Getting a panic attack at work is the mental health equivalent to that nightmare where you’re standing in front of the whole school and OOPS you’ve forgotten all your clothes.
Except, the latter won’t happen unless you’re in the opening 15 minutes of a bad teen movie, whereas the former can be a constant, all-too real threat that finds you slinking off to the bathroom to hyperventilate and cry for 40 minutes before blaming your absence on a really difficult poo. Because it’s 2015 and having chronic diarrhoea is still infinitely less embarrassing than having mental health problems.
Statistics show that mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in the UK, with roughly a quarter of the population experiencing some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.
Women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem, but men are three times as likely to commit suicide.
By all accounts, Britain has a serious inability to deal with mental health. At the root of this problem is a basic lack of awareness or understanding, perpetuated by the media and romanticised to insignificance by the film industry, fashion, and basically anybody trying to sell you a certain aesthetic – this aesthetic typically involves either a sad turtleneck-wearing male whose depression is the fuel for his ‘art’, or a femme fetale type whose depression lends her an allure that inexplicably makes her more sexually appealing.
The way we perceive gender has a lot to answer for in terms of how we perceive mental illness, but the bottom line is both are fucked but fixable given the right education.
When just the idea of getting up feels like the most difficult and pointless task in the entire world, the idea of going to work is like someone pointing at Mount Rushmore and saying, ‘Hi, can you move this please?’ It’s not just a daunting task. It’s an actual physical impossibility.
I work online as a journalist, which means I have to run the gauntlet of Twitter trolls every day (people can be really fucking mean), but trying to balance your mental health problems with your professional life can be daunting in any line of work.
A big part of understanding any mental illness is accepting the knowledge that it’s not you, but something chemical you’ve been assigned to carry around your entire life. And in the same way you have to stop and rest if someone has forced you to carry a load of rocks around, sometimes you have to stop and rest if the weight of your illness becomes impossible. This can be really difficult when your job involves other people, or you know, doing stuff.
I have a mixture of anxiety and depression. This means that sometimes I’ll enter a state of mind where I’m really hungry, but the options presented to me by the contents of my fridge will be so overwhelming that I’ll just sit down in front of it and cry instead. For hours.
It’s not just food that’ll trigger a complete emotional breakdown, but I think it’s a pretty apt metaphor for my illness as a whole: knowing what I need and not being able to achieve it.
Similarly, I know that I need to meet my deadlines. I know that I need to reply to the many, many PR emails I get daily. I know I need to speak in public. But sometimes, I have no idea how to do any of those things. In the same way I can’t even assemble a basic sandwich and put it in my face, I can’t formulate a sentence, which, when you’re a writer, presents quite a large problem.
For freelancers or those with more demanding roles, the pressure can be even greater. So how do you reconcile other people’s perceptions of your professional self (and your own) with the qualities of your mental illness?
The stigma around depression in particular is such that people will likely use flu, our aforementioned friend violent diarrhoea, or any other physical illness as a reason to call in sick to work. The most recent ONS figures show that the average worker in the UK took 4.4 days off in 2013. Sickness and stress, anxiety and depression were the cause of 15 million absence days, up from 11.8 million in 2010.
Although common mental health problems only accounted for 8% of working days lost to sickness absence, Dr John Philipott, director of The Jobs Economist, told the Guardian, that the scale of mental health issues could be even higher, though disguised by employees giving other reasons for their absence. I can confirm through previous experience that this is definitely the case.
The thing is, most people don’t think of mental illness in the same terms as they do physical illness, and as things currently stand it’s often less trouble to pretend you have food poisoning than attempt to pass off, ‘I can’t get dressed because we’re all going to die alone’ as a rational justification for anything.
Not even I understand that thought process and it’s literally me who is having it. But it’s not just me. I put out a message on Twitter asking if anybody has ever called in sick because of a mental health problem but used another reason, and my @s popped off harder than Ed Sheeran at a Brit Awards afterparty.
Many people said they didn’t want to or couldn’t explain what was going on, feared their employer wouldn’t consider it a ‘real’ enough excuse, or that their employers would doubt their ability to do their job or treat them differently if they were aware of their illness.
Hannah, now a freelance web designer but formerly in market research said, ‘It just seemed easier to say, “I’ve got a cold.” It seemed like something they’d understand and sympathise with more – and would explain a single day off, just collecting myself to be well enough to come back in.
‘People understand being signed off on “long-term sick,” but they don’t understand that, even when it looks like I’m fine, occasionally there will be a day when I’m ‘too mental’ to come into work. And it’s complicated to explain.’
A friend of mine who used to work for the NHS told me, ‘You’d think it would be less taboo to write “bipolar suicide attempt” on my sick notes. Instead, every note said “stress reaction”.
‘Because they hadn’t said it, I was convinced that if I told my boss what I’d done I’d be seen as attention seeking and dramatic, and I’d cause a scene and an awkward environment at work. The thought of that was so anxiety-inducing I just quit the job. I really liked that job.’
So what do you do? ‘Try to keep working but reduce the load,’ suggests Dr Helen Nightingale, a chartered psychologist. ‘Remember that it’s much better to try and keep going, but with a reduced load than taking the day off work, and don’t be afraid to point that out to your manager. Everyone has a time when they’re going to go under for a while, you’re not alone.’
She continues: ‘The main treatment on psychological terms is a) increasing your activity levels and b) making sure you don’t withdraw socially – even though you don’t feel like doing either.
‘Make sure you don’t stop communicating and phone friends and meet people after work, even though it’s the last thing you want to do because it’s important to stay in the loop.
Do a little exercise, even if you feel lethargic and exhausted. Even if that feels very hard, just get out of the office at lunchtime for a walk if you can. Learning to meditate or trying to practice mindfulness when you can could also be helpful.’
If you woke up this morning and the thought of dragging yourself out of bed and into work just felt like too much, know that you’re not alone. How many of your friends or colleagues are disguising a bout of depression with a month-long stomach bug? I’m guessing it’s more than you realise.
Openness and honesty can often be the best policy, but if you’re not in a position to do that then that’s OK, too. Sometimes there are no words to explain why you can’t assemble a sandwich without bursting into tears.
But we need to at least get to a place where people with mental health issues shouldn’t have to hide their illness for fear of losing their jobs or being treated differently. It’s important that we reach a level of awareness where employees are able to be as honest about their situations as they can be, and treated with the same understanding as flu patients when they say, ‘I’m not well.’
Originally published on The Debrief.