Last week I was invited to an event dedicated to human resources and mental health. The audience was composed of professionals with knowledge in the HR and employments law fields; I was invited as an “expert by experience” in the field of mental health. The event was designed to bridge the gap between our areas of expertise and get HR professionals thinking about the needs of employees with mental health conditions. I talked to the audience for about ten minutes, sharing with them my experiences of trying to build a career whilst dealing with a serious, recurring mental health condition.
Shortly after my talk, there was a question from the floor. The questioner said that she had heard a lot about the importance of openness, about how vital it was for HR professionals and line managers to be unafraid of discussing mental health at work. But how, she wanted to know, could people start what are often difficult conversations, in a world that continues to stigmatise mental health problems? My honest opinion is that it matters less what specific words are chosen, than that there is a genuine intent to speak open heartedly and sensibly about mental health. The fact that a manager expresses concern about his or her employees’ mental health sends out a signal that the workplace is somewhere mental health can be discussed, where people are more important than stigma.
I see that stigma, I told the questioner, as being like a giant boulder. That boulder's been sitting there for an extremely long time now. It’s settled; its weight has made a hollow in the ground and it’s very comfortable there. It's going to take a lot to make that boulder shift, but I believe that every time we are open and honest about mental health, we put a tiny bit more pressure on that giant ball of rock. Challenging stigma doesn’t have to mean getting up in a front of an audience and airing your diagnosis. It doesn’t mean you have to have to give interviews to the press or lobby politicians. Those things are important. They get the message across. But just as important are the conversations that happen all over the world, every day, any time someone chooses to discuss an aspect of their mental health in a matter of fact manner.
I have all kinds of conversations where I'm aware that I’m pushing the boulder, even if it’s just a tiny bit.
Friend at choir practice, watching me take pills: Oh no, do you have a headache?
Me: No, I'm just taking my antipsychotics. If I don’t take them now, I may not be able to sleep later.
Colleague: I heard you'd been off sick? I hope it wasn't that nasty flu that's been going around?
Me: Actually, I got really stressed and I decided I needed to take a couple of weeks so it didn't develop into a depressive episode.
Neighbour at bus stop: Off out anywhere nice?
Me: Depends what you mean by nice, haha! I’ve got an appointment with my psychiatrist.
Friend at dinner: Wow, you really drink a lot of water!
Me: Yep, it’s the lithium. It makes me really thirsty.
Dentist’s receptionist: When would you like to come in? How’s 9am?
Me: I’d really appreciate if it could be a little bit later, my bipolar meds make it very hard for me to get up early.
I’m not making an effort to push the “mental health message” in these interactions. I’m simply treating my bipolar and my bipolar medication in the same way I would a physical condition and its treatments. I’m not trying to be “in your face” about it. I’m simply refusing to act as if I’m ashamed. I wouldn’t be ashamed to say I was talking medication for my heart or my liver. I wouldn’t be ashamed to say I’d taken time off with a lung infection. I would feel no embarrassment, telling people I took insulin or that my blood pressure medication made me tired or dizzy.
It doesn’t matter to me that there’s no way I can get the boulder rolling alone. I don’t expect to. But what I do hope is that as more and more people have conversations about mental health, as people begin to talk about it in schools and on the television, and in human resources departments and at dinner parties, the boulder will begin to shift. It will probably begin moving by tiny amounts – almost imperceptibly, maybe – but I believe that eventually we can get that stigma boulder to roll.
How can you push the boulder today?