Depression: it shouldn’t have to be a secret.
Society tells us what is taboo – what is, ideally, not to be discussed. The thing that, should it pass our lips, would be too disruptive, too unsettling for the established order. Though these things may exist, for one reason or another, to utter them in a public forum, to vocalise them, sometimes poses an even greater threat than the very thing itself. Once upon a time, it was sex. Periods, even – and in some societies periods remain taboo.
Mental health is still a taboo subject. However, over the past few years, brave people have spoken out about it, chipping away at our reluctance as a society to discuss it. It’s partly because of these brave people that I have felt empowered to tell my own story. Not just in a very public form such as this, but even to share with people I come across in my day-to-day life. It hasn’t always been this way.
Once in 2014 I was on a date. It came up in conversation that I’d spent a total of 10 months on sick leave while working for one particular company. Predictably, she asked me “why was that?”. I remember sitting on her sofa, turning away from her and fixing my eyes on something in the distance outside the window; anything so I didn’t have to look her in the eye, should she see the sadness that still used to come over me back then.
“Oh, I’ll tell you some time”, I replied, “It’s kind of my secret”.
I never did tell her.
My secret. Often we keep secrets because we’re ashamed.
Again, in 2014, a girl on my course who I’d just met told me she’d suffered from depression during the previous year. We hadn’t connected any more than two people would normally do when meeting for the first time, but suddenly I felt wrapped in a warm embrace of understanding.
“Me too”, I replied. That was the first time I’d owned up to depression.That night, as we shared our experiences of depression, I felt tingles up and down my spine, tears pricking in the back of my eyes.
When I got home I emailed her. I told her that I don’t tell anyone apart from close friends about “it, you know, depression” and thanked her for being open – open enough to bring that openness out in me too.
Back then, my depression felt like the thing you dealt with in underground hideaways. The thing that was uttered in lowered whispers amongst those who knew, but kept out of the reach of those who didn’t. If depression were for sale, it would be the sort of thing hurriedly stuffed from one person’s coat pocket into another’s, down a dingy back street, cash exchanged nervously – and no, not the sort you had paid tax on.
Writing this, with you as my reader, I don’t have to tell you how much this has changed. Now I could tell people that I had to take time off from work for depression in the same breath as describing what I had for lunch. In part, this is due to society’s gradual increase in its understanding of mental health issues due to their increasing prevalence and those brave voices I mentioned before. The biggest change, though, has been my own perception of my depression. It’s no longer my secret, I’m no longer ashamed, it’s just a part of who I am. I was simply brave enough one day to decide that there was no longer any need to hide it.
We are in control of our own perceptions, but we cannot very easily control social change – that happens at its own meandering pace. Sometimes, after a painstakingly slow journey of five years and four depressive episodes, I wonder if it’ll always be this way – me, ready to wear my mental-health war wounds on my sleeve, while society can only manage a little peek every now and again when it feels it’s ready. Because, for the most part, we’re still closing our eyes to it because we don’t know how to fix it.
Then, in 2017, I started a new job at a new company. Lior, the Founder, and I had been introduced to discuss managing poor health in the workplace – mine mental health, hers ME. It turned out that 2 weeks later I was working for her. That was the first break-through. To know that someone would employ me when they knew my history of mental ill-health.
Then, when I started work, I made a suggestion. I’d heard of a company which carried out “mental health temperature checks” on a regular basis to ensure they supported their employees’ mental wellbeing.
“But don’t worry if you don’t want to, it’s just a suggestion, and I’m not even sure how practical it is and I know there’s only two of us in the company anyway and you can tell me it’s a stupid suggestion, don’t worry, no offence taken…and…and…and…”. I was nervous.
“Jacs. I think it’s a brilliant idea. Let’s start next week”.
I smiled and said thank you. We have checked-in with each other fortnightly – assessing anxiety levels, fulfilment at work, stress, personal lives and much more - ever since.
This is just one way that companies can work to support the mental wellbeing of their workforce. All it takes is a fifteen minute conversation every two weeks. In turn, I feel supported and I am reminded to reflect on my current mental state on a regular basis, something we can easily forget to do in amongst our busy lives.
Companies don’t have to take this on alone either. I met with a fantastic organisation recently: Sanctus believes we should view our mental health as we do our physical health, working with companies and employers to help change the perceptions of mental health within their business. When you consider that mental health is the number one cause of sickness absence, it clear just how important companies like Sanctus are.
Lastly, I recommend making sure that the company you work for has a mental health policy. If not, it’s a completely valid enquiry to raise with HR. I run my own business, we have no employees yet, but we already have a mental health policy!
It’s been years that I’ve wanted to “come out” at work about my struggle with mental health. When it finally happened, it felt easy. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful boss that understands. But I think the thing for all employees and employers who are reading this to know is: she’s not superwoman. She’s just a human being who listened to her employee, their needs, and then tried to meet them. And I’ve never felt better.
I’ve only very briefly touched on some ideas for maintaining good mental health in this article. If anyone would like to discuss their ideas or brainstorm some more, I’d happily respond to emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read More From Jacquelyn:
Jacquelyn is Founder & CEO of Salomé, an literary magazine for emerging female writers. She also cofounded Stemettes, a social enterprise that inspires girls and young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) careers. She is a writer, most of her writing centring around mental health since her experiences with depression.
If you, or someone you know, have been affected by the issues raised in the article into mental health, below are organisations that can help.
Samaritans - http://www.samaritans.org/
Mind - https://www.mind.org.uk/