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Coming out of the mental health closet

Hiding a mental health problem will only make it worse in the long run, so don't leave it too late to 'come out' about it

I was 39 when I came out of the mental health closet – about six years too late. Once I emerged my stress levels were so high they had morphed into a condition called agitated depression, which led to a dramatic mental breakdown, four months off work and an attempt on my own life.

Stress is a bit like Chinese water torture. You start off not feeling much, and then little things begin to irritate and apply pressure in different places.

Drip… Nothing significant, nothing too painful, but persistent nonetheless. Drip… drip... Soldier on, this will pass. Pressure builds bit by bit. Drip… drip… drip… Things become more and more uncomfortable. You now feel trapped and slightly claustrophobic. Drip… drip… drip… drip… More pressure.

Then one day, without warning, the floodgates open.

Looking back now, the warning signs are clear. I was joking less, laughing less. My sleep patterns were increasingly disrupted. I was losing the ability to make fairly straightforward decisions at work as I became ‘infected’ with hesitation and procrastination.

If your thoughts, behaviours and feelings begin to head in the wrong direction it might be time to come out of the mental health closet. If you can’t see the wood from the trees then make sure your nearest and dearest are briefed to step in before it’s too late.

But before ‘coming out’ to your family you need to come out to yourself. The wheels of recovery can’t start until you do this. Once you’ve admitted you have a problem confide in a close friend or family member and then seek medical advice. It could just be a temporary blip, but if the source of your problem is your stress at work and it shows no sign of abating – then talking to your manager sooner rather than later is a priority.

Once you have told them, they have a duty of care to look after your own best interest. Nothing is more important than protecting your ongoing mental health (including the pressure your absence may have on the business). A responsible manager should do everything to ensure you are getting the medical help you need and reduce the stress you are feeling. If this means taking a week or two off, then so be it.

The return to work after sick leave is equally important. Mental illness is not straightforward – you are unlikely to return to work fixed, ready and raring to go. Your illness may have been a blip, but it could be the result of a more fundamental problem.

Re-entry to work should be treated the same way as a deep-sea diver returning to the surface. You need a number of staged decompression stops to ensure you reintegrate safely. Isolating the root problem is not always easy, and it’s up to the company to act with due diligence to make the correct diagnosis and take appropriate action in conjunction with the sufferer.

If you need more reasons to come out of the mental health closet at work, here they are:

1. It’s your legal right. If someone broke their leg and were unable to move the conversation with the company would be straightforward. They wouldn’t hesitate to give the person time to recover, and it should be no different with mental health. You are ill. You need treatment and time to recover.

2. Sooner is better than later. Coming out of the closet sooner is better for everyone, particularly the sufferer. The quicker the bush fire is extinguished, the less likely it is to develop into an uncontrollable forest fire and the less permanent damage there will be all round.

3. It’s good for society. The more people in business that are prepared to come out of the mental health closet (particularly senior management), the more likely it is that others will feel comfortable to make the same move. When the most senior person in the company comes clean it effectively gives every employee permission to do the same.

Research by the Priory Group shows that 71% of people would worry about telling their boss if they had a mental health problem. This statistic shows how much mental health stigma still exists.

We need to be as clear as possible about why coming out is a better option than staying in. Employees will only come out of their closets if they are stepping into a room that is both warm and welcoming.

Mark Simmonds trains major organisations in creativity, insight and innovation and is the author of Breakdown and Repair