Illumination 13 – Jasmine York

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Jasmine York, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name is Jasmine, I’m a graduate and I’m currently spending time adjusting to post-student life. I’m blogging quite frequently now, mainly about what it’s like to live with a physical chronic illness, but also touching on other things like mental health and relationships.

I’m driven by empathy. I openly write about my mental and physical health and the responses are so enlightening and empowering. The awareness I’m spreading allows others in my situation to feel less alone, but it’s so therapeutic for me to be able to vent and for someone to engage in that.

I’ve recently explored illustration and painting, mainly because I’ve realised I need more outlets for my emotions. I’m struggling, but trying nonetheless, to find multiple creative outlets that can be calming, diffusing but also engaging. Sometimes I want these outlets to be private and others public. I’m experimenting at the moment and I’m viewing this experimentation as an act of self-care

I’m struggling with depression and anxiety, and a psychiatrist I met with has flirted with the idea of saying I have a mild personality disorder. I suffer from intrusive thoughts very regularly, and often have battles with myself about self-harm. This is where my creative outlets come in. I need them to be as fulfilling, relentless and distracting as self-harm.

I feel emotions intensely and this is the main thing I struggle with. There is no grey area. Either I’m unequivocally happy or inconsolably sad, so when I switch from one mood to the other, which can happen quite rapidly, I end up undermining and invalidating both sensations.

This happens mainly when I’m happy. If I experience a rush of happiness – because that’s how it is, it’s never just contentment, it’s always a rush – then I talk myself down. I try to calm it to a manageable level of happiness in order to control the inevitable crash. It never works.

I need to do something productive every day. It’s easy for me to get into a cycle of depression, spend days in bed and function on auto-pilot. But this is dysfunctional and usually allows tasks and errands to pile up, and this only adds fuel to the fire. Making lists to keep a track of things that needs to be done helps a lot. Talking to myself and ensuring that I’m allowed to make mistakes is also very encouraging.

Things like blogging help me a lot, mainly because the support I receive from it can be encouraging. I also reflect on my behaviour a lot. It’s easy to stay in bed all day and tell myself, “it’s ok, this is self-care.” But sometimes it isn’t. This awareness of the subtlety of depression is very important to me, and challenging it helps my recovery.

Summoning this awareness can be very powerful, even if I don’t act on it. Just the realisation that I’m going through a tough time, or a relapse, empowers my mind, and shows me that I have some level of control.

Another thing that’s helpful for me is trying to understand the problem. What is making me upset today? Is it because I am fed up of being chronically ill? Is it because I have to live at home, depending on my family? These questions are loaded, but they are helpful on two levels.

Firstly, identifying the problem can be reassuring. This helps my anxiety – “it’s ok, brain, I’ve found the problem” sort of thing. The second level follows this. Once I’ve figured out what the matter is, I can then try to think of solutions. Maybe I won’t act on it immediately. Maybe I’ll understand what’s making me sad but I don’t have the strength to confront it that day. But one day I will.

 

My mental health definitely has an impact on my creative process. Sometimes when I’m overcome with emotion I can get on my laptop and furiously bash out a blog post about how I’m feeling. I overheard a conversation about domestic abuse which was quite triggering for me. I left the room and wrote a poem in 3 minutes. It’s my favourite poem I’ve ever written.

I think depression, depending on how you look at it, it either slips up or grants you access to some of your most suppressed emotions. I’ve said it before, depression can be an unstoppable force for creativity. It can be such a drive.

A lot of my anxiety is unexplained. I genuinely have days where I’m so on edge I can’t leave the house. I’ve missed shifts at work. I would get so close too, sometimes right to the front door, and then collapse. Sometimes it’s like a hidden trapdoor beneath me opens up and if I’m lucky, the magic door leads me into a long and lovely creative process. My friend often says “it’s a story” when something crazy/upsetting/challenging thing happens to me. It’s true. “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”

Don’t stop creating. Don’t listen to that voice in your head that tells you your creativity is invalid, or that you aren’t good enough. Harness what you’re battling, utilise that intense emotion and try to express that somehow.

It doesn’t have to be something you’re proud of, but whatever you create when your mental health is suffering, is an example of strength. Be proud of your creativity and what you can achieve. And most importantly, be creative for you. You deserve it.

gardenofjasmine.co.uk // @junoyork

How to help a friend who’s going through a shit time with their mental health

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Unfortunately, mental health is still surrounded by a great deal of stigma and misinformation. Poor understanding of mental health problems leaves sufferers feeling isolated and too embarrassed or apprehensive to seek help.

Statistically, every single one of us will know someone who suffers from a mental illness. If you’ve got a friend who’s having a hard time with their mental health, it’s often difficult to know what the best thing to do is.

I’ve created this list in the hope that it could be helpful because I’ve been let down and abandoned by friends, bullied by a group of people I thought were my friends and I’ve felt completely alone with my mental illness. There are ways you can help a friend who’s struggling without putting your life on hold or inadvertently making things worse for them.

Listen to them

This really is the biggest thing you can do to help. Sit down with your friend, open your ears and listen. If they want to talk about how they feel, listen without judgement or blame. Mental health is not the fault of anyone. It doesn’t matter if they make what you consider to be ‘bad choices’ or they use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. No one brings a mental illness upon themselves.

Ask them what you can do for them. This is important because they might have specific things they need help with that you may not have considered. It’s often better to ask them if they want you to offer them advice, rather than coming out with unsolicited suggestions that they might already considered.

Preaching, rehashing mistakes you think they’ve made or saying ‘I told you so’ are all very unhelpful.

Don’t leave them alone unless that’s what they’ve specifically asked you to do 

This can be a tricky one, but as a general rule of thumb, if your friend feels abandoned or like you’re punishing them for struggling with their mental health, it’s going to make the situation indescribably worse. If you don’t know what to say, just listen. If you don’t know what to do, ask them. Feeling awkward or confused or scared is totally normal, but if you end up giving someone who’s suffering the cold shoulder because you feel a bit weird about the situation, it’s not going to help anyone.

Obviously, a lot depends on how much you can personally cope with and whether you feel that being there for your friend is negatively impacting on your own mental health. This is particularly pertinent if you also suffer from mental health issues.

Boundaries are important in any healthy relationship but you should be clear about these. For example, if you can’t take a day off work to look after a friend, tell them so, tell them why and arrange to see them in the evening once work has finished. You’re still being there for them, but you can’t be available 24/7.

Suggest low-risk activities.

Whether it’s watching a happy film (a comedy or a kids film is often a good choice), getting a takeaway delivered and eating together or sitting down with a cup of tea, ask them whether any of those options take their fancy.

It’s probably a good idea to avoid crowded places and alcohol. However, some people find it easier to open up about what’s been bothering them over a drink. It really depends on the situation, your friend’s mental health history and the severity of the crisis they’re having.

Make yourself available for errands and boring household tasks

One of the most helpful things when people are struggling is to offer to do a couple of chores for them. This can be washing up and wiping their kitchen surfaces, walking their dog or going to Tesco and picking up comfort food if they’re not feeling up to leaving the house. If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, the prospect of blitzing your home or doing a shop can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

I ended up hand-washing a bath full of my friend’s clothes because her washing machine was broken and she was having a really tough couple of days. Chores and responsibilities were piling up and seemed completely overwhelming, but because I was able to get the washing out of the way for her, the other tasks she had to complete seemed more manageable.

It always helps to have a living space that’s not completely cluttered or full of takeaway boxes – for many people, a messy environment just reminds them of how they’re not coping at full capacity and reflects their headspace.

Don’t gossip about their mental health or the situation they’re in to other friends 

It’s tempting to do this if you want advice or need support. Try asking your friend first. If they’re comfortable with you seeking advice from one other person, that’s great. But if they’re not, don’t tell your mates about what they’re going through.

No one wants to feel like they’re being talked about, and if you’re really struggling, your mind can go to dark places imagining what people are saying about you.

There are lots of great online and phone resources you can access if you’re caring for someone else, including Mind, YoungMinds, the 111 number, Rethink and the Samaritans.

If the situation becomes more serious and your friend is threatening to harm themselves, has self-harmed or is planning to commit suicide, ringing an ambulance, the NHS crisis team or the 111 number is often the only thing you can do.

Encourage them to seek professional help

Most of us (myself included) are absolutely not trained in mental health support. We’re just trying to do our best in the situation that presents itself. You should always encourage a friend to access mental health services, whether that’s making an appointment with their GP, making an emergency GP appointment, going to an out-of-hours GP service, attending a therapist, ringing the Samaritans or the crisis team or, in extreme situations, going to A&E.

Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’

If it was that easy, they already would be over it! Mental health problems don’t have quick fix solutions. You don’t decide to me mentally ill and you don’t decide to not be mentally ill anymore. Directives like ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘snap out of it’ are useless and damaging. They really won’t help, as much as you might want someone to change their mindset and stop feeling so bad.

Remember that they’re still the same person

There’s nothing weak or weird about someone who’s struggling with a mental health problem. Your friend hasn’t become a different person. You still share your good times, your memories, your in-jokes and your experiences. Treat them as your friend. Don’t ‘other’ them.

By bringing normality into this situation, you show the person that you still value them as the friend they are and that their mental health problems don’t make them an outcast or a stranger to you.

Compassion and understanding are key. Go forth, help your friends and don’t be a dick.

Illumination 03 – Michael Finn

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Michael Finn, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m 26 and I work full time for HMCTS as your regular office drone. Although my career lacks creative opportunities, it’s dull and boring enough to afford hours of time thinking about concepts and new ideas that manifest in my spare time. I have a poetry blog read by 100,000 people, and I intend to publish several novels I’m currently working on too (once I hone my writing skills and develop my techniques further).

I currently suffer mentally, and I have from around the age of 16. I am severely depressed, but high-functioning enough to go about my days unstricken for the most part. Periodically, however, that highly functional part of my condition disappears completely, and down the spiral I go. I become reckless and carefree. I simply don’t give heed to anything anymore.

This results in the everyday suicidal thoughts pushing all else aside, taking centre stage in my mind, and have led to multiple attempts of taking my own life, the worst of which was August 2016, when two attempts failed in a 48 hour period thanks to drunken dumb-luck and embarrassing eye-contact with a colleague.

Having tried multiple techniques of managing my illness, I find a few things help me the most: being completely open about it with people I meet online, anonymous or otherwise; embracing it wholly, running with it, and laughing at myself and the depression to make it seem less overbearing and omnipotent. I call depression ‘my lover’ to make it human, for instance, because that’s exactly what it is.

ugh

Finally I often sit and think about it—why I feel low, what has possibly brought this about, how did it start—in an attempt to navigate through this maze-like state of mind to the core of the bad thoughts and break the particularly bleak spells. Though this can be bruising, the hard-faced confrontation ultimately works. Listening to gloomy music paradoxically helps me too, as the music and I seem to understand and communicate better when it matches my mood; happy, upbeat music tends to deepen the slumps and makes the m harder to escape.

Depression definitely impacts my creative process. I lose all interest as my mood worsens and I physically can’t write anything when I’m at my lowest, due to blockages and non-existent energy. It’s only when I’m over the worst of it that I can write, and the writings thereafter are about that episode’s sensations, which is cathartic no-end.

The main piece of advice I would give to people is to not run away from your illnesses, tackle them head on. Running only encourages them to chase you, and when you beat your ills face to face, you’ll feel a butt-load lighter and like you’re carved out of wood. Secondly, I fully encourage people to talk about how they feel; talk about your state of mind in all its raw, warts and all detail to whomever you feel can help you most.

Healthful Chat worked wonders for me as my anonymity remained intact and I spoke with people going through the same shit I dealt with. There’s a whole range of chatrooms to go on, and you never get people making a pass on you or dick pics or creeps sidling up to you. If these suggestions don’t work, just experiment until you find something that does. There are cures out there, it’s just a matter of having the resolve to go out and find them.

hellopoetry.com/mouthpiece // @_MickeyFinn

Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Sarah Graham, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a freelance journalist, content writer and editor, specialising in feminism, women’s health, and mental health. I’m particularly interested in the health implications of sexism and gender inequality, and the areas where feminism and wellbeing collide – so anything from reproductive rights to male suicide rates.

Creatively my focus is on feature writing and blog content, telling human stories with empathy, honesty and compassion. For me, that’s the most powerful way of raising awareness of the issues that matter, but which don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

I’ve suffered from (relatively high-functioning) depression and anxiety most of my adult life, and was recently also diagnosed with PTSD following a serious car crash at the beginning of the year. My mental health right now is definitely the shakiest it’s ever been.

A combination of medication, talking therapy, and self-care. Being able to be flexible with my time helps enormously. I’m a big advocate of naps as required, long lunch break swimming sessions, and going for a run before/after work to clear my head. I try and make time for all the classic self-care type stuff too, like bubble baths, going for a massage, taking time out of each day away from a screen to just sit and read, that kind of thing. And just listening to myself really – I’m (very slowly!) getting better at knowing when I need to stop or ease off, and when I’m feeling well enough to push myself.

Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.

That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.

I’ve also read a lot recently about the impact of freelancing and self-employment on mental health, but for me personally it’s always helped far more than it hinders. Of course, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of isolating yourself and not leaving the house or getting out of your pyjamas for a week, but working to my own agenda definitely helps me manage both my mental health and my creative process.

I’ve never been someone who has my best, most creative ideas between 9am and 5pm anyway, mental illness or no mental illness! I think it’s just about understanding how you work best, and not being too hard on yourself when you have a bad day.

Get up, get washed, get dressed, work at a proper desk, and eat proper meals whenever you feel able to. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Make time for whatever makes you feel better, even if some days that’s sitting in bed devouring a packet of chocolate biscuits and binge-watching Netflix.

In fact, just generally be kinder to yourself. That’s advice that’s easier to give than to take – I’m very much still working on it! I think creative people generally have a tendency to be perfectionists, and to pile the pressure on themselves. I know I’m definitely at my least creative when I’m sat staring at a blank screen (or Tweetdeck, which is worse!) yelling at myself for being useless and pathetic, and to get the fuck on with it. There’s literally no time when that has ever helped.

I once almost cancelled a massage because I had a deadline looming and was feeling completely blocked about the article I was trying to work on. In the end, I realised I wasn’t getting anything done anyway and went for the massage – I drafted the entire article in my head while laying in the salon being pampered for an hour, came home and wrote it up without a problem. Self-care works!

www.sarah-graham.co.uk // @SarahGraham7

I’ll never forget what Jeremy Corbyn whispered in my ear at a campaign event last week

First published by The Independent, 16th May 2017

Last week, I went to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak as part of his official election campaign launch in Greater Manchester. On the tiny Wythenshawe high street, where balloons outside a card shop urge voters to choose Labour, Corbyn and the incumbent MP Mike Kane stood on a bench to address the crowd. When Corbyn stepped down, people rushed forward to meet him.

Jeremy Corbyn seems at his most comfortable interacting with the public, unfiltered, permitted to be himself and to meet people one-on-one. He held countless babies, took selfies with schoolchildren, chatted to a woman in Spanish, met NHS staff and a local headteacher, and spent extra time with two disabled members of the public. His aides were having a tough time keeping him on schedule.

When I shook his hand, I told him that I work for a charity and freelance as a journalist, writing on politics and social justice issues. I expressed my disappointment that Labour (and particularly Corbyn himself) doesn’t get a fair hearing from many news outlets. He spoke in my ear: “If you do what you believe in, you’re strong. It’s when you don’t do what you believe in that you’re weak. And we are strong.”

The unveiling of Labour’s manifesto today was a display of strength. Labour is promising a Britain that works for everyone, where whole swathes of society aren’t left behind. The transformative manifesto will take the financial burden from the shoulders of those who can least afford to carry it, and place it upon the top 5 per cent of earners and arrogantly tax-dodging corporations.

Jeremy Corbyn unveils Labour manifesto’s plans to raise taxes on corporations and highest earners

The Britain we currently live in is untenable for young people, university students, teachers, NHS workers, policemen, the disabled, people with long-term illnesses, people who can’t find work, first-time buyers, and those living in rented accommodation. Britain is working for a wealthy few, and Labour’s manifesto highlights the fact, often forgotten, that this is not inevitable.

At Bradford University, a huge cheer went up when Corbyn promised to scrap tuition fees and end hospital parking charges. The scandal of zero hours contracts would be a thing of the past under Labour, as will NHS cuts and rises in VAT and income tax for 95 per cent of earners.

The manifesto is a document filled with long-overdue, common sense policies. It addresses the important questions that accompany the Brexit process, including concerns about the protection of jobs and hard-won workers’ rights. It puts children and young people first, promising to invest in them through a National Education Service rather than rely on the failed academies experiment or a ridiculous and divisive reintroduction of grammar schools.

In-work poverty is unacceptable. My partner and I both work two jobs and we struggle to make ends meet. We don’t indulge in avocado toast but finding enough for a deposit on a mortgage is sadly out of reach. The pledge to build one million new homes and introduce a £10 living wage by 2020 is crucial for young couples and for anyone working in poorly paid or part-time jobs, notably in care work and service industry roles.

Labour’s manifesto is much more than the “radical and responsible” soundbite. It’s actually an answer to the question of why, as one of the wealthiest and most developed nations on earth, are we constantly accepting second best?

Our antiquated approach to our railways, the Victorian cruelty of the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions and the increased use of food banks, and the swift disappearance of social housing are all symptoms of a wider inability to look forwards. European countries are laughing at Britain, enjoying efficient, cheap public transport while buying up our rail companies and charging rip-off prices for poor service. Britain should be leading the way, not lagging behind, weighted down by underinvestment, poverty and ingrained inequality.

If Labour’s manifesto and the promise of more public ownership will transport us to the 1970s, where do we currently live? 1870, perhaps? Labour’s vision for the future can heal the wounds inflicted by the last seven years of governance, where nurses cannot afford to buy food and ex-servicemen die sick and alone after their benefits are sanctioned.

Labour’s plan is costed and the policies are popular. It’s a manifesto of hope, and that’s what I’ll be voting for.

How do you deal with mental health problems in the workplace?

First published by New Statesman, 31st July 2015

I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was about 13. Poor mental health has cost me the majority of my school and university friends, and a number of academic achievements. It has also had a long-lasting impact on my physical health. As an adult, it makes working a full-time job and fulfilling my professional obligations difficult. I’m not alone in this, as one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties in the UK every year. Working full-time when you’re also trying to deal with a long-term mental health problem often feels like an uphill struggle. It’s like trying to run the same race as my colleagues, but with weights on my wrists and ankles that drag me backwards.

I decided to speak to a number of people currently managing mental health problems while in work, and I was inundated with responses within minutes of making a public request.

Almost everyone I spoke to reported that things considered mildly unpleasant by other colleagues (like staying late or getting up early) can feel like insurmountable hurdles, particularly if you’re taking certain medications. Holly was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when she was 19. While working as a call handler, she found the strict four week rota, early mornings and varied shift lengths had a negative impact on her mental health. She told me “I struggled with the early morning starts because I had been prescribed Quetiapine. Taking this drug at night would knock me out for twelve hours and I began to find this balance increasingly difficult. I didn’t feel I could open to my employer about my mental health issues.”

Admitting that you’re taking a psychoactive medication that impacts on your ability to function is still not considered the “done thing”. Getting up in the morning was a major problem for me in my first full-time role after university. I was taking Trazodone as a sleeping aid and mood stabiliser, and it would make me feel so groggy and hungover in the mornings, that getting up was a superhuman struggle, every single working day. My inability to be punctual and my “miserable face” (direct quote from previous employer, and pretty offensive to anyone, let alone someone suffering with depression) saw me repeatedly penalised.

In July, comedian and author Ruby Wax was awarded an OBE for services to mental health. She told the Times: “when people say, ‘Should you tell them at work?’ I say: ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema”. Coming from someone so recently rewarded for her advocacy work for people with mental illnesses, this is irresponsible advice.

She adds that mental illness “is like the situation used to be with gay rights. Like being in the closet, but mental illness is now the taboo instead”. If this is the case, then surely the way to combat stigma and end the taboo is not to hide mental health problems. The LGBT community don’t continue to make gains in terms of civil rights, positive representations in the media, and widespread public acceptance by staying quiet and hiding away. Of course, Wax is merely responding to a world in which unjust stigma still exists, and advocating that others take the path of least resistance within the workplace. Ruby Wax has, of course, experienced her fair share of prejudice. However, as someone who campaigns for acceptance regarding mental illness, to advise others to hide their conditions from employers is completely counterproductive, and potentially dangerous from a health perspective.

If one in four adults is suffering from mental illness, then you will know someone who is currently experiencing mental health problems. Your boss will know someone. The charity Mind has published research demonstrating that the “culture of fear and silence around mental health” can cost employers dearly, with 1 in 5 people taking days off due to stress, and 1 in 10 leaving positions because of stress. Mind also found that 56 per cent of employers surveyed said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but didn’t t feel they had the right training or guidance to do so. That’s more than half, and it puts a big pin in Wax’s assertion that “employers will find a reason to fire you anyway”.

Tom experienced mental health problems while working for two business magazines, and says that “as someone with little practical experience of the workplace, there was nothing as lonely as being hunched over a laptop in a small office, panicking over how to organise the next hour, never mind hit the deadlines expected. I wouldn’t say my manager was unsympathetic; it was they were incapable of helping. Workplaces, and especially smaller ones working in more specialised fields, simply don’t have the capacity to help people unless they’re fully functioning. It isn’t built into their structure, and however sympathetic people are, as in all fields of life they have their own problems.”

The 2010 Equality Act states that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, including those who have a mental impairment that impacts long-term (more than 12 months) on their day-to-day activities. From a business perspective, it only makes financial sense for employers to make reasonable adjustments for people with mental health issues.  It’s expensive to have staff take lots of sick days because they’re unhappy and stressed and unable to cope. It’s expensive and time consuming to advertise someone’s job, interview for it, and train and/or acquaint a new person to the role, because a member of staff has resigned due to ill health.

Laura* works in a primary school to support children with learning difficulties. She says “I was actually referred through my work place via occupational health after confiding in one of my close colleagues, (who happened to be my manager), to have counseling. It was done completely privately and I was free to tell everyone or no one, and my timetable was changed to take Wednesdays off for my appointments, running over a six week course. And if I wasn’t feeling up to coming in I could stay at home to cope. As a school, we take mental health super seriously like any other medical condition and I received absolutely no prejudice from the people who knew what I was going through.” Laura was also paid for the time she took off for counseling.

Katie* has bi-polar, and she describes her episodes as “completely debilitating”. She says “I am so lucky right now to have a boss who will give me manageable admin tasks rather than energetic sales, or will allow me different working hours. I part-manage a team who are willing to work around my episodes, l relying on each other for help which means I don’t have to interact as much, and they generally learn a lot during these times”.

However, opening up to colleagues isn’t always a rosy experience, and nor should it be portrayed as such. Katie’s previous role in recruitment involved her work peers making comments like “let’s get her completely drunk and see if she goes manic” and her boss making inappropriate sexual advances. She describes ‘over-sexualisation’ and a lack of boundaries as part of her diagnosis, something that was exploited by her employer. She says that his behaviour “extended to a night out with a client when we went to a bar in the Netherlands and the client wanted to teach me salsa. He became far too intimate and my boss told me to do whatever it took to make the client happy and that it would teach me the importance of client retention in business. He also said that he wouldn’t tell my boyfriend if it won us further business.”

This is a case of serious discrimination on the grounds of sex and disability. It’s unlikely that Katie’s boss would have behaved in the same way with a male subordinate, or with a female employee who wasn’t vulnerable. Katie left her job soon afterwards.

Many people who struggle with mental health issues choose not to disclose their illness due to the stigma they believe will accompany the admission, just as Wax suggest in her ill-advised comments to the Times. Alex* is a fellow journalist and he has kept his mental health problems quiet in the workplace because “I’d hate to be branded as someone with ‘mental health issues’. There’s too much misinformation and too much pity, and I wouldn’t want to risk it going on some sort of mental permanent record in the mind of a superior. People in journalism TALK like none I’ve ever seen, probably because people move around from company to company so much, so it’s difficult to escape a reputation if you have one.”

Anti-discrimination legislation exists to protect those who have both physical and mental illnesses because no one who is sick deserves to be penalized for it. Unfortunately, many people are caught in an ugly catch 22 situation where they’re too embarrassed or scared of being stigmatized to tell their manager or supervisor about their mental health problems, and because no reasonable adjustments have been made, they perform poorly in the workplace. The frustration of not being able to fulfil your potential at work because illness is getting in the way is hugely demoralizing.

Mental health issues don’t exist in a vacuum. They can have a profound impact on how people are able to cope and function at work, but it’s also important to remember that working, and the sense of community, identity and achievement that comes with it, can be crucial to improving and maintaining good mental health. We’ve come a long way in terms of battling the unnecessary stigma attached to mental health, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, attested by the latest figures on suicide in the UK and Ireland.

Mental health can and should be regarded in the same way as physical health by employers and colleagues, and one of the most important ways to ensure this happens is to ask for help when you need it in the workplace. Ruby Wax’s disappointing comments feed into a culture of shame and silence around mental health and work, when we should be striving to open up the conversation and better equip employers to make reasonable adjustments that allow people to fulfil their professional potential. Let’s refuse to be ashamed.

*Names have been changed

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