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How to talk about mental health at work

I work in a freelance work space, so I share a delicate balance with my co-workers; neither colleagues nor really friends I guess – we still manage to have a level of camaraderie, and by the same token, office politics albeit on a much smaller scale, because if I want to avoid them I absolutely can. However, the bloke who sits next to me  – who for the purpose of this article is called Tim – is about as close to a colleague as this freelancer is going to get. I wouldn’t say we know the intricacies of each other’s affairs, but after a year of working next to each other a couple of days a week – we do share some form of a bond.

However, that being said the other day when he had a panic attack I had absolutely no idea what to do (which to be fair was really very little) and more importantly that he had them. And that he had been suffering from then since the age of 17, to the point that some days he simply had to work from home as the pressure of coming into the office was too much. I was startled by the fact I didn’t know such a huge facet of his (being?) and it seriously got me thinking. I like to think of myself as a progressive person and I have been and continue to seek therapy, I believe that mental health problems deserve the same treatment as physical challenges, but I wonder at which point we transition from the hypothetical to the actual; at which point we actually do start treating mental health issues without kiddie gloves, but speak about these issues seriously and properly. When a diabetic starts their first day of work I imagine that they inform their new colleagues a) of their illness and b) what the best course of action is if their blood sugar levels drop. And they are right to do so – this is pertinent information that their colleagues should know.

However, when someone starts their first day at work and greets her new team with hi my name’s Amanda and I’m bipolar I imagine the response would be somewhat different. I suspect those aghast stares and slow backing away would prevent Amanda, and many more like her who suffer not only from a serious illness, but in silence. And taking away someone’s voice – that, in my opinion, seems oddly backwards for a society that prides itself on moving forward. For god’s sake people we put man on the moon in 1972.

Knowing that Tim has panic attacks means I can be aware of his triggers (if any), and what an appropriate response might be, but more importantly it means he can be open and honest with me. Which given that most of us spend most of our lives in our offices, at work can only be a positive.

I know that we are not there yet and that neither Tim nor Amanda feel fully confident enough to speak up and speak out about their challenges, but I hope that soon they will.  

Words by Helena Baker
Tweet @Helenambaker


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The UK's first Career & Lifestyle Magazine for women in the Creative and Media industries.

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