In the summer of 2010, having been with my current company for nearly a year, I was asked a question by a colleague during a business development trip to the beautiful region of Tuscany in Italy.
"Were you attacked by a lion or a bear or something?"
It is a question I have been asked many times, and also one that I can see many people want to ask but aren't sure if they should. I suppose I should no longer be surprised that this is the first thing people genuinely think (never has anyone asked me it in jest) when they see my arms, but I still find it odd as the reality surely is more plausible.
Just look at the statistics. According to estimates by the World Health Organisation, approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem, and according to research on depression published last year in BioMed Central's open access journal, BMC Medicine, 15% of the population from high-income countries (compared to 11% for low / middle-income countries) were likely to get depression over their lifetime.
So I suppose it's not really surprising that I've never come across a lion or bear in the wild, but the odds are stacked more in favour of me having committed the mutilation myself.
Which is what I did some years ago. I suffered from depression from my mid-teens, and self-harm was one of my responses to this. Over the years I stopped really noticing the marks, so for me they are no longer really an issue – but I forget that it doesn't necessarily mean it won't be an issue for people I encounter.
I think the reason that the bear / lion question is always the natural choice is because most people don't want to think about the alternative. Someone being attacked is somehow preferable to someone attacking themselves.
In much the same way that (most) people don't know what to say to a colleague who has had a recent bereavement in their family, people also don't know how to broach the topic of mental health. Both are massive taboos in our society which, although it may be simple for me to say, really shouldn't be, and would make the world go round a whole lot easier if they weren't.
However, the reality is that, despite much more publicity and many more campaigns in recent years, mental illnesses are still an unknown quantity, and many still fear the unknown.
For me personally, I have overcome my demons and was never uncomfortable about dealing with my issues in the workplace. I have certainly never faced any discrimination.
Unfortunately, however, I do not think this is the norm. I know of people who have lost their jobs and been stigmatised because employers and colleagues simply do not understand. I do, however, have a strong feeling that there is a growing determination to expand knowledge of these issues and I truly believe that once there is widespread understanding then the actual incidences of mental health issues will start to dramatically decrease.
When I started talking and stopped closing myself off is when the possibility of overcoming my issues arose. I'm not encouraging anyone to be insensitive, or for anyone to try and think they can 'fix' people, but there really is no reason to be scared of talking about these kinds of things. In fact, to ignore them, shy away, pretend that they don't exist, just serves to validate them. It serves to prove that there is something wrong with people with these conditions and further alienates them. After all, when has ignoring something ever made it go away?
In some ways, although the bear / lion question is wide of the mark, it at least starts the discussion and it is normally one that, once it has begun, people do not shy away from. That includes me, as bringing this out into the open does take both sides.
According to guidance published in the UK by ACAS – Mental Health: We need to talk– how comfortable employees are about disclosing the nature of their mental health condition, says a great deal about how seriously their employer takes mental health.
The reason, it adds, that many employees and line managers are uncomfortable talking about mental health is because misconceptions about mental illnesses persist – as it's often viewed as something disturbing or dangerous that lurks hidden beneath the surface of someone's personality.
It advises that there is much you can do to help maintain the mental health of employees and help those with mental health problems remain in work and be productive.
So whether or not a line manager spots the signs of mental illness (for instance, a member of staff who is taking increased sick leave or who is uncharacteristically uncommunicative), as long as an organisation promotes an awareness and understanding of mental health issues – staff who are struggling can feel confident they can open up and seek help.
Bringing mental ill health out into the open will help overcome its stigma and help ensure that those suffering from the condition get the help they need to continue making a positive contribution in the workplace.
By Gavin Bates