Coffee, Friendship and Depression

17/06/2016 15:27 | Updated 17 June 2016

I count myself lucky, to have a close circle of friends that I've known for many years. I'm not one of these people on Facebook who says yes to friend requests from random strangers. I know people who do this who honestly believe they are popular - but they don't mention that the vast majority are 'virtual friends'. Here in the real world, the few friends that I have are special, with that no-nonsense attitude you get from Yorkshire folk.

A couple of girlfriends and I often meet for a catch-up - usually at a well-known coffee chain. My beautiful blonde friend with her sparkling grey eyes, and my blue-eyed brunette friend, both a perfect size 8, are stunning. Men turn and gape at the very sight of them! Successful professionals, I always thought they had the world at their feet and could command their own destiny. They didn't have the same obstacles as a Caribbean-Asian female like me, fighting stereotypes and racism throughout, to gain even a half-decent life.

This was our time to laugh and chat, away from our partners, in our own space. Here, we could talk about anything and everything - and often did.

But one day, the tone took a more serious turn when my friends confessed to suffering from depression. It turns out that both of my beautiful ambitious professional girlfriends suffer from this debilitating mental health issue that can - and often does - attack any of us at times in our lives.

It saddens me to hear that my friends are sometimes depressed. It concerns me even more to hear that they phone up their employers claiming they have 'flu symptoms,' to excuse their absence from work. They hide under the blankets until their mood lifts and the dark thoughts dissipate.

They described 'drowning in a sea of despair' while trying to think of an acceptable reason to explain their absence. 'Acceptable' is the key word. Because they believe their employers would find it 'unacceptable' for them to say, 'I can't come into work today. I feel depressed.' They feared the stigma surrounding it.

Even with one in four people in the UK experiencing some kind of mental health problem, they felt that their employers would be unsympathetic to their plight.

The 1983 Mental Health Act and the Code of Practice introduced in 2008 set out to improve mental health services and protect the most vulnerable in society. But in spite of these measures, it troubles me that there is still a lack of support for people with mental health issues - especially in the workplace. Despite the duty of care placed on employers by the 2010 Equality Act, mental illness is still taboo.

Here I was, hearing my friends describing that they had lied to their employers about their reasons for taking time off work. Not because they were 'skiving', but because they literally felt too low to get out of bed. Too anguished or upset or unable to stop crying. Too fuggy-headed to think, speak or function. My friends joked nervously that it could be a barrier to promotion if their managers knew they were 'mad'! Who would trust them with responsibilities if they knew the truth?

I welcome celebrities talking openly about their personal journey with depression, opening up the dialogue and helping to demystify the subject of mental illness. But more needs to be done before mental illness stops being a taboo subject in our society.

Women are particularly at risk of poor mental health, owing to their role and status in society - as mothers, wives, workers or unemployed - while facing everyday and institutional sexism, gender stereotyping, and often, domestic and sexual violence and poverty. The traditional roles of women in some ethnic groups living in the UK can more emphatically increase their exposure to such risks (Source: mental health org).

Despite this pressure, only around 25% of suicides are women. Women's greater emotional literacy and readiness to talk to others about their feelings may protect them from the deepest despair or suicidal feelings. We know the classic reluctance of male drivers to ask for directions. They would rather scrutinise a map or drive around for hours than admit that they need help.

Conversely, women are more likely to admit feelings of depression, inadequacy or helplessness and seek help from friends or professionals. Just not from their employers. At great cost to employers, billions of pounds and millions of working hours are lost each year through sickness absence. How many of these are mental health issues like depression, stress and anxiety - simply 'disguised' by workers - or actually causing physical illness symptoms?

Think of the savings, if people were supported! Workplace stress is one cause of mental health problems employers should address themselves. They could also provide non-judgemental spaces for employees to talk openly and honestly about their mental health - without prejudice, with company support. Perhaps partnerships with mental health organisations are the way forward.

I would like to see early discussion in schools. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression (Source: Young Minds).

More public conversations about mental health should take place. It's in all our interests to open the dialogue about mental health issues. Then, my friends and others would feel more comfortable speaking about their own mental health issues instead of feeling ashamed.