People often say that they have no idea what to say or how they can help me when I’m in the grips of mental illness. They want to be able to help, but have no idea how to go about it. There is no doubt that it is a difficult and incredibly personal topic, especially to be discussing at work. However with poor mental health being one of the main reasons for people taking time off work it is not something that can be ignored, particularly if we are aiming for workplaces in which staff are happy and in which everyone can thrive.
A lot of the conversation currently seems to focus on what people with mental illness can do in order to get help or to improve their condition. I believe that some of the pressure that currently rests on the mentally ill to adequately explain themselves should be lifted. In my opinion, the best way that you can help co-workers struggling with mental illness is to educate yourself about what they’re dealing with in order to truly empathise and to thereby create a working environment free of shame and stigma.
We are seeing workplaces implement more mental health related policies, which is clearly a very good thing! There has been more of a focus put on the ways in which we work, implementing more flexible hours and training mental health first aiders to name a few. These steps forward are obviously incredibly important, but here I am instead choosing to focus on what we can all do on a personal level in order to make a difference. Change does not just come from workplace policy, but in the way we interact with each other on a daily basis.
Below I have laid out what are, in my opinion, the most important and helpful things you can do in order to support people who are experiencing ill mental health.
- Try to understand the stigma
It may feel mental health is talked about everywhere you look, but the stigma is far from gone. It can take a lot of courage for someone to speak up, but often we are met with a lack of comprehension and a complete lack of anything resembling adequate help. The way mental health is spoken about in the media can also often feel very sugar-coated or like it has been made more palatable for a general audience.
Empathy only seems to stretch to the most easily understood mental illnesses, or when symptoms present in a way which is deemed to be socially acceptable. In fact the reality of mental illness for a lot of people is ugly, confusing and downright terrifying. The judgement that comes with not always being able to act “normally” can be incredibly difficult. In particular when it comes to the workplace, we do not want to appear weak or unprofessional. There can often be a lot of pressure we put on ourselves to hide how we feel and to police how we act.
As much as it might be tempting to feel that mental health is now talked about maybe even “too much”, it is important to remember that the majority of us grew up in a society where there is a strong social stigma attached to mental health problems. It is only relatively recently that attitudes have started to shift. This attitude has also been reflected in the way mental health services are underfunded compared to other parts of the health service, which in turn means that good treatment is still incredibly hard to come by.
There is a reason why it is so important that we keep the conversation going – we still have a long way to go.
- Try to understand what they are going through
If you want to be able to help someone you know with mental illness you need to have at least some understanding regarding where they are coming from and the types of challenges they may be facing. From my perspective, it is useful to speak to someone who isn’t confused by what I am saying or who doesn’t need to ask me for clarification around things that can be looked up online. It can be incredibly difficult to adequately explain what I am experiencing without having to give someone background information about mental illness in general.
Everyone is different when it comes to their personal experience of mental illness, but a good place to start is to look at resources which explain some of the common physical and mental symptoms of various mental illnesses. I have included a couple of resources at the end of this article which include a large amount of information, but there are many more free sources of information which can be easily found via a quick internet search.
I understand that these resources may be uncomfortable to read, but in order to empathise with someone you need to understand the reality of what they are facing, and that unfortunately involves getting a bit uncomfortable.
Regarding the resources below, remember that the lists of symptoms given for a particular diagnosis may not apply to everyone who has been given that diagnosis. Additionally diagnoses can change over time. For example, I have received at least 4 separate diagnoses by different doctors over the past few years. A mental health diagnosis is not necessarily concrete and relies heavily on the doctor’s perception of someone’s symptoms, but it can help us to access the treatments that we need.
Unfortunately mental health is not a simple, clear-cut issue. We do not have a general consensus on the causes of poor mental health, or on the best way to treat it. The causes are thought to be environmental, genetic or a mixture of both. Medication may help some people yet make others feel worse. There are large numbers of different types of talking therapies, with no way of knowing which may benefit you most and that is before taking into account availability in your area, waiting lists and the high cost of private treatment.
For many people these conditions are something that has to be managed over a lifetime and can significantly affect our daily lives. We may be able to cope for a while, but then can enter a downward spiral again and not necessarily be aware of the cause. In my experience, I have to carefully manage all aspects of my life in order to try to remain stable. This is exhausting and frustrating, but it is something that many of us have to accept, at least for some periods of our lives. So before offering well intentioned advice, please be aware of how many different avenues of treatment someone may have already tried and how much effort they may already be putting into daily life in order to get by.
In order to be able to truly listen, I believe it is important to first consider the two points above, to enable you to enter the conversation from a place of understanding and empathy. However, in my opinion, listening to your co-workers is by far the most important thing you can do in order to help foster a supportive working environment.
I find that people feel like they should be able to offer advice or some concrete way of solving the problem, but if you are not the person’s therapist or doctor then you are not in a position to be giving advice regarding how someone should manage their condition. However we can all offer emotional support and let each other know that we are not alone.
I believe that the most important thing is to simply acknowledge how someone is feeling. No one is expecting you to have the answers or to be able to “fix” everything, but just acknowledging that someone is going through a difficult time can make them feel far more supported. It might not sound like much, but truly listening, taking on board what someone is saying and saying “I’m sorry that things are so difficult right now” can make a world of difference.
How to start the conversation?
When we are struggling with our mental health we may not feel able to start the conversation ourselves, whether that is due to concerns about how people may react or perhaps the feeling that we don’t deserve support. It is therefore important that we feel able to start the conversation with someone that we may be concerned about rather than waiting for them to speak to us. So, how should you go about starting the conversation?
When we’re in the middle of a difficult period with our mental health it can feel impossible to explain what is happening, particularly if we experience symptoms like confusion or “brain fog”. Having people ask well-meaning questions such as “what’s happened?” can therefore actually be incredibly overwhelming because it is so open-ended and we might not know where to begin, or even know the answer.
I find it easier to answer someone if they ask me more direct questions like “are you okay?” or “do you want to talk?” It can also be helpful to let the person know that you will give them the space and time to talk without judgement. Explaining to someone, particularly at work, how much we are struggling to cope can make us feel embarrassed and ashamed so we need to feel that we are in a judgement free environment.
In order to have this type of conversation it is also important to feel like you are in a safe environment where you cannot be overheard, so please bear that in mind before approaching someone.
What not to say?
Please try not to dismiss someone’s experiences or feelings. In particular platitudes like “it will be ok” or “you’ll be fine” can actually feel very hurtful and only make someone feel like you haven’t listened at all. I am very aware that these types of statements are well intentioned and often the first thing that comes out of our mouths without thinking, but they can actually feel very dismissive to be on the receiving end of.
I have been told that “it will be ok” by well-meaning people for many years and yet, a lot of the time, it is still not ok. I know our instinct is to try to make the situation feel less uncomfortable and to lighten the mood, but it is much more supportive to acknowledge that things are difficult for someone rather than essentially ignoring everything they have said.
Additionally try not to project your own experiences onto someone else. For example, experiencing an anxiety disorder is not the same as feeling anxious and experiencing depression is not the same as feeling sad so please try not to equate these experiences.
(It is important to note that I have been talking about if someone is in a state where they can cope with talking about what they are experiencing, however if someone is in crisis they may not be up to explaining what they are going through. In that case the most important thing is to make sure that they are safe which may mean speaking to a manager, HR or a first aider.)
- Practical help
If you want to offer ongoing support to a co-worker, a good idea may be to schedule in times to check in with them. It can be very difficult to reach out when you are feeling unwell and from my experience I very much appreciate people making the effort to check in with me. It can be something as simple as grabbing a quick coffee, but it can make a huge difference to someone’s day.
Another tip may be to offer to help distract someone if they are struggling. This may not be helpful for everyone, but talking about something different can be helpful to bring someone out of a difficult mental state. Examples could be taking someone outside to get a change of scenery, talking about something you know they are interested in or even a funny story you read in the news.
You may also be able to help someone talk to HR or a manager if they have not managed to do so already. This can be overwhelming and often it can be difficult to make coherent points if we are in the grips of a mental health crisis. Having someone else to advocate for us can make a huge difference in how supported we feel and also makes it more likely that the issue will be taken seriously. Of course it goes without saying that you should not speak on someone else’s behalf unless they have agreed to it.
Essentially I believe it is important that we communicate with each other with compassion and empathy. When it comes to supporting colleagues with mental health problems it really can be as simple as letting them know that you care and acknowledging the problems that they face.
Remember that no-one is expecting you to have any answers. Just try to approach the conversation with empathy and to not diminish anyone’s experiences. The support could make a huge difference to someone in need.
Sarah Waterman 14 May 2019
Time to Change: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/about-mental-health
IP Inclusive: https://ipinclusive.org.uk/