How to help a colleague struggling with their mental health
A view from Emma Honeybone

How to help a colleague struggling with their mental health

Engine's Emma Honeybone discusses her experiences of mental-health difficulties and offers suggestions for those wanting to support colleagues.

Content warning: this article discusses suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Have you ever been told something at work that has left you totally speechless? Incapable of finding the right words because the revelation is so completely outside your point of reference?

Tell someone you have seriously considered suicide and there’s a high probability that their reaction will be stunned, awkward silence. Because, really, what do you say?

In 2016, I hit rock bottom. At that time, I was spinning a lot of plates; working as an associate within Engine three days a week, supporting a start-up, delivering a nationwide marketing programme for O2 and responsible for the UK marketing plan for a US food-software company. To misquote The Beatles, I was working eight days a week.

It was completely unsustainable and my mental health couldn’t cope. It was time to accept that I had to seek help. I worried about the potential fallout – worries that further compounded how I was feeling. What if my clients politely backed away and looked for someone who wasn’t a depressive? Even as little as three years ago, we didn’t talk about mental health as much as we do now. The stigma attached was frighteningly real and I was scared. But I had to take a leap of faith. 

I have been serious about suicide six times in my life. By this, I mean I had a plan. That’s the first thing you’re asked when you reach the lowest of the low: "Do you have a plan?" Luckily, I’ve always managed to talk myself round and give my sometimes fucked-up head the space it needs to choose another path.

But the truth is, on six occasions I’ve wanted to die more than I’ve wanted to live.

Suicide is the extreme of this condition and living with this feeling can turn every day into a living nightmare. Without the right support, you quickly understand why it’s sometimes referred to as the unspoken epidemic.

And guess what? Here’s the other thing. Depression is mostly really boring. No word of a lie. It’s repetitive and dull and the repetition is enough to drive you mad.

In recent years, a number of celebrities have opened up about their experiences and it can be hugely inspiring to see people at the top of their profession managing (on the surface) to live with their mental-health issue.

But these weren’t the people who inspired me most – although when The Rock spoke about his depression I admit my first thought wasn’t: "Good on you, highest paid actor in the world." What I actually thought was: "Hurrah! The Rock and I have something in common."

No, the people who gave me the courage to continue to speak out in my own circle were the people just like me.

A college friend got in touch to say she’d read some of my posts and was convinced her friend had depression. I told her to pass on my number. Two-and-a-half years later, we still speak and we’re both in a much better place. Not without our dark days, but aware that there’s a safety net.

An ex-colleague messaged me to say she’d been suffering from an eating disorder and had decided to speak out.

A Twitter friend suffering with severe OCD connected because he felt many of our symptoms were similar. We now message frequently and I’ve become friends with him and his family.

A colleague who shared that they struggled with imposter syndrome. Another whose daughter had depression. A friend whose 12-year-old was displaying early symptoms. And the husband of one of my closest friends who hadn’t told his family he’d had depression for over a decade.

I was part of a club. Whether or not any of us wanted to join was irrelevant.

These days, I have a good handle on the things I need to do to manage my condition. Work makes me feel good about myself. At work I can achieve. I can socialise. I’m not mum, ex-wife, daughter, sister. I’m simply me. Doing the best I can in a company that supports me.

For Mental Health Awareness Week this year, I thought I would share how colleagues can help people like me. To be clear, these are suggestions that work for me. After all, a mental-health disorder isn’t a single catchall.

What on earth can I say?

What if I make it worse? Unlikely. I’m not going to hold you responsible for my mental well-being – I have enough of my own guilt!

I’m embarrassed. I totally get that. Sometimes I’m embarrassed too. You don’t have to say anything.

I have stuff of my own going on. Your experience might be beneficial.

Is it contagious? Yes. Everyone I come into contact with is now depressed. Sorry, I should have told you that before but, hey, misery loves company! Talking to me might make you sad, but it won’t make you depressed. It might even make you reflect on the good things in your own life.

Things to avoid

Don’t tell me to get over it. The absence of the ability to get over it is depression.

Don’t try to fix me by suggesting exercise, meditation, healthy eating. I don’t need this. Asking questions is far more helpful than giving answers. 

Don’t overpromise. Don’t say "call me any time" if you don’t mean it. I have a friend on speed dial who keeps her phone with her 24/7 when I’m in a slump. She’s my person. If you can only spare 30 mins every other Wednesday, great. Clarity is appreciated.

Don’t judge me by what I have. "Why are you depressed? You have a great life, job… etc." It’s really not about what I have. It’s about how I feel. If it wasn’t, only poor people with no support would get depression and I think they have enough to contend with.

Don’t give up on me. This can be a long game. For me, that would be a game of Monopoly – I hate it with a passion – with no end in sight. Give me time. I know which streets and houses I’m aiming for, but it takes time to get them. I really hate Monopoly.

Ways you can help

Be brave. Ask me how I am. If my black dog is with me, it might be an awkward conversation, but I appreciate the interest.

Be there. Send me a message. Invite me for a coffee. A walk. Whatever works for you.

Be empathetic, not sympathetic. No head tilts. No sad voice.

Make me smile. But, be warned, my sense of humour is dark.

Remember everyone is different. Only by talking to someone will you understand what works for that person.

At Engine, we’re on a journey of understanding. It’s not easy. It takes time, money and knowledge to implement a mental-health programme. But small steps are better than no steps. 

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we are sharing a podcast I made with my colleague Grace Nuttall about managing a mental-health condition at work, are hosting mindfulness sessions, have created mental-health libraries in our offices and are making sure our people know where to go if they need help or have a mental-health emergency. It’s a really positive start and one that the company can be proud of.

So this is me. Emma Honeybone. Marketer. Mum. Friend. Terrible online dater. Colleague. Extrovert. Introvert. And regular oversharer. I also have depression.

If you have any questions or want to talk, feel free to get in touch @emmahoneybone.

Emma Honeybone is head of relationship marketing at Engine


People in the UK can contact the Samaritans for free, 24 hours a day, on 116 123 or at jo@samaritans.org to access confidential, non-judgmental, emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide.

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

People working in the advertising and media industries can contact the Nabs advice line on 0800 707 6607 between 9am and 5.30pm, or email support@nabs.org.uk, for support on a range of issues. More information and other sources of support can be found here