Co-authored with Nick Pollard, my dad.
Laying in a hospital bed, aged 14, after an emergency admission to deal with the life-threatening effects of anorexia, I was relieved to see my dad come through the door to the ward. He'd been away on business but had dropped everything and travelled back to be with me. At that point, he didn't realise that this was just the start of two years when much of his working life would be put on hold so that he, and my mum, could care for me. This is one of the hidden costs of mental illness, affecting many workers and their employers, with an incalculable cost to the economy of families, companies and the country alike.
Thankfully, after many months in hospital, and with the support of my parents, I was able to fight back against the illness, obtain a place at medical school, qualify as a doctor, and write my story in the book Life Hurts: a doctor's personal journey through anorexia (see LifeHurts.net). This publication, and the resultant media attention, has enabled me to hear the stories of many other families whose children's mental health has taken a significant toll on their working lives. Like Joe (not his real name) whose daughter is seriously ill with an eating disorder, needing lots of monitoring and support from her father. 'But, how can I do this and carry on working?', he says. Unlike the fortunate position of my father, who was the boss of his organisation and able to schedule some work around my needs, Joe is an employee in a regular job. He fears that providing the support his daughter needs will lead to him losing his job, not being able to pay his mortgage, losing his house and... the consequences could be devastating.
I am delighted to see that employers are increasingly recognising the importance of preventative care for the mental health of their employees. And there is an obvious economic case for the commercial value of such an investment. Quite apart from the moral and social decency of caring for one's employees, no employer chooses to lose the money they have spent on the recruitment and training of their team when an employee requires an extended time off work through mental illness. But the same argument applies to extending this investment into helping employees to take preventative care for the mental health of their family.
As a hospital doctor I am acutely aware of the value of recent initiatives to help people spot the signs of illness in those around them. Thanks to good public health education, many people know how to identify the early signals of a stroke or a heart attack so that action can be taken immediately. But how many parents are able to spot the early signs of an eating disorder, or other mental health issue in their children? Unfortunately, my dad did not. He now knows that, if he had been better informed and had taken action earlier, anorexia would not have had such a devastating effect on my life, with a consequent impact on his work.
That is why my dad and I are supporting the important 'Spot the Signs' initiative of Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity. As people mark this year's World Mental Health Day, with its theme of 'mental health in the workplace', we hope that more employers will recognise the value of preventative education of their staff. A small investment in training people to spot the signs will not only benefit the employee, but also their family, the company and the country.
For more information about our involvement in Beat's Spot the Signs initiative see beateatingdisorders.org.uk/spot-the-signs-appeal