Follow Jessica

Friday, 7 August 2015

We Can Work It Out...Or can we? Talking About my Mental Health at Work

Stephen Fry, Patron of Time to Change and mental health advocate

In June, when Stephen Fry appeared on Desert Island discs (which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a fantastic way to glimpse the biographies of the world’s good and great through their reflections on life and 8 discs they would choose to accompany them if they happened to be cast away on a desert island). He talked about the impact of his mental health on his life. He also talked about his decision to be open about his condition, recognising (to paraphrase) that he is never free of thinking of his mental health or others’ through his decision to be open about it. 

I sympathise with this perspective, because I would very much like to be free of my own mental illness and to go through life with a normal amount of woe, (whatever a normal amount is) balanced against a reasonable ability to cope with whatever life may drag, toss, push, cajole or offer into my path.
This is the kind of conversation I can so easily have with myself, again and again.

At the moment, however, I am still handling poor mental health every day, and I am more than happy to speak about it in the hope that it will help me to accept myself as I am, rather than embracing all the defective qualities I find it so easy to discover in myself. More than this, I hope that my decision to be open will help other people at work be more open about their illnesses, and I especially hope that it will help managers, leaders and HR professionals (the people whose job it is to support us at work) to see that depression and anxiety do not exclude a person from being able to make a valuable contribution to the working world.

I “came out” at work last year after realising that to go on hiding a condition that left me at times debilitated and unable to get out of bed from my employers only fostered my own strong sense that I was actually a failure, hopeless, useless and no good for anything or anyone. I set myself extremely high standards, nurtured since my earliest memories, for everything that I do, and when I considered the risk that, in coming out with my depression, I might find visible proof that others saw me as “less than”, “weak”, “to be avoided”, I only wanted to crawl further beneath the duvet, to barricade the windows with blackout blinds seven fold and never to come out again, rather than to take that risk.

It's not actually wallowing. It's drowning.

I had had bad experiences at work previously when struggling with my depression, which you can read about earlier in my blog and also in the piece I contributed to Buzzfeed this week about my precarious route along the tangled wiry cables of a life spiked with barbs of depression towards being honest about it to myself and others. It was when I experienced bullying from people outside of my company which left me so destroyed that I did not want to live, that I finally got help in hospital. And it was during recovery and return to work that I realised that I would only protect those bullies and harm myself if I didn’t try to put across my point of view, and show that I was still Jessica, depression, anxiety, and all.

Sometimes I feel this way; mostly I have to work not to hide it, 
as well as deciding whether I have the energy to smile

I have heard many negative stories from people who have been terribly treated by someone from their employer when they have tried to express their needs for support because of their mental illness. It enrages me when I imagine the huge step a person has to take to ask for help because of a (still very much stigmatised) mental illness. I am ashamed for the human race that people wilfully (at times) harm people with mental illness when they refuse support or (at best) to ignore requests for help. 

Despite the funny message intended, being a boss 
who doesn't support colleagues and staff's health needs  is not acceptable.
An atmosphere at work where there is too little support is toxic and unproductive

What makes it worse is that when I am struggling with depression the last thing I want to do, instinctively, is to draw attention to it publicly, because my self-loathing and acute awareness of everything weak and bad in myself is so heightened that I am seething with the physical sensations that this brings, and feel sure that others must be able to see that I am totally worthless. To be refused support only perpetuates this notion. To be told to “pull yourself together” makes me fall farther apart.
It's easy to believe this when you are struggling with depression.
It's so easy that I can believe everyone else will have the same low opinion of me
that I can have of myself

So what would I suggest to those people? Not everyone will have a positive experience when speaking about their mental health at work…but if you are ill you need to take whatever steps are needed to try to get well, whether that is medication, therapy, time off work, adjusted working hours, adjustments to the way that you work. You should be able to get these. 
I believe that everyone has the right to support at work, with illness
and that everyone has the right to work without fear of discrimination

I understand that you might not want to speak up or ask for help, naming your need as a mental illness, because you feel the weight of your own self-hatred holding you back, and you are afraid that you’ll be met with stigma, be shamed, be devalued, perhaps even lose your job.

I can only say, you are not wrong to ask for help. You deserve help. You are worth it, even if you have never felt more worthless. You can seek help from Remploy (in the UK) and other mental health work information sites which provide information for you on your rights and give helpful advice on how to speak to your employers about your needs. (And, on the Remploy site, there is also a downloadable advice leaflet for employers, so if you’re reading this and wondering how better to support your staff, please take a look at this, and use the Mind website and helpline for further information.)

Remploy and other sites can help to reassure us that we do have rights,
and can (and should) expect support for our needs
(Mind's legal line can also advise on what to do, you can reach them on 0300 466 6463) 

In my experience, I continue to have to “come out” throughout my working life, because my job means that I’m frequently working with different teams of people who don’t know me or the fact that I have health reasons for needing adjustments to the way that I work. I try to do this in a fairly ‘light’ way, because I have work to do, firstly, and if we have a thirty minute conversation about my depression and medication, that’s not something I’m going to be able to put on my status update to my manager as a positive outcome. (Although, I can put it in this blog and feel a little bit glad that I continued to be honest when it was hard!) I want to be seen as the sum of my parts, and depression is still just one part of who I am, the pink and purple hair-streaked business woman who likes to write, sing, paint, eat good food and drink good wine, buy far too many pairs of shoes, run in the park and watch endless films and TV shows on Netflix, and read good literature and totally crap novels.

The crucial point: I am not denying that my mental illness is part of who I am.

I am who I am...depression, pink hair and all

Towards the end of that episode of Desert Island Discs, presenter Kirsty Young asked Stephen Fry, “You’ve more than hinted earlier that much of the torment you’ve gone through is why you are the person you are. If you had the choice to live without your bipolar condition, what choice would you make?”
“Interesting" he answered. "I wouldn’t want anyone to underestimate the seriousness of a condition like that it can shorten lives, sometimes traumatically and terribly. It can have a terrible effect on families and people around you, but it’s so hard to separate it from oneself. W. H. Auden perhaps put it best. He said, “Don’t get rid of my devils because my angels will go too.””

I am still trying to be well, and on and on it goes. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow perhaps my depression will go. I am so lucky that I have had the chance to learn that, whatever I may think of myself in my darkest times, my illness is real and worthy of treatment, care and respect. And because not everyone has that experience (not even me, all the time, from everyone) I am going to carry on talking about it. Here, and on Twitter @volette and on Facebook, and face to face. I hope you might be able to join me one day.


  1. Hi Jessica, is there any way that I can privately message you regarding this please?

    1. Hi there,

      I have added a contact form to my blog (see below) which allows you to reach me. Please feel free to use this to get in touch. I hope that you found the article useful and look forward to hearing from you. Take care of yourself, all the best. Jessica

  2. Thanks so much Jessica. I have just sent you a message using the contact form below. I also sent you a message via Facebook yesterday. If you don't get my message please let me know on here and I will try again.