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Mental health and me

8 October 2020

In an honest and open article, Damian Zhang, paraplanner at Foster Denovo, describes his experience with mental health issues and provides practical advice for individuals and for employers in understanding and dealing with the issues that can arise

On a cold November in 2018, I cracked up in work; I had had enough of life. I felt this immense urge to cry. And that’s what I did. I found an empty meeting room and I cried my heart out. The office manager had seen me and called HR who subsequently came into talk to me. It was the first time in over 20 years I’d spoken to someone about my mental health.

The flood gates opened like water breaking through a dam and this led to both the lowest point in my life, and my highest point in life.

The head of HR at the company I was working for at the time took me to the local A&E where I spoke to a psychiatrist and was referred to the NHS mental health system. From this point, I was diagnosed with different mental health disorders.

I went back to work thinking I was fine when actually I wasn’t. I switched personality completely; I became Cara McCall and for around six weeks I identified as female. This resulted in me spending money I did not have on clothes and make up, changing my name legally via deed poll, as well as taking a variety of transgender medication.

When I snapped back into me again, I was £5,000 in debt with pink nails, ears pierced and a suitcase full of items a girl can only dream of. My marriage was in tatters and I had literally no memory of these events. This is known as dissociation and happens to a lot of people with background trauma. This led to me seeing a private psychiatrist and being admitted to a mental health hospital for three weeks. I was put on anti-psychotics and antidepressants. At present, I am still on antidepressants and plan to taper off from this at the end of the year. I also received a diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder / Dissociative Identity Disorder, this helped me find out more about the condition and let me go from square one to work on myself and get to where I am today.

My employer at the time was genuinely the most supportive employer. The Human Resources department didn’t just offer me that initial support, they continued to stick by me giving me flexibility to attend appointments, offering me flexible working hours to help with my paranoia as well as one-to-one support whenever I needed. It’s worth noting that I was also in my probationary period at this point, and when I needed time off they continued to pay me in full so as not to apply further added pressure. This is an example, in my opinion of a very supportive but also caring employer.

Talk about it

The sad fact is that many people may be suffering with mental health issues and are too scared to talk about it with their family and friends. And for many, it is unthinkable to tell their employer. The worry of being classed as ‘one of those’ and the idea of this stigma placed on you is often what makes people stay silent.

This reflects a conversation I had with a gentleman I happened to meet. He shared with me that he is on the autistic spectrum and had bad experiences with two of his employers. It was only when his performance (which was affected by his mental health) was questioned that he declared his health issues. This caused bad blood and he is now scared to tell recruiters and potential employers.

My first bit of advice for this gentleman, and anyone else who might be suffering with their mental health is to be completely open and honest; with yourself, your friends and family and your employer, or potential employer. I’m sure some of you will be questioning this but let me use myself as an example to explain.

Seeking new employment, I was working with a recruiter who presented me with an opportunity to work at what would become my now employer. The recruiter advised me not to mention my mental health during the initial interview and only mention my depression if called back for a second interview.

This didn’t sit well with me. I felt that I did not want to work for a company who would judge me on my mental health and I also didn’t want to deceive anyone, so I ignored this advice. During the interview, I discussed my mental health and this information was handled with sensitivity and accepted. I went through to second interview stage and got the job. I was overjoyed.

The second piece of advice I have is seek help and to remind yourself that you are not alone. You wouldn’t believe the number of people suffering with, or who have suffered with mental ill health. A number of people I’ve met have confided that they had experienced depression or trauma and that they were able to recover with the help of their employer, by moving to a more understanding employer or some even took the step of setting up their own business.

Mental health is extraordinarily common, it’s nothing to be ashamed of because think about it, if you break your arm where would you go? Hospital. If you found a lump on your body where would you go? To see your GP.

Mental health is the same! You need your mind to function, not just in work, but for the day-to-day interaction you might also have with your family and friends, or generally in society.

If you find yourself struggling, it’s vital that you talk to someone. Your GP can help, or a specialist mental healthcare professional. There is support out there.

If you have private medical insurance (PMI) you may wish to use this, as you might find it can speed up the process and treatment you need.

I believe that now more than ever, there is a greater understanding of mental ill health and it is acceptable (and encouraged) that you should you be struggling, then you can and should have an open and honest conversation with your employer.

If you need independent support now, you can use a service called ‘Shout’, which offers a text service for those in need to talk about their problems, including mental health issues.

Alternatively, make an emergency appointment with your GP, or if you feel that you are in crisis at any point you should go to your local A&E.

On 2 December 2020 Damian will be undertaking a sponsored Deadlift for the charity NHS Charities Together, looking to raise £500 while supporting mental and physical health. Click here for his JustGiving page.

Tips and techniques for individuals

I’m going to share some tips that have helped me cope in the past, and my tips for employers managing employee mental wellbeing.

  • Cold: If you’re feeling panicked or het up inside, get an ice cube or cold water in a mug and put it against your forehead, you might look daft but this is proven to give a shock to your nervous system and can help in reducing this panic.
  • Being mindful: Not as hippy as it sounds. Take away your headphones and just concentrate on something you see such as the sky, the feeling of the wind or rain or just try people watching. This can help you to focus your mind.
  • Breathing: Long drawn breaths in and breaths out again. If you’re struggling whilst at work, step away from your desk and your screen, take a breather for one minute. Some fitbits and other devices can offer this tool too.
  • A creative activity: By doing an activity such as drawing even 10-30 minutes a day, knitting, painting, singing or dancing works the other side of your brain and gives you something else to concentrate on, thereby providing respite.
  • Classical Music: Music influences your mood very easily, why not try classical music in the car or on the way to work, this can have an added calm effect and maybe turn you to the dark side of actually liking a bit of Chopin!

Advice for employers
Employers, there are ways you can help your staff. Here are my ideas as to how:

  • Take the time to listen to your employee and offer guidance where you can.
  • Consider providing your managers, and if applicable some of your employees with mental health first aid training.
  • Provide care plans created by you and your affected employee on what to do in certain situations.
  • Be flexible, let you employees attend appointments, or offer flexible working if that will help your employees.
  • If you provide access to PMI, make sure it covers all pre-existing medical conditions.

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