This week (14 to 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week). The theme for the week is stress and how we cope with it.
Stress is part of everyday life. But when you’re overwhelmed by stress it can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and even suicide.
Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to reflect on our own mental health, the support available and how we can manage our individual stress triggers.
This blog, the latest in a series of personal disability stories, features Joanne’s experience of mental ill health and how she is using her first-hand knowledge and insights to support others.
My name is Joanne Curtis. I work as a legal adviser for HM Courts & Tribunals Service, based at Teesside Justice Centre. In 2012, after having my first son, my mental health deteriorated. I have always suffered from depressive episodes but, prior to this, I had always found these manageable.
In 2012, after numerous attempts to take my own life and self harming, I was hospitalised on a voluntary basis for assessment as I was deemed to be a risk to myself. During this lengthy admission I was diagnosed with severe depressive disorder, Bipolar and EUPD (Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder). I met this with a mixture of relief and frustration: relief that I finally had a diagnosis of conditions that could be treated and managed; and frustrated as I was away from my family and friends with no indication of when I would be able to return home.
People have an incorrect stereotypical view that when you are admitted to a psychiatric hospital the atmosphere is intimidating; and that people on the ward are locked away and so medicated that they do not know what time of day or day of the week it is. I was met with warm and friendly faces. The staff were brilliant and encouraged me to maintain my own independence. I met people on the ward from similar backgrounds and we were regularly encouraged to leave the ward, both supervised and unsupervised, or with a family member.
I would like to say that this was the end of my journey and that since I returned home everything has been OK. However, I have learned that, as with any mental health issue, my condition is unpredictable; there are good phases and bad phases, ups and downs. I have acquired coping strategies, some more helpful than others, and have learnt who to contact in a crisis and how to recognise when I am not coping as well. Even with these strategies in place, I still struggle with day-to-day life, and find it very hard to manage in times of stress.
I find that my illness and medication affects me in different ways; ranging from mood swings, paranoia, self-harm, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts/behaviour and hyperactive phases. There are feelings of emptiness and abandonment - that you don’t exist, that your head is separated from your body or that you are an emotional sponge. I experience all of the above on a regular, sometimes daily basis. The medication to counter these symptoms often has the effect of making me sleepy, and at times I appear withdrawn in the workplace.
At other times I can be very outgoing and sociable, which can be hard for others to gauge and understand. My colleagues and line managers have been very understanding towards my mental health and have adjusted my role as much as possible to enable me to stay in my current employment. When I feel particularly vulnerable, I set time aside to take some exercise or do an activity that I know I have previously enjoyed.
When the opportunity arose to become a ‘mental health ally’, I decided that this was an opportunity to pass on my knowledge and offer support to other colleagues experiencing difficulties with their mental health, in a non judgemental and empathetic way, and to signpost them to available help and resources.
It is easy for individuals to think there is no right place or right time to talk about mental health. Too many people with mental health problems are sometimes made to feel isolated, worthless and ashamed. As an ally, I would strongly encourage others experiencing mental ill health to use the mental health ally service or equivalent in your department. It is completely confidential and offers support to staff and managers alike.
On a personal level, I have found the role immensely rewarding, knowing that I have helped someone and made a positive contribution. I am immensely proud to be part of a growing allies network with a shared aim to break the stigma of mental health.
I would like to thank Joanne for sharing her candid personal story of mental health. Stories, such as this - and Sue's, which I published previously - can be extremely powerful in breaking the stigma of mental ill health by encouraging others to talk openly about their own mental health and get appropriate support.
It is great to hear that Joanne has taken on the role of mental health ally and become part of a fantastic a group of people who are doing great work to increase awareness of mental health and the support available. I would encourage others experiencing mental ill health - or their line managers - to contact their mental health ally or equivalent, who will signpost available support from organisations such as Mind and the Samaritans.
This role is available in all government departments; although you may find in your business area that it has a different title, such as Mental Health First Aider, Advocate, Ambassador or Buddy. If anyone is having difficulty in finding details of the support available or wishes to share details of their mental health ally service or equivalent, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, I am pleased to advise that a new Mental Health: A Guide for Managers product, developed in partnership with the Cross Government Mental Health Network, is available, offering practical support for line managers. You can access a copy of the guide via your HR team or HR Business Partner.