Mental Health and Work

This week is Mental Health Awareness week. A week to help spread awareness about mental illnesses of any kind. Any week like this is important to spread knowledge of what mental illness means for the person affectewe q we d, to sweep away common prejudices and most importantly for people to learn more about often woefully misunderstood diseases. I have depressioeat I’m k ed we were w we e n and anxiety, I was diagnosed 2 years ago. Growing awareness about these illnesses in this time has helped people close to me help and support me. It’s kept me alive and functioning as a person. There is always more that can be learnt though and more that can be done to spread awareness and knowledge of all mental illnesses. My experience is of depression and anxiety just two of these diseases.

Work has always been important to me. How could it not be? I’ve had jobs working as scuba instructor where I’ve worked 100+ hour weeks. There was one job where I worked 3 straight months, 7 days a week, starting at 7am and finishing at 11pm. If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing there it would’ve been impossible. These days I work slightly more reasonable hours but I still view work the same way. If I’m not doing something I enjoy for something which inspires me I feel a bit lost.

Since I started suffering from mental illness work has taken on other meanings for me. It provides a routine, a distraction and gives me something my brain can focus on other than itself. In the last couple of years I’ve had three jobs and in each I’ve been open with them about my disease. In my latest job depression hasn’t been a major issue, I’m lucky at the moment that at the moment I feel in some kind of control. This doesn’t mean there aren’t days where the depressive part of my mind wins a minor battle but in the never-ending war I’m currently winning. The same unfortunately can’t be said of my two previous jobs. How both jobs handled the situation was very different.

Two years ago I had what you’d probably call a breakdown, I felt unable to cope with anything, felt I was just and only struggling through life. I told work what was happening and they told me they’d be supportive. I didn’t deal particularly well with the illness at first (who does?), I didn’t know how to cope with it and because of my fear of medication I’d refused to take anything to help me. I tried to exercise my way out of depression, this eventually had some benefits and eventually I got it under control but before I did I’d missed a week of work and not spoken to work throughout that. My manager was obviously concerned. This is where it all went wrong for me, work’s initial response was to dictate to me what they thought I should be doing. I was told I should go part time, take more time off, I should use these days to think and reflect. Sitting alone, feeling bad about not working, would’ve been disastrous. They may as well have locked me in a cupboard with an angry cobra and said

“I’ve heard that pets help. Let’s just see how you guys get along”.

On top of this I was earning very little, just about struggling by each month to pay rent and bills, money (or lack of) was probably my main cause of anxiety. At one stage I was told “it’s only money”. Being told that by someone earning twice as much as me was, to put it mildly, not exactly helpful. I hope they believed what they were doing was best for me but their approach made me worse. Eventually I did get better, my work improved but it never felt there right again. About this time last year I was made redundant, at the time this seemed like a disaster but looking back on it I’m glad it got me out of there and into a much better job.

In November last year I suffered a major depressive episode. My friends and family immediately knew about this but I had serious concerns about telling work. I loved my work and the people I worked with where brilliant but I’d felt that about my last job and my illness has destroyed my enjoyment of there. I shouldn’t have worried, after a while I told my manager and she said she’d support me however I needed it. This time however the support I received was very helpful, she listened to me, understood how important keeping working was to me and supported that. We had regular meetings, she asked what would be helpful and helped me when it became obvious I was struggling to cope. It was a world away from my previous job. I took this job on a gut feeling, and it only lasted 8 months as it was working on a specific project. Unfortunately no further funding materialised and I started working at my new job almost immediately as it ended.

The difference between jobs was remarkable. The main difference, for me, was feeling treated like an actual person. In the first instance I felt like I was treated as if I was the disease. Any human aspect of me was ignored and replaced with my manager’s view of what he thought depression was. I wasn’t listened to, my opinion counted for nothing, it was like I couldn’t be trusted to know what was best for me. Being treated as an actual person, albeit one who needed considerable help, helped me immensely. It helped me feel better at work, it helped my work improve and, most importantly, it helped me recover.

What struck me the most in the 2nd job was the sheer pot luck of having somebody who knew the appropriate way to act. Having someone like this was incredibly important to my recovery but also incredibly lucky. She could’ve reacted as my previous manager had, another job for me could’ve been ruined very easily. The difference was that one manager was aware what would best help someone in my situation the other was not. They were aware of the problems I was experiencing, aware of what might help. Most importantly they were aware that mental illness is a very personal disease, aware that although people experience similar symptoms how best to respond to these symptoms may differ wildly from person to person. How I was treated by the 1st job may have helped someone else with the same symptoms but their inflexibility when it didn’t help me in the way they probably imagined it would made my illness worse.

Mental Illness in any form doesn’t have an easy, one size fits all, solution. It isn’t like a broken leg, you don’t put on a cast and send someone on their way with crutches it requires more attention, more knowledge and more effort. Awareness of what people with mental illnesses experience is so very important and it’s up to everyone to help and spread knowledge. More awareness would’ve helped me, I’m sure it can help many many more.

Tomas GW Shore