Let’s Work Together – Again

Five years ago today I posted a piece reflecting on a survey of employers’ attitudes towards mental health. Given yesterday’s news that many employers are starting to make staff redundant rather than bear their share of the costs of the extended furlough scheme, this seemed a timely reminder of what I said back then. I’ve edited the original post, to reflect changes to the plans I had at the time: here’s most of what I said back then:

LET’S WORK TOGETHER

A couple of months ago there was a piece in the newspaper, reporting on a survey which had been carried out into the attitudes of company owners and employees towards mental health issues. Specifically, the survey asked about whether stress, anxiety and depression were regarded as valid reasons to take time off work. It also addressed employees’ views of how their employer dealt with such issues. The results weren’t at all surprising to me, but they made for depressing reading.

Around 70% of employers did not think these issues were sufficient cause to be absent from work, despite the fact that around a quarter of them admitted to having problems themselves. 40% of employees said that they would hide the real reason for their absence, fearing that they wouldn’t be believed or that their employer would treat them badly. To those of us who have at some point had mental health issues, and who have been affected by the stigma which they attract, this is a terrifying result. I was incredibly lucky, in that I worked for an NHS Trust which provided mental health services and had a boss and colleagues who were very supportive. Others don’t have these advantages when it comes to dealing with mental health. Too many times we hear of people who are regarded as malingerers, largely due to the ignorance of their employers. It is, I think, natural that physical illness can be more easily dealt with: after all, you can see the effects, whereas mental illnesses are in the brain and only become apparent if there are extreme behaviours as a result. For the great majority, however, the coping mechanism is to attempt to hide it. From personal experience I know how damaging this can be: the longer you try to hide the illness from others, the more you end up hiding it from yourself. The longer you do this, the harder it becomes to recognise that you need help and to do something about finding that help.

I have written before about my own issues – indeed, they were the reason I started this blog in the first place. If you want to know more about me the ‘My Story’ tab in the menu is the place for this, and you will also find many other posts about mental health here. But this post isn’t intended to be about me, although I’m happy to report that by the end of this month there is a very real possibility that I will be completely free of medication, just over four years since I was first prescribed it. I am very aware of the stigma of mental health, and hope that in my small way I can do something with this blog to help break down the walls around mental health. The UK Government has promised to provide better funding for mental health treatments – but they have been saying that for years without anything really happening, so I’m not holding my breath! Where time, money and resources really do need to be spent is in education: I would love to see mental health as a formal part of the school curriculum, rather than it being left to individual schools to do what they can, if they feel so inclined. And we really need to educate employers about the impact of mental health issues on people – after all, in many cases it is those very same employers whose work practices have contributed to people’s mental health issues!

The title for this piece is deliberately chosen. As the song says, ‘every boy, girl, woman and man’ should work together. We are a long way from being a society where mental health is treated fairly, and we should all learn what we can do to help us move towards that.

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And now back to today. Five years on, and I haven’t seen any improvement in government funding and support for mental health. They occasionally repeat the good words, but action doesn’t seem to follow. At present, efforts are – quite rightly – being directed mostly at bringing Covid under control, but if and when that happens I fear there will be a deluge of demand for healthcare for other issues. There have been stories in the press of delays to cancer and other important treatments, and these will need to be prioritised. Will mental health be at the back of the queue? I suspect it will, as that is usually where it is. That would, to my mind, be a tragic mistake. Look back at those survey results: how will the isolation of working from home – or being ‘let go’ – during lockdowns have impacted them? Somehow, I doubt there will be an improvement. And with all the other issues which will have arisen during lockdown I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was a huge increase in the number of people needing mental health treatments. Services have been under great pressure for years, and I don’t think they will be able to cope. This will cause a knock-on effect, a kind of vicious circle, storing up further needs for the future.

I said in my previous piece that a widespread programme of education was needed, and I think that is even more relevant now. The recent news that the government was no longer going to provide funding for the Time To Change (TTC) organisation is a retrograde step: TTC has provided much-needed programmes of education about combatting the stigma attached to mental health, and I doubt that other organisations, such as Mind, will be able to fill the gap, on top of everything else they already do. The future isn’t looking good, in my view.