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‘You’ve finally done it. You’ve ruined your life.’
I’m running down The Strand in London, sobbing hysterically. People are staring, but I don’t care. I don’t care about anything anymore.
All I want to do is run.
Ten minutes earlier, I was in an important meeting. I was talking to a room of 20 people when it hit. The heart palpitations, the sweating, the difficulty breathing. I thought I was dying or losing my mind. Either way, I had to leave immediately.
The next day I get diagnosed with social anxiety and panic attacks. It took the doctor roughly thirty seconds to put a label on the monster that had been stalking me for years.
‘Didn’t you alert your manager, or the HR department?’ he asked. I almost laughed in his face. No, I did not alert anyone at work. In fact, I had actively been hiding my condition for ten years. What would my colleagues think if I admitted that I had anxiety? I was certain I would never be trusted professionally again.
It turns out I was not the only one with this attitude. Last year the BBC reported that 300,000 people in the UK leave their jobs every year, as a direct result of a mental health condition. The most common being anxiety, followed by depression.
To clarify, these people do not go on paid sick leave, they leave their place of employment altogether. The overriding concern? A fear of being judged negatively by colleagues or management.
I spoke to Lucy Graves, a PR executive from Manchester, who left a job that she loved rather than being honest about her condition:
Every time my manager asked me to take the lead on a client presentation, I would freak out. He didn’t know that I had anxiety and I was terrified that I would lose my job if he did. I wouldn’t sleep or eat for days beforehand and after the presentation was over, I’d cry in the toilets. I left the company before I was caught out.
I asked whether she considered talking to her manager before resigning.
No. What if he told competitors, or other contacts that I was a nutter? I couldn’t risk it. Better to leave.
Had I not experienced something similar in my own life, I would’ve found Lucy’s story unbelievable. However, this fear of being ‘caught out’ by an employer can be overpowering.
After my diagnosis I took a leave of absence from work and I used the time to start my blog: We’re All Mad Here. I wanted to share my experiences and help others to navigate the world of mental illness! It’s important that we understand conditions as this will help to reduce stigma.
Before returning to work I also did some research into my rights. I found that in the UK, mental illness is covered under the Disability Discrimination Act, thereby making it illegal for an employer to discriminate on these grounds. To put it plainly, a person cannot be sacked because he/she has anxiety.
This fear of being ‘let go,’ because of my illness was not only irrational but incorrect.
With regards to adequate mental health care in the workplace, organisations such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), are starting to enforce change in employer understanding, particularly in bigger companies. MHFA run courses that train management in mental wellbeing and how to support a member of staff living with a disorder. From their mission statement:
‘Mental health education empowers people to care for themselves and others. By reducing stigma through understanding, we hope to break down barriers to the support that people may need to stay well, recover, or manage their symptoms – to thrive in learning, work and life.’
Ultimately however, it’s up to the individual (so YOU) to safeguard your own mental health. To use a favourite analogy of mine… Would you suffer in silence if your leg was broken? Or if you’d been sick five times in the toilets? I like to think that you wouldn’t. The brain deserves the same respect as the body.
If I could go back in time and chase after that hysterical woman on The Strand, I’d tell her the following:
It’s OK, you have anxiety. That isn’t an offense! There are ways to manage it and if your employer doesn’t want to support you through this, then there are better companies to work for.