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Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

Why is mental health awareness so important for individuals and for organisations, particularly this year as we begin to emerge into a post pandemic world?

My own experience has taught me the need to be not just aware of but honest about mental health, but awareness is the right starting point.  I was diagnosed with depression about 5 years ago, the diagnosis came as a shock, but in reality I had known that things weren’t right for quite some time.  What stopped me seeking help sooner?  I’ve thought about this in the intervening period and I think a lot of it was to do with fear.  I was frightened and didn’t understand what was happening in my own mind and I also didn’t know what would happen if I sought help.  What if this was just the way I was going to be from now on, what if there was no help available, what if I couldn’t be helped?
Of course looking back now from a healthier mental perspective I can see that these thoughts were self perpetuating, that seemingly endless cycle of doubt that often accompanies poor mental health.  Its interesting though that I would not have thought that way about a physical condition.  I still may not have been the quickest at visiting the GP but I would have been confident there would be some suitable treatment options.  Is that, I wonder, because we’re so much more aware of physical conditions?
What did happen when I finally went to my GP was a prescription for medication and a place on a waiting list for talking therapies.  I’ll be forever grateful to my M.D. at the time who referred me quickly for private therapy, and of course to the therapist whose expert advice I still refer back to.  Therapy was enlightening, I learned a bit about how my mind works and the frankly daft tricks I allow it to play on me.  I learned techniques to overcome some of the obstacles my mind threw in my path and most importantly I learned that its OK to have help.
For individuals, being aware of what is right for you is so important, and recognising changes in your behaviour and outlook too.  My clinical colleagues may correct me, but I would imagine that in many cases mental ill health builds up over time, a compounding of lots of experiences, thought patterns and practices.  The sooner we’re able to recognise change in ourselves the sooner we can get support to shift into healthier patterns and practices.  That starts with raising awareness, enabling conversations, and removing the stigmas that still prevent honest discussion.
For workplaces the conversation around mental health has been made all the more important by the 15 months we’ve just lived through – has it really only been 15 months, in many ways it feels much much longer!  The experiences of people in relation to work and the pandemic have been vastly different, quite apart from the grief and fear that many have experienced in relation to the virus.
Some groups of workers have been furloughed, sat at home feeling isolated and concerned about whether their job will still exist.  Some have worked from home, overcoming the challenges of working at the dining table with intermittent internet access and without colleagues to bounce ideas off.  Others endured home schooling while trying to meet the demands of their role, and yet others felt they had no choice but to travel to workplaces where they didn’t feel safe and mix with other people.  There are as many variations on experience as there are people, but perhaps an important stage of re-emerging from the pandemic is a recognition within workplaces that no-one has had it easy.  No matter where you carried out your work there were difficulties and days when it was a struggle.  To expect everyone to slot back in to the old “normal” is to undermine these experiences and fail to recognise the impact on mental health.
Healthy workplaces where wellbeing is a priority are encouraging individuals to share their experiences, enabling honest and open conversation about how we feel right now, and they’re providing specialist support when its needed.  With the vast array of resources available to organisations there really is no excuse for avoiding conversations about mental health.  Its only through normalising and encouraging the conversation that stigmas are removed.
It is optimistic perhaps to look ahead to a time when we don’t need a mental health awareness week, because awareness is as commonplace as our awareness of the weather for example.  But every single person who shares their story, every single person who stands up and says “today is a struggle” and every single workplace that encourages the conversation and puts in place supportive measures helps to move us closer to that utopia.

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