I am sure I am not alone in feeling that every week is mental health awareness week. I observe the mental health awareness days and weeks in some way. I sometimes get criticism for sharing my experience and I have lost out on jobs for being open about my complicated mental health – every day is mental health awareness day for me.
In May 1989 I was very lucky that my first, very loud and public breakdown was not treated as a disciplinary or dismissal, more common back then but can sometimes still be an issue in the modern workplace. I was just a few months into a senior role in a new sector for me. I was in a supervision meeting with one of my team when I started screaming at my colleague and hyperventilating. I have no memory of why that was my response to whatever happened in that meeting, but I do remember that my colleague calmed me, stopped colleagues from entering my office and cleared the way so that I could leave the building with as few interactions as possible. They had every reason to raise a grievance but they showed kindness and understanding.
My second piece of luck was that my manager had a personal understanding of mental ill-health and when I felt able to return to work they allowed me to return part-time, working unusual flexible hours so that I could avoid panic attacks meeting people and build up the resilience to return fully to my role. Within months I was able to expand my role, taking on new responsibilities, more team members and a bigger budget. I learned that my depression did not have to end my ambitions or prevent my progress.
I have tried to pay it forward in every workplace. My antennae scan for frequent short absences, for when people may need support to take time off or work flexibly, for when tensions with other colleagues are not about the work but about the feelings. When I am in the leadership role I try and model healthy working practices of not staying late or sending late night messages and expecting a response. I try and judge when someone needs me to step in and offer them the space to talk and when I need to let them feel safe enough to share that they are unwell. I fail on the point of taking a break for lunch and going outside but encourage others to get out and away from their workspace.
The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week this year is ‘Nature’. The pandemic lockdowns has brought the restorative effects of nature to the fore for many of us. Once again, I have been lucky. I live between two urban wetlands. ‘Blue’ water therapy has helped me calm my mind and find the energy to keep going. I have become very attached to the survival and development of the ducklings, cootlings and other baby birds I see on my regular local walk. I try and find time to walk with an old friend who is a ‘Tree Musketeer’ as a walk with them means we will stop and examine the health of the trees and plants on our walks. We look to see where the birds are nesting and whether the bees are busy doing the bee thing collecting nectar and pollinating. We are topping up that vital Vitamin D and letting the light hit our eyes for the dopamine that helps keep them healthy and for the benefits of reducing depression and helping fight potential dementia.
Not everyone is so lucky to have green and blue spaces on their doorstep but nature is available to us in so many small ways too. The few pot plants that survive my (lack of) care sit on my bathroom windowsill. I start my work day by looking at the green of those plants as I brush my teeth. When I finish I smile. I might be faking it until I can make it but I can see my few resilient plants getting on with their life, responding to the light and asking for water when they need it.
To be the best whole you at work, be as kind to yourself as you are to others by asking for help when you need it, allowing yourself to take a break outside or tending to a plant. You could volunteer with the Good Gym and exercise, get a nature fix and help someone all in one activity. Mental Health Awareness Week is as much about raising your own awareness of your mental health as it is about learning about mental health. May is also Action for Happiness’s Meaningful May. You could start by downloading the actions for May and enjoy the effects of being kind to yourself.