World Mental Health Day: how to smash stigma at work

Firstly, DISCLAIMER. I’m not an expert. I’ll try as much as possible to link through to relevant resources, but, this is my first time attempting to do anything on this actively at work.

I am fortunate enough to work in an environment where disclosure hasn’t cost me my job – and where I’ve been accepted onto a Diversity and Inclusion group that has been set up to enable this type of activity (don’t get me wrong, there’s still a hell of lot of improvements that are desperately required culturally, but this is a step in the right direction).

I know that not everyone has this “luxury” in their workplace.

But mental health & stigma is personal not structural, and shouldn’t be publicly talked about, right?

So most of us have been lead to believe. People love making their lack of knowledge and/or tolerance about unifying, universal conditions that make you (the minority) different, about YOU PERSONALLY. And you alone. This attempting silencing usually happens because they identify with one of the following scenarios:

  • The I don’t understand it or have it myself, so I’m going to presume it’s you being weird/attention seeking/wanting special treatment/always moaning.
  • The I think I understand it, but I don’t want to jeopardise my own position/relationships here to support or help you, so it’s easier to think about it like no. 1, or sit on the fence.
  • The I suffer it myself, but everyone around me deals with it like 1 & 2, so I hide it to cope, and don’t like the fact you’re publically talking about it when I feel I can’t.

I have genuinely felt no. 3 in the past. This was before I’ve been able to be more open about it, and ended up feeling like no. 1 about individuals who do speak up. I was wrong. But it takes everyone time to realise they’ve been brainwashed by societal norms (also called ‘internalised oppression‘), feel they’re able to talk about their experiences. As more of us do this, more will change with organisations we’re part of, and it’ll help those who really have no voice at present, be able to speak up.

So why talk about it openly at work?

Smash the stigma! 😀 If you can, break the silence on mental health, by talking about it. (Again, if it’ll cost you your job – or cause you to have a complete meltdown – don’t. It’s your personal decision – and this is just my way of doing things.)

Making diversity issues about the individual, therefore removing them from their wider context, strips minority groups of the validity of their shared, and very real, experiences. It alienates and isolates people in these groups. And whether intentionally, or not, focusing on the personal, rather than the structural, is used as a tool to dismantle the legitimacy of their experiences – and their power to change things.

It can be so hard for those going through mental health problems to stand up for themselves anyway, but faced with being marginalised like this, makes things worse. All we can do, is fight to change this, if we have the strength to. By trying to speak publically, and make our voices heard.

How do I go about it?

Provide a space, day, time, whatever… where the spotlight is shone on mental health. Its key people realise they’ve got one too, and even if they’ve not been diagnosed with a long term mental health condition, 1 in 4 people in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem within the course of one year.

And how do you communicate this? I’m using World Mental Health day – October 10th. I’m putting this messaging on the posters and emails – that advertise the bake sale I’m organising. The event will just be a Friday afternoon bake sale, with coffee, tea and handouts on mental health. I’m using materials (including leaflets) from the awesome Time to Change campaign, run by mental health charities Re-Think & Mind. You can find them here.

If colleagues want to just bake, or just donate and eat cake, they’re showing support. Or if they want to sit and have a chat about their experience, or ask questions, great. If it triggers conversations wider than inside the room I’ve booked out, even better. But the main thing is, people become aware, even for that one day, and think about it. Instead of it being ignored, or treated as a sign of individual weakness.

I know not everyone works in an office, so there may be challenges around beverages/cake sales or room bookings. Time To Change also has a range of stuff you can do for World Mental Health day at work, and action you can take to make your employer more mental health aware. So check out their resources, as they’re the experts 🙂

Time to stop talking about it and get cracking organising – wish me luck!

~ MCL x

*UPDATE 20/10/15 – really impressed by the turn out (thanks to everyone for showing support), the baking skills & the fact we raised just under £125. We also used my tongue in cheek poster strap line ‘smashing stigma one bake sale at a time’, which I was pretty pleased about 🙂 *

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