2017 has been an amazing year for me in so many ways - in February, I was invited to 10 Downing Street to be part of an initial roundtable discussion, which was the start of the recently published report - Thriving in Work Report. In May, I left my job in Transport for London (TfL) after 15 years' service in order to start a second career. Then last month, I was invited to a Reception on World Mental Health Day at Buckingham Palace; recognising the work I've done as a mental health campaigner to date, where I met the royals, celebrities and other amazing people all doing great work around mental health. But my life was looking so different six years ago - the saying goes that all new beginnings are disguised as painful endings, and that has certainly been true for me.
One autumn morning, I found myself not able to get up and out of bed and go on my normal commute into London. The feeling I can only describe as like hitting a brick wall and not having the energy to get up and brush myself off. But why was I feeling this way and what could I do about it?
At the time I had let a change of role at work along with my wife, Sharon being quite unwell after an operation, cause me to worry excessively. I thought a couple of days off work would help me but it didn't - I got worse as the worry and rumination increased. I rarely took time off work and all this happening at an important time with starting a new role and also having to support my wife and six year old son, Jake; I felt I was letting other people down by not being at work.
I went to my GP who has always been good for me and he prescribed anti-depressants which I took straight away. They helped me regain my energy, but not much else - I felt I was surviving but not really enjoying living. I recollect later on that my psychiatrist explaining these medicines are like clothes - they suit some people but not others. The ones I initially took must have been the wrong size and colour!
Up until this time I had an exemplary attendance and performance record at TfL, I was held in high regard by my workmates. But now my weeks off work turned into months - I was not improving, yet throughout this time I was very lucky to have my supportive wife, a caring line manager, Ian, senior manager, Steve, as well as a patient and understanding HR (Personnel) Officer, Muriel. This was not an easy time for me and one clear memory I have is meeting Ian in a café at Victoria, where I told him I just wanted to quit work. However, he and the organisation kept faith in me and gave me the support I desperately needed at the time. I know sadly not all employers are like this, and I will be forever grateful for TfL's faith and support.
After six months of surviving, I eventually got referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with a condition called Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and this had also caused my depression; this was the first I had heard of GAD! My psychiatrist changed my medication immediately and also referring me for psychotherapy sessions with a psychologist. From the moment I heard the words GAD, it was a turning point for me - I now knew what was wrong with me, and I could research the condition and the medicines and therapy I had been prescribed - the internet is a wonderful thing! I was especially reassured by the fact that you can control and 'beat' the condition with the right support. The psychiatrist also explained that in my case it was likely that my condition was genetic - it had been passed onto me. So, it was not necessarily just the life events, which I had felt was some form of "weakness" on my part - which I now know is common in men.
I worked hard to get better and a combination of the medicine along with 12 sessions with my psychiatrist and 20 with a psychologist, I returned to work a stronger and wiser person - much more self-aware and also armed with coping strategies for my anxiety should I ever need them. In the following six years at TfL, I was off work sick for only a couple of days and that was due to a damaged elbow after a fall - never for my mental health condition.
I am a firm believer that out of all bad can come good, and when I returned to work I decided to start up a support group to help people in TfL who may experience mental health conditions. The group is supported and encouraged by TfL and has grown from two to 250 and continues to grow. The group meets monthly, has its own information site and runs events to raise awareness and provide support. It has created a lot of goodwill and kept many still in work because people feel supported and not alone. I am extremely proud of what has been achieved and is an example of what can be done with the support of an employer. TfL also signed the Time to Change pledge in October 2016 with the support of all its top managers.
I've needed a change and realised that working with others experiencing mental health conditions and using my own story and experience to educate workplaces is where my passion now lies. I've left TfL on very good terms to do some voluntary work for Time to Change which I love doing.
Hindsight is a great thing but I'd like to leave you with some things I've learnt or would have done differently:
•If you are feeling down, anxious or behaving different to your normal self, talk to someone else who will listen to you without judgement - a problem shared is often halved and I wish I had done this much sooner;
•A man should never consider it "weak" to talk to his family, friends, or work colleagues about what he is feeling or experiencing at any time; in fact, it is the bravest thing you can do, and you could be surprised who will listen and who is feeling or has felt just the same.
•Please seek professional help if you don't feel any better after talking to others - your GP or charities like Mind can point you in the right direction for treatment or support.
•All people managers and HR/Personnel staff in organisations need training around mental health in order to help colleagues - managers are human too and this training will help them to manage their own mental health too;
•Mental health peer support groups in organisations are really effective in raising awareness, supporting and thereby keeping people in work - you also meet some amazing people and their stories too. Organisations should consider setting them up if they don't have them.
•There is good mental health too - spend time keeping your mental health in good shape as much as your physical health; there are some simple and effective ways to maintain good mental health, for example: Five Ways to Wellbeing - I continue to keep my mind "in trim".
If one or more of these tips helps just one person then this blog would have been worthwhile.
Thank you for reading - please take care of yourself and stay strong,