were:

Fear of failure. I already believed I was a failure. For me, ‘not coping’ was weakness and further proved my failure. I was stuck in a failure loop. 

Fear of being judged. Would others distort, delete, or generalise what I said to fit their perception, to make sense of, ridicule, or put their meaning to my words rather than accept mine at face value? Would they only hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest?

Mindreading. So I’d second guess what others might think, do, and say. How would they react, behave, respond if I did talk? This kept me stuck too because I could never be sure.  Paradoxically, when I finally talked, my GP and line manager’s reaction showed how mistaken I’d been! 

Inability to express or articulate myself. Malaise meant I was lost for words. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was depression, or that I was depressed.  I just felt miserable, isolated, and alone. Song-lyrics however, articulated what I couldn’t and began helping me express myself, particularly Savage Garden’s Crash and Burn.

Mistrust. In terms of my underlying issues, I believed no-one was strong enough, or could handle, what I had to say. I was wrong.

Private/personal matter.  I chose privacy. I think it’s important to remember that discussing personal issues, particularly in the workplace, is a personal choice and applies to how much detail is discussed.  Nowadays online searches can also help us become better informed, equipped and enabled to find appropriate support. 

I put work first.  I believed putting myself first was selfish. I learned a very hard, but simple, lesson; sometimes we need to take care/look after ourselves first. 

Writing this has even had its benefits. I learned that my misconceptions around mental health matters had blocked me talking as much as any workplace stigmas and prejudices did. My mindset meant I gave no one a chance to help me. 

People are not telepathic nor as intuitive as perhaps we’d wish sometimes. And, yes, there are those who still don’t get mental health matters. Fear, stigma, prejudice and discrimination sadly remain environmental challenges to creating the environments we’d like. Yet, perhaps it’s also good to remember, who suffers if we don’t find a way to talk? 

Watch: Sylvia's five top tips to looking after your own mental health at work

Sylvia Bruce
This Can Happen Ambassador

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This Can Happen plays a crucial role in bringing together businesses from different sectors to share best practice. It’s an inspirational event full of progressive thinking and practical case studies on all aspects of mental health.

Tim Skelter, Corporate Affairs, Quilter