Struggling with a mental illness is hard enough, let alone having to continue to work while getting through it. It’s not classed as a typical sickness, because on the outside there just doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. We aren’t vomiting every five minutes, we aren’t doubled over in pain because of an injury we’ve received, or because we have appendicitis or kidney stones, our noses aren’t running away from us and we aren’t coughing and hacking our way through the day.
Of course there are physical symptoms, we might look a bit more dishevelled than usual as pride in the appearance is usually one of the first things to go. Our workmates might comment that we haven’t smiled or laughed in ages, or that we look worried. They might even catch us crying, but will usually pass it off as an overwhelmed moment. But during our toughest moments of being unwell with mental illness, it is really hard for us to take time off work, because we aren’t actually sick. Of course we are genuinely sick, mental illness is an illness just the same, but there is a stigma that goes with it, in our own heads and in the minds of the mentally well people in society that it’s not a real illness and that we should just get over it.
I am lucky enough to work for a company that puts staff wellness, both mental and physical, above everything else. If a staff member is sick, whether it’s medical or mental, we are treated amazingly well. Flowers and thoughtful notes are sent, no pressure is put on us to get back to work and any kind of assistance that can be offer will be, such as counselling in my case. My boss, my former boss and even the big boss of the company are fully aware of my mental health struggles and have supported me in a way that I have never received before. The big boss always asks me how I’m doing whenever he sees me and he has in the past even asked me if they were doing enough for me. They were, I couldn’t have asked for more.
I know exactly how lucky I am. I have worked for a lot of different companies in my time and this is the first time that I have been treated like a human when I’ve had my depression and anxiety get in the way of my life and work. I used to hide it from my employers. I would call in sick regularly because I simply couldn’t face even getting out of bed, let alone going to work, but I would lie about the reason. I was always sick, always had a cold, always having headaches, because that’s a lot easier than telling someone that you can’t come to work because you are physically incapable of pulling the duvet off yourself.
I have worked for places that have allowed me to take a little time off each week to go to a counselling session and not made me feel awkward about it. I have worked for places that weren’t interested and said that if I needed help I needed to do it on my own time. All ends of the spectrum.
I remember about six years ago I went through a very traumatic period in my life. I had unexpectedly fallen pregnant, in a relationship that was toxic for both parties. I was on the pill at the time so it came as a complete shock to both myself and my partner. We were living in a small rural town, near his family who weren’t my biggest fans, but a days drive away from my friends and family. The pregnancy turned out to be ectopic and I needed to have surgery, the only surgery I’ve ever had, to save my tube.
I had a few weeks off work to recover and I was offered a few free counselling sessions. It didn’t help. The strain this event put on my relationship was crazy. I needed support but my partner couldn’t give it to me. He needed support but he didn’t want to admit it. As I mentioned previously my friends and family were too far away to help me out (of course my mother had offered to come and stay with me, but I didn’t want to put her out), but I also didn’t want people knowing about what I was going through. I was ashamed. My relationship crumbled daily, taking with it my sanity. I was demoted at work due to the amount of time I had taken and continued to take off. I had gone from being a valued member of the staff, who had gone to BBQs at the owners house several times with my partner, to being someone who was slowly being pushed out. Of course they wouldn’t admit that.
I bit the bullet and decided to tell my boss about the depression I was going through. I explained that it had happened in the past, but that this time it was a result of the recent trauma I had suffered. I told them that I was seeking help and that I wanted to make it out the other side. I still had a drive to live and I was holding onto it with all the strength I could muster.
The response absolutely floored me: “We don’t think you will get through this.”
Um seriously? I still to this day reel every time I think about it. I know that it says more about them than it does about me, but it is absolutely disgusting. The last thing a person going through a mental illness, who has worked up the courage to tell you what is going on with them needs to hear is that they are not going to make it. For some people this would be enough to push them over the edge, They might as well have been handed a gun and instructed what to do. Seriously, for some people a statement like that would be enough to convince them that the time for suicide had come.
Needless to say I didn’t work there for much longer. My relationship broke up and I moved back home. It was a long time before I got over that bout of depression. My family was great, my friends were great, but I had so much anger, hurt and resentment that it took me over two years to move on from the whole situation. But it was never going to be the last time I had a brush with mental illness.
Like I mentioned above, I am lucky to work in a place that respects my struggle and wants to help me with it and I appreciate it to no end, especially as I have experienced the very worst in workplace tolerance of mental health, the very best and everything in between. In my current workplace, I am comfortable with my mental illness issues and I don’t mind if my workmates know. In other workplaces, I didn’t want my workmates knowing, in part due to the stigma that is slowly lessening, but also because I was being treated so terribly by my bosses, I didn’t need it from my workmates too.
I would like to one day see all work places accept mental illness for what it is and be supportive of any staff going through a struggle. There has been a shift in recent years and a lot of workplaces do offer assistance and acceptance for staff, but there is still a long way to go. People with depression and other struggles are terrified to share the reasons they are always calling in sick to their bosses, for fear of rejection, ridicule and indifference. It’s the same reason we are afraid to tell our peers, because we don’t know how things will pan out afterwards. Will things change for the better or will they take a turn for the worse, increasing our illness in the process. It is a shame because there are so many people out there who could have recovered sooner if they had just had a little support from their employer.
Smiles and Sunshine