What's Life Like For 1 of the 1 in 4?
It's been a journey and a struggle to come to write this article, but I'm grateful for my friends, colleagues and Aviva for supporting me along the way! It's a difficult read, but I sincerely hope you will all read, comment and share what I have written so that, together, we can break the taboo around mental health.
Published on June 20, 2019
Freyr Mervick CertCII, Global Corporate Specialty at Aviva
‘I hate you all! I wish I was dead!’
I screamed at the top of my lungs. A badly-behaved 7-year-old having yet another tantrum, or the early manifestation of something much more sinister?
Eventually, my grandmother came to the door of the room where I was staying, to see whether I’d calmed down. ‘You should be very careful about the words you scream in anger,’ she told me. ‘You may come to regret them in later life.’
She then proceeded to tell me the story of how, at the age of fourteen, she’d found her father with his head in the oven in the middle of the night, following a family argument.
As the saying goes, ‘I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve…’. In my case, I’d probably need at least ten hands (and possibly some toes) to count the number of times I’ve considered committing suicide, painful as it is to admit that.
This memory and the story about my great-grandfather have stuck with me, even before I became more aware of my own issues with mental health around two years ago. I think back to the issues I had as a child, written off as ‘bad behaviour’ at the time, and wonder whether they were early signs of the struggles I now face with depression and anxiety.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m lying awake in a hotel bedroom. It’s 2am and my brain is in overdrive, as it is most nights, agonising over a multitude of scenarios that probably won’t happen. This time, I’m wondering what would happen if a car bomb went off outside my hotel bedroom window – glass flying through the curtains and shredding my bedding, perhaps some shrapnel too. Then I move on to how I’d escape if the hotel was on fire. I try to remember where the fire exits were, but I can’t, so I have to leave my room to check.
These thoughts and the anxiety that goes with them are part of daily life for me, from the moment I eventually fall asleep, to when I wake up, and throughout my working day. Whenever I go to an event, you may see me having a good time, smiling, working the room (and the bar!) and networking with people, but at the back of my mind there’s always something whirring away, such as – what would I do if someone burst in with a gun and started shooting?
So, what is the point of this tell-all article on LinkedIn?
Well, despite huge strides forward in mental health awareness and acceptance in the last few decades, there is still a taboo around talking about it, especially in the workplace. Even more so in the macho, male-dominated world of the City.
I ask myself, why are we hiding in the dark like it’s somehow shameful to be depressed or anxious? The stark reality is that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health conditioneach year. Even worse is that suicide is the number one cause of death amongst men aged 20-49; men like me. Not cancer, not heart attacks, not anything society considers a ‘normal’ cause of death, but suicide. Something that was illegal in the UK up until 1961.
As with all taboo subjects, it takes people coming forward and telling their stories to move society forward in its acceptance. The same has happened over the years with many marginalised groups, for example: unmarried mothers, mixed race couples, the LGBT+ community, and many more besides.
So, if you're not one of the 1 in 4, what can you do to help your colleagues, friends and family who might be?
This article is by no means intended as professional advice; however, in my personal experience, the most effective ways to help people with mental health problems are often the simplest:
Take the time to ask your colleagues how they are feeling. Don't take 'I'm fine' as an answer; if anyone is like me, they use that answer as a mechanism to avoid opening up about how they truly feel. If someone were to push just a bit more, firmly but politely, I would be more likely to be honest about how I'm really coping and open up if I was struggling.
Be a friend to the people you work with. That doesn't mean you have to be best pals, but if you think or know one of your colleagues is suffering from depression, ask them if they'd like to go for a walk at lunchtime or join you for a coffee. I am reluctant to leave the office unless I really have to, but the offer of a lunchtime walk will encourage me to go outside, get some fresh air and enjoy the wellbeing benefits that come with it.
Don't judge people without walking in their shoes. This is not just a lesson for all facets of life, but something to bear in mind when people are suffering in silence with a hidden condition like depression. Sometimes, people with depression are branded 'lazy' or their colleagues say they're jealous about their amended working patterns or other support they receive. Don't forget that I, and anyone else with a mental health condition, would probably happily trade it for a 'normal' work life.
Be supportive of your colleagues. If someone is clearly struggling at work, ask if there's anything you can do to help. This doesn't just go for mental health, but in any circumstances. It's a huge relief when someone in my team offers to help out with some big task that I have been getting worked up and anxious over and my team, my friends, are fantastic at supporting me, but also supporting each other, creating an environment where it's normal to ask for help.
I should add that, for me, Aviva has always been an incredibly supportive place to work and I am blessed to have understanding managers and colleagues who make this struggle that bit easier to bear, as well as an excellent employee wellbeing offering.
At a time when mental health resource in the public health sector is at an all-time low, it is these conversations, these interactions, which will help to make the biggest difference to people like me, help everyone be more open about their mental health and more accepting of each other's differences.
If only one person feels better about their mental health after reading this article, I will have achieved more than I could ever have hoped to by opening up about my own struggles. Read it, share it, comment on it - if we all start being open with each other about how we think and feel, if we all start supporting one another, that 1 in 4 statistic won't seem so bad.
Otherwise, there’s always going to be a 7-year-old boy in the back of my mind, and the minds of many others, screaming, ‘I wish I was dead!’
For anyone who needs support after reading this article, please contact The Samaritans on116 123 or visit https://samaritans.org.
Thank you for reading my story, I hope it has inspired you to share your own.