“People are either mentally healthy or mentally ill.” So said comedy baddie, Piers Morgan, in a recent interview.
He went on to pronounce: “I think the vast majority of people are mentally healthy [….] people who are clinically depressed or seriously mentally ill are getting lost in the wash of millions of people self-identifying as ‘I’ve got mental health issues.’ […] we’ve got to toughen up.”
Let’s just get this out there. I couldn’t disagree with him more. It’s unhelpful and, worse, it’s retrograde.
The advent of more public discourse about mental health is fantastic. But I can’t help feeling that it revolves quite rigidly around "diagnosis" of some form of mental illness: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, PTSD. There tends to be a formal label applied to determine the exact form of mental unwellness.
But what if it’s not quite that simple. What if Morgan has got it horribly, terribly wrong (god forbid)? That, for the rest of us, it’s not just a question of toughening up, learning resilience, and other bollocks about stiff-upper-lip-ness. That we’re all still deeply affected by a legacy of confusion, loneliness and fear from the pandemic, and it’s likely to keep its shadowy claws stuck in us for years to come. It’s stealthy and it's insidious.
There’s an assumption that there has to be some kind of road to Damascus moment with mental health. We talk about breakdowns, panic attacks, hallucinations, alcohol abuse or suicidal thoughts as "evidence". And if you haven’t experienced something this specific, you can’t say you have a mental health issue.
From my experience, from talking to the team at work – as well as to old colleagues, friends, neighbours and acquaintances – it’s far more nuanced than that. There’s a struggle, a feeling, but it’s less specific, not quite diagnosable as "something". And because there’s not a "thing" or specific event trigger (well, other than Covid), it’s just, well, there, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.
You can see it in their eyes and their mannerisms. Just a sadness or disquiet that niggles away. When people are "self-identifying" in this way, it may not require medication or tailored psychological support, but should that negate it? Left unacknowledged, or unattended, it might spiral.
I’ve spent many hours scouring the internet for academic articles on what I can only describe as "micro depression", but have failed to hit the jackpot. There are interesting stats that suggest that 15% of us might be affected by a mental health problem at any one time in the UK. I can’t help but feel that this underplays a far more widespread problem.
The pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression globally. Those will be the formally recognised cases, rather than the multitude of out-of-sorts-more-regularly-than-before cases.
As businesses, and more importantly, humans, it’s our duty to provide the support that can help these "not formally mentally unwell" people. I feel that I exist in their ranks. Menopause is a bitch, I have a "formally mentally unwell" child, a demanding job (that I love), alongside two other children and a husband to look after (ditto previous parenthesis). And there are tough days. I’m not much of a crier, but I do it more often than I used to. It feels destabilising and chafes against my generally glass-half-full approach to life. I find it reassuring that my partners and colleagues know a little bit about these struggles. It’s healthier and more compassionate.
Businesses all have health and safety policies. But they tend to focus on physical health and physical safety. But if we’re to properly safeguard our staff, and retain the brilliance within our industry, we need to entirely reframe not only our policies, but our attitudes, our actions, and our provisions. Forget the language of "benefits", there should be "mandatories" when it comes to providing the necessary support:
Invest in proper support programmes that are easily accessible and confidential. Some starters for 10 that are affordable but robust are Spill and Self Space. Both organisations offer content, talks, workshops, training and on-demand therapy to provide staff with the tools both to support any colleagues who might be suffering, but also to recognise any personal challenges.
Assign responsibility for checking up on each and every person in the organisation, preferably on a weekly basis.
Introduce rules of engagement to protect against the always-on dynamic of our industry:
Reduce the auto settings on diary invites to allow breathing space between back-to-back Zoom calls (25 mins instead of 30; 50 mins instead of an hour)
Encourage people to respect a "working day" – avoid sending emails after a certain time or on weekends, and tell people to not feel compelled to respond out of hours
If individual habits or circumstances require more unusual working hours, you can also recommend programmes like Boomerang or RightInbox to send draft emails at a future (more respectful) time.
Create a culture of openness and trust:
Trust people to manage their time themselves and oppose the tyranny of real or virtual presenteeism.
Encourage open conversations about all kinds of mental health, so that everyone can react supportively.
Actively reassure against stigma and discrimination.
Encourage active behaviours:
Introduce health plans, such as Vitality, that reward healthy habits.
Recommend "walking meetings" as an antidote to video calls, and break from sitting down, so that people can get fresh air and exercise more frequently, while taking calls.
Let’s tackle micro depression head-on before it takes a stranglehold.
Melissa Robertson is chief executive of Dark Horses