Naked Blog: ‘This is me’

The Naked Blog: ‘This is me’ campaign aims to challenge stigma around mental health at work and to break the culture of silence by encouraging staff to share their stories.

The ‘This is me’ campaign was originally created to encourage understanding about mental health issues and develop an environment where employees could comfortably speak out about their own personal experiences of mental health and wellbeing. Sharing stories is a pillar of the campaign. This enables employees to be authentic in telling their story and to capture the whole person, not just a challenge or a mental health problem.

We are marking the lead up to Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May 2018) through a similar UOW ‘Naked Blog :This is Me’ campaign launch. The Naked blogs have been shared by members of the newly formed University Staff Mental Health Network, talking about their own personal mental health challenges at work. The stories offer personal experiences and perspectives on mental health at work, experiences of supporting family members with mental health difficulties while also still working and line manager perspectives on supporting staff who may struggle from time to time with their mental health.

We hope that these blog posts will engage and resonate with staff colleagues and help us move forward as a staff community by talking more openly about our mental health and the stories from our lives that we carry with us at work. The intention is to start a process to encourage understanding, empathy, peer support and be a vehicle for cultural change within the University.

Naked Blog #1: This is me …

Like most people, I get stressed at work from time to time. Mostly it’s not a problem, but every now and then, like many people, I’ll end up taking work stress home with me.  Generally speaking this never escalates into anything I’d define as more serious. I had a brief bout of anxiety a couple of years ago, following a health scare, and I had what I now recognise to be depression when I was studying for my PhD. Despite that, I consider myself lucky that I haven’t ever suffered what I would consider to be any serious mental health issues in my life.

However, that doesn’t stop me appreciating the importance of mental health, not just for myself, but for the team that I manage. I’ve seen both friends and colleagues suffer with problems, which can manifest themselves in a whole variety of ways in the workplace and at home.

I feel that I have a duty of care as a manager for the individuals in my team, as does the university as a whole. I can’t be responsible for an individual’s self-care, but I can make sure that they know where to turn for help, for spotting their individual early warning signs, and to make sure they know I’m there to support them – whatever that support looks like for them.

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May.

 

Naked Blog #2: This is me …

I have had ups and downs with my mental health for as long as I can remember.

I experienced post-natal depression a year after my twins were born where I felt exhausted with the demands of motherhood and coping with three children under the age of three. The triggers were physical exhaustion, balancing work, as a teacher, with family commitments, not feeling ‘good enough’ and the death of my best friend. I learnt that you should ask for help when you need it and that there is no shame in admitting that you are struggling.

My depression was treated with anti-depressants and my desire to rid myself of the symptoms of anxiety led to an interest in meditation, mindfulness and Buddhism. This allowed me to find space in my mind and a peaceful and grateful outlook on life. I was Buddhist for ten years and attended many retreats that strengthened my practice. I was in a very good place but, in May 2014, that all ended….

One of my daughters, Poppy, who was one of my identical twins, collapsed at school, aged 11, and died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was left feeling suicidal and desperate. I had lost my daughter, my faith, my job (as I was a teacher at the school where my daughter died) and I had lost any sense of joy in life. I still have days now when I long for an end to the suffering. However, I have my family to consider and therefore, keep going and trying to find ways to keep as healthy as I can, mentally.

I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which can affect me at any time; life is full of painful triggers, but I have never shared this with anyone at work for fear of them judging my competency in my job. Work has been a double edged sword for me as I have found it an escape and a distraction, but at times I have felt overwhelmed with my emotions and have fought to appear ‘professional’ which has sometimes left me feeling drained and lonely. I mainly ‘keep it together’ at work. There are many mornings when a colleague may ask, ‘How are you?’ and I find myself answering ‘fine, thanks’ but in my head the words echo, ‘you are far from fine!’ I realise that I don’t want to burden colleagues or, even worse, feel pitied, so I often keep the bad days to myself.

My eldest daughter has recently been experiencing severe social anxiety and she is unable to attend Sixth Form due to this. Living with the helplessness of not knowing how best to support her, has propelled me into becoming involved in supporting mental health for adolescents, students, teachers and staff at the university. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I find it such a relief to discuss mental health needs with people at work in an honest way without them changing the topic straight away and looking uncomfortable. I wish we could all empathise and discuss openly the depths of despair that many people experience when their mental health is poor or life deals them an unlucky hand.

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May.

Naked Blog #3: This is me …

I have lived with Depression for nearly 4 years.

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me that I went through a bit of a “rough patch” late last year. It wasn’t entirely obvious that I was depressed, and my self-deprecating humour even managed to convince me that I was just going through an ‘eccentric’ phase. It’s only when I look back that I understand how dangerously low I had become.

For me, Depression first formed as a complete lack of interest in the life I had carved out for myself, then a desire to go straight to bed after work. This was followed by an addiction to binge eating, and a tendency to sleep the whole weekend through given the chance. I lost connection with the outside world, overwhelmed by a sense of being completely alone and unworthy of help even among friends and loved ones.

But I’m thrilled to say I have trudged through the funk of Depression and am now reflecting on past events through a much clearer, healthier, happier lens. It took me to hit rock bottom to finally listen to my intuition, to hear that something wasn’t quite right up there, in my brain, and get proper help.

After 3 years of ‘going it alone,’ I finally spoke to my manager, and they immediately investigated the services available with guidance from HR. I was referred for counselling and given a ‘wellness action plan’ that enabled me to talk freely about my condition and flag up potential ‘warning signs’ that may be identified by my team. Whilst this was tremendously useful, it was the very notion of being able to ‘talk and be heard’ that would prove to be one of the most crucial points in my recovery journey.

The issue is, mental health conditions – apart from a handful of discernible characteristics – are unique to the individual. As such, my experience of life’s hurdles are mine alone.

However, all experiences of mental health conditions are worthy of sharing, which is why mental health awareness campaigns like this are so invaluable. Talking about my condition helps me to forgive myself for being a bit off-balance at work last year, and for all the hours of sweet nothing I did. But talking about it also plants a tiny seed in the online arena, in a place where literally any pair of eyes could land on this page and think “hmm this sounds familiar…”

In short, unless we share our own experiences of survival, and finding happiness against the odds, this small nugget of hope may remain undetected. So it’s time to talk about mental health. It’s time to be proud of the human’s capacity to experience ebbs and flows, dramatic highs and dangerous lows. It’s time to come together to share, to plant our own seeds, and rejoice when others blossom.

Alongside my work, I am now using this experience and support to help others by way of studying MSc Psychology, continuing professional development and training for holistic coaching outside of work hours. Thank you so much to my colleagues, managers and friends at work, for being so incredibly supportive and helping me find happiness today.

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May 2018.

 

Naked Blog #4: This is me …

I am a PhD student, and I feel proud to be one of the early members of the University of Worcester staff mental health network. My research topic, my previous professional experience and my personal experiences all contribute to my reasons for wanting to do something pro-active and positive in terms of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

My PhD research is exploring adult mental health, specifically looking at the impact of a student suicide on staff in UK Universities. So you could say it is about workplace mental health, and how the things that happen to us in the course of our job-roles can affect the way we feel and behave.

My interest in this stems from my experiences of working for a children’s charity in child protection and young people’s mental health. I was lucky to work in a very supportive team where the wellbeing of colleagues was taken seriously and the impact of job-role stressors were acknowledged and supported. My job-role gave me opportunities to work with teams throughout the West Midlands and south west of England to support team wellbeing and to build healthy team cultures. I have seen first hand the difference that open dialogue and non-judgemental communication make within work teams in terms of creating non-stigmatising environments where it feels ok to say ‘I’m not ok’.

I also have my own experience of living with depression and anxiety, and finding ways to manage my mental wellbeing as an employee. My experience has been that sometimes life presents us with multiple personal challenges. When this happened to me I found it really hard to find the focus and energy I needed in order to do my job. With support from others I realised I needed to stop. I took five weeks off work to give myself the time that I needed to rest and mentally recuperate; it felt incredibly scary at the time. However, it meant I felt able to return to my challenging job whilst continuing to cope with the life struggles I was facing. On reflection, I now see the choice to stop and get better as one of the smartest and most empowering things I have done.

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May.

 

Naked Blog #5: This is me …

I expressed an interest in joining a staff mental health network for many reasons.

In my home-life I have lived with my husband of 17 years, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I have attended counselling sessions to help me understand the condition, providing me with coping strategies on not taking his rituals personally, or shouldering his problems, but giving me strength to support him during difficult times.

My eldest son also has severe anxiety, especially during exam times (he is currently doing his GCSEs). He was also diagnosed with attachment disorder at a young age due to being in close contact with his grandparents who were terminally ill.

In my professional life I learnt the importance of looking after oneself, physically and mentally. I worked with vulnerable children and soon realised the need to ‘de-brief’, share a cuppa and a chat with a colleague, just to offload. During a very disruptive time in my previous workplace, I began to realise the physical effects workplace stress can have on you. I became ill with Bell’s Palsy and took the difficult decision to leave a job I loved for my own mental health and wellbeing.

Throughout my experiences I have realised the importance of company, of talking to each other, sharing the good days and the bad. Taking a breath of fresh air, having a good cry when needed, or chocolate cake, or a soak in the bath, whatever you need to do to keep mentally well.

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May.

 

Naked Blog #6: This is me …

‘Physician heal thyself’ is a phrase that resonates whenever I find myself struggling with stress and anxiety. I do find, working in a University context, that it’s difficult to maintain an even, balanced workload and from time to time, work can be very demanding and pressurised. It is during these periods that I can begin to feel stressed and anxious. My stress signs are typically manifest first at home with irritability and a sense of ‘burning martyr’ and an expectation that my family will see how stressed and busy I am and ‘muck in’ to support and lift the load at home or nurture with tea and sympathy- which they don’t! It can affect my sleep and mood. At work, I can be tearful and sensitive to criticism particularly when I know how hard I am trying to maintain standards and complete tasks in a timely manner.

I do have a repertoire of coping strategies that I draw on where I purposely book time with friends, cinema/theatre visits to stop me working overtime and switch my brain off. I book regular gym classes and get off on my bike after work to wind down and relax my inner tension. I have tried to review ways to manage work differently- learning to say ‘no’ or ‘not on this occasion’, being ‘Teflon’ rather than ‘Velcro’ and not taking on extra tasks, delegating and reviewing workload priorities. I try to challenge myself to accept ‘good enough’ and encourage myself through positive self talk as my personal ‘internal coach’ telling myself I can get through this period and can do it.. I also seek support chatting and venting to peers and my line manager and often don’t need advice as its in the telling that I hear myself and realise I need to slow down and change my rhythm to one I can sustain.

I have found that acceptance of ‘this is how it is just now’ rather than feeling ‘this is unjust or unreasonable’ has been a helpful accepting mindset. Experience has shown me that just as these periods can arise and at times, overwhelm they will also calm and dissipate and I have become more confident in my ability to weather a storm. Like a stone tossed about in a rough sea that has its edges smoothed, I have adjusted my attitudes and expectations on myself to match the prevailing weather conditions and created ‘stress buffers’ in my routines and life to stop myself from getting totally submerged. I have found that implementing my own active coping strategies has been key rather than expecting others at work or home to see that I am struggling and expecting them to step up to relieve my load or solve my problems for me.

By far and away, one of the most helpful things I have found is talking to colleagues and to find that others experience similar feelings and it’s not just me who is struggling and at times failing to keep on top of things. Talking with others has enabled me to explore their coping strategies and discuss other ways of handling similar demand scenarios. It’s not perfect, I still get stressed but I think my mindset has changed to one of acceptance of demand periods but making sure this is balanced by times when I can recuperate and take my foot off the accelerator pedal to reenergise and re-boost for the next ‘perfect storm’!

These are the reasons I will be wearing my green ribbon for Mental Health Awareness Week, 14 – 20 May 2018.

 

Want to get Involved?

To find out about joining the UOW staff mental health network and to feedback comments in response to reading these blogs, please e-mail: j_smith@worc.ac.uk

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