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Cloudy with a chance of screwballs

Publishing Date : 10 September, 2019

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

An old friend called melancholy came to visit me this week. I purposely use this old-fashioned word for what many of you will know as depression because it feels like an easier label which sits almost romantically with me, unlike ‘mental health problem’ which feels ominous and conjures up images of the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Even though referring to mental health issues is more acceptable these days, thanks to it being in the spotlight through many celebrities opening up about their struggles with anxiety, depression and mental health issues, I still squirm when I consider that I am on the same team.

As I have been working remotely, it has been easier to hide my illness. My email silence could easily be construed as being busy, when in fact I felt a shrivelled version of myself and about as useful as a chocolate teapot. As with other sufferers when I am like ‘this’, having to deal with a minor mishap as inconsequential as dropping a bag of pasta on the floor can seem overwhelming.  So, I dragged myself through the days willing myself to get better and as usual, I did.

I am fortunate that my bouts of mental illness, there I used the phrase, tend to be short and not as severe as others undergo.   It can present as anxiety, stress, depression and any of the other symptoms which make up the family called ‘mental health’. I am also lucky that I am my own boss so I can take a sick day or two without having to justify my absence to anyone. Even so, I would struggle to phone the office and say ‘I am not coping’, I am ‘not quite myself’ or ‘I can’t drive to work because I think that every car on the road is heading straight towards me and I am going to have an accident’.

Perhaps I could say I feel drained of life, have suicidal thoughts and feel like a worthless piece of crap, but like most it’s easier to say I have ‘flu.  I am not owning any of that list, by the way, but that is what it can be like as a sufferer. And they will tell you they would much rather have to own up to an intense bout of bronchitis, influenzas, tonsillitis and even cancer.

Many people cannot understand depression as an illness. To Stephen Fry people have asked “How can someone so well off, well-known and successful have depression? ‘ Alistair Campbell in an article suggested changing the word “depression” to “cancer” or “diabetes” in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question it is, pun presumably intended. Many people feel that depression, anxiety and the like are rich people’s diseases, indoctrinated, no doubt, by years of Hollywood visuals of the bored, wealthy housewife on the psychiatrist’s couch discussing the week’s trivial trials and tribulations but how wrong this is. According to a report from the US department of Housing and Urban Development , around  26% of adults (yes, a quarter) who are homeless and in shelters, live with serious mental illness.

Compare and contrast with this statistic that in the workplace nearly 70% of bosses believe that stress, anxiety or depression are not valid excuses for taking time of work, even though a quarter (same proportion!) of employees will suffer from such problems at some point each year. A thousand managers, executives and company owners as well as a thousand employees were asked to take part in a survey carried out by AXA PPP Healthcare and the findings revealed that most workers are so worried about the stigma surrounding mental health that they would not tell their bosses the truth about why they were phoning in sick.  And I get it completely. ‘Sarah has bronchitis’ ...’Oh,  that’s awful’  or ‘Sarah has mental illness ‘...’Er ,what?’ (note to self ‘We can’t be employing crazies’)

What makes mental health so difficult is the measurement of it. How do you describe a big black cloud over your head or a state of complete nervousness and fear? Or as someone once described it, feeling like you are drowning and gasping for breath but everyone around you is floating and breathing. And how do you measure it and anyway, why do you have to? In 2004 in the US 25.9 million persons lost an average of work pain due to back pain – that’s  a total 186.7 million workdays lost that year – and you can’t measure that. And here’s the rub - that’s ok – mental health isn’t. I mean, come on you can relate to a bad back but not a bad mood!

But then again, I am not quite sure what needs to be done to de-stigmatize the illness.  How can I ask others to change their mind when as a sufferer, I can’t even change mine?  Deep down, I see it as a weakness, and no-one wants to admit to any such chink in their armour.  Part of the confusion is that people think depression is sadness. People think depression is crying. People think depression is dressing in black.  But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just to go to bed again. When you’re depressed you don’t control your thoughts, your thoughts control you. As Stephen Fry explained, ‘it’s like having your own weather’ – think cold and damp in your corner, sunny and bright over there.

Certainly, the discussion and visibility about mental health has helped reduce the stigma around the topic yet mental health still currently receives less than 1 percent of global medical aid budgets. Domestic financing on prevention, promotion and treatment is similarly low. At present, every nation in the world is a 'developing' country when it comes to mental health. At the corporate level, companies need to acknowledge the reality by looking at some of the statistics on mental illness, appreciating how many man hours are lost due to it and coming out in the open about it. If I have a staff member who is prone to the blues, I accept that this.

I know that my personal understanding of the condition allows people to be open and honest about how they are feeling and not have to feel the shame and guilt which most sufferers often experience. I also know that if I allow the down time, as with myself I will make it up. To steal Stephen Fry’s personal weather metaphor, I make hay while the sun shines...when it’s pouring down, well then, rain stops play. 



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