Mental Health Week 3: Supporting Others

Today’s theme for Mental Health Awareness week is Supporting Others. As someone who’s been at work on the spectrum of depressed to severely depressed, and anxious to having full-blown panic attacks in the middle of the office, I can’t really put into words how valuable and necessary the support I’ve received from the few that have known has been.

Mental health issues of one type or another can affect 1 in 4 of us at any moment. In fact, it will be very rare for someone not to experience a mental health issue, either themselves or a loved one or close family member. Depression and stress tend to be talked about most and these have become the acceptable public face of mental illness, caused by the pressures of western living – divorce & relationship problems, financial pressures, job woes – all of these are ailments of modern life which everyone can relate to, and so are often cited when trying to break down the stigma of mental health.

And there is a stigma to mental health. Many mental illnesses are not so ‘acceptable’ to be talked about publicly. The myth of the unhinged schizophrenic off their meds and going wild killing people is still common. But people with mental illnesses are four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than commit it. Did you know that schizophrenia affects 1 in 100 people in their lifetime, and it’s not ‘incurable’ – some people will recover? Again, Bipolar Disorder will affect 1 in 100 people, sometimes called manic depression it means sufferers have very high highs, and very low lows. But actually, the enlightenment and energy during the highs can result in amazing productivity and the lows can generate a great deal of thinking time – just imagine if we could encourage our people with bipolar to be open about where they are in their peaks or troughs and help them to get the most of those periods. Some people’s bipolar results in frequent highs and lows; for others they will be in one state for longer periods.

Some mental illnesses are developed during childhood, perhaps from birth. Others are developed due to external events. Some are curable. Some are not.

Mental health issues can affect LGBTQ people more than the norm due to external factors, such as bullying or feeling that they cannot be open about who they are, feeling isolated. Whilst I identify as queer, my own mental health issues stem from a separate traumatic event. But, as chair of the LGBTQ network, I want to shine a light on the stat’s that could be affecting those who I represent:

  • One in seven (13 per cent) gay and bisexual men are currently experiencing moderate to severe levels of mixed depression and anxiety compared to seven per cent of men in general
  • A further nine per cent of gay and bisexual men are experiencing moderate to severe levels of depression with mild or no anxiety compared to two per cent of men in general
  • Thus overall, 22 per cent of gay and bisexual men are experiencing moderate to severe levels of depression
  • Bisexual men are more likely to experience moderate to severe levels of depression (26 per cent)
  • In the last year, four in five (79 per cent) lesbian and bisexual women say they have had a spell of sadness, felt miserable or felt depressed. This increases to 84 per cent of bisexual women and 86 per cent of black and minority ethnic women
  • In the last year, three quarters (74 per cent) of lesbian and bisexual women say they felt anxious or nervous. This increases to 78 per cent of bisexual women and 81 per cent of black and minority ethnic lesbian and bisexual women
  • More than half (55 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people experience homophobic bullying in Britain’s schools; two in five (41 per cent) lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils who experience homophobic bullying attempt or think about taking their own life directly because of the bullying
  • More than half (56 per cent) of gay young people deliberately harm themselves, which can include cutting or burning themselves. Lesbians and bisexual girls are twice as likely as gay and bisexual boys to self-harm (72 per cent compared to 36 per cent), with girls who are black or minority ethnic at greatest risk at 83 per cent

(More details can be found in Stonewall’s Mental Health briefing, available for download on their website).

So, when it comes to Mental Health, what can you do to help?

The first thing is, if someone opens up to you, acknowledge that it was probably hard to do. Be empathetic, even sympathetic. It might be hard to know what to say, but saying nothing will likely feel like a rejection and a negative judgement.

Be aware of how people might be feeling – I’ve always been surprised at how people comment about my always smiley face; how little they knew! When you know that they’re feeling down, don’t be trite and tell people to think positively (actually, there’s an awful lot of research which says that thinking positively is more harmful) and be aware that lateness and tiredness is possibly not down to too active a social life but could be the result of insomnia. Checking-in with colleagues (you know, that thing friends do) is really helpful and can make work feel like a more friendly & safer place to be. Allow flexible working as much as the person needs – regardless of my PTSD I’m an introvert (I know, you’d never guess) and being around people all day really takes it out of me (the detrimental side of open plan offices); working from home 2-3 days a week has been a lifesaver for me and helped me to carry on with my role at even some very tough times. Oh, and never, ever, creep up on someone and make them jump out of their skin! When I was going through a particularly panic-prone time this gave me an attack and I hardly managed to hide it from the poor person who’d thought he was being funny.

If you suspect that someone is suffering from any mental illness, be aware they might not want to open up about it. Work needs to be a safe space – a shelter from some of the other problems being faced by the person. Pushing for openness has the potential to do harm. Be aware there is still a stigma about mental health – a stigma that the person suffering may also believe. Sometimes we put on a shell of armour to get through the day – don’t break that shell without permission from the person, or they might not trust you again.

Be aware of your language – off the cuff comments that appear to be disparaging or making mental health the butt of a joke are not going to encourage someone to open up about how they are feeling.

But the best way of showing support? Be a friend. Work may be a ‘professional’ environment. But we’re all human beings. Treat each other as you would a friend, and everyone (the world) will be better for it.