The theme of World Mental Health Day this 10 October is dignity.
So what does that mean to those who suffer from mental illness? What does dignity mean full stop?
To me it is the ability to live freely, and be treated with respect by your friends, your family, your community and your workmates. Unfortunately the path to dignity is often blocked by a persistent and difficult to ignore beast called stigma. Stigma likes to dress up as the pink elephant in the room, making everyone feel uncomfortable, and keeping quiet what should be out in the open. It prevents people from admitting that they have a problem and need help. Instead it makes people run away, or worse, ignore it until it becomes so big that multiplies into a herd. Before you know it, you've been trampled.
This brightly coloured creature is no more present than in workplaces where a history of mental illness, is often met with hesitation (at best), and approached with caution. Supposedly this would mean the person in question would not be able to perform stressful tasks, handle deadline pressure, and will probably end up taking lots of time off work when their illness inevitably kicks in.
Unfortunately although these assumptions are ill informed, they are still worryingly common in professional environments. Left unchallenged, and unaddressed, they continue to negatively impact on perfectly capable individuals maintaining the careers they have worked hard to achieve.
This can sometimes leave you with a very difficult choice, one that I myself have had to make in the past. You can decide to be open about your illness, and risk losing trust and respect from your colleagues and employers, or you can stay quiet and try to cope, all the while allowing the pressure to build. As we know, the second option often leads to a complete burnout, including panic attacks and nervous breakdown. I chose the first option. Luckily my company, and my boss, were understanding, allowing me to fit therapy sessions into my working week, but unfortunately this just isn't the case for many other people.
I spoke to a friend recently who told me that she had become so stressed at her job that she was rushed to hospital thinking she was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack resulting from the building pressure and demands of her job. It took being rushed to hospital for her to decide that enough was enough. She took two months off and is now in a job that she much prefers. Her story has a positive outcome, but the point is that neither ourselves, or our employers, should allow our mental health to reach the point of breakdown before we realise its time to make a change.
We should be much more aware of what is an unacceptable level of stress in our professional lives. We should feel much more able to admit when we are struggling. We shouldn't be seeing depression and anxiety, often exacerbated by our highly pressured lives, as a weakness that we need to hide. The more we all stay quiet and pretend that nothing is too much, the more we keep raising the bar and expectations employers put on us, not forgetting the expectations we put on ourselves.
The ability to be open about who you are is an essential foundation of living a dignified life. We are constantly fighting discrimination to live in a country where you can be open about your sexuality, religion, culture, and not fear that you will be treated any differently. Why should we feel ashamed that we have had depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, body dysmorphic disorder? Would we try and hide it from our boss that we broke our leg last year? Or that we had measles as a teenager?
Around 30% of us will struggle with their mental health whilst at work. That's almost a third of your workplace. Mental health issues are the leading cause of long term sickness. More than just making employers provide accessible support, all employees should receive mental health in the workplace training, allowing them to look out for each other and spot warning signs if colleagues are becoming over stressed or feeling over pressured.
Having mental illness is not a life sentence. Just because you have suffered with a condition in the past it does not mean that you do continually, nor does it mean that you are any less capable of doing a job than anyone else. It may just mean that for a period you may require extra support, flexible working hours, or even, yes, sometimes some time off. Allowing someone to do this without feeling any shame, may be the difference between their recovery, or complete withdrawal from their career path.
Admitting that you are suffering and being offered options gives you the ability to make choices about how you want to proceed. Staying quiet and trying to pretend everything is fine makes you feel trapped, removing your freedom.
So let's stop blaming ourselves for being too weak to meet expectations, because the chances are other people are struggling too(they are just not talking about it!). Let's give ourselves the chance to make choices about our professional life in the same way we make choices about our personal life, freely, and with dignity. Let's get that pink elephant back outside where it belongs.