Time to change; time to be brave?
7th March 2017 Twitter …..
Me: ‘Challenge voiced, not easy is it? Makes others uncomfortable, but did it anyway’!
Lucy Johnstone: ‘No, it really isn’t easy! But there is an urgent need to open up debates and choices. Well done’.
The above was a much needed vote of support for a choice I had made earlier in the day to challenge some of the language I had heard at a conference discussing mental health in the workplace. What made that challenge easier was the knowledge and information I had taken away from the ‘Drop the Disorder’ event in Bristol, an event which included specialist presentations and respectful, collaborative debate on a non-medical understanding of mental health difficulties.
I have been delivering training courses and presentations within workplaces and organisations for over fifteen years primarily aimed at helping line managers to support employees living with mental health difficulties and to reduce the risk of work related ill health due to stress at work, or should I say of work! Currently there is an increased focus on workplaces and how they support individuals with mental health difficulties and as importantly how they might create cultures and environments which allow people to flourish and be well. Many of the training products available endorse bio medical approaches to mental health and alongside that the language of ‘illness’, ‘disorder’ and ‘diagnosis’. Whilst respecting each person’s right to understand their distress in the way that benefits them I am keen to offer another viewpoint, another choice of language in the training I deliver, a choice in how we might understand distress and I believe that this might help to reduce some of the prejudice and discrimination people often experience at work. In a recent CIPD study less than 10% of employees felt able to talk to their managers about difficulties for fear of the response, whilst the overwhelming majority of employers think there is no such barrier. This clearly must change, there is much work to be done… I am also keen that workplaces understand that it is often what happens to people and the experiences they have which precipitate mental health difficulties as opposed to an inherent lack of ‘resilience’ or ‘ability to cope’, favourite phrases of many workplaces and that we should be looking to manage environmental risk factors at work instead of instead of laying full responsibility with individuals.
It’s interesting that many people who attend training sessions know intuitively that people become distressed because of the difficult and painful experiences they endure as opposed to ‘chemical imbalances’ or ‘faulty genes’ but they hold these narratives in high regard because they mostly come from various parts of the medical profession, ‘experts’ in their eyes. We spend a lot of time on the sessions deconstructing these views and offering other ways to view distress and the ways that people cope with their pain. Many delegates come away with a renewed sense of hope that they can offer a listening ear or other type of support to a friend, relative or work colleague who might need help. They also say that they feel a greater sense of compassion when distress is explained in a way that moves our thinking away from, ‘what is wrong with you?’ to ‘what has happened to you’? I really feel there is so much potential to change public attitudes to mental health and mental health difficulties in the training and information we offer in workplace populations and communities, a captured audience in fact! The knowledge and support I have gained from the ‘Drop the Disorder’ community has really given me the confidence to introduce new narratives which move away from the medical model and focus on compassion and greater understandings of the effect that trauma and adversity can have on a person’s mental and physical health. I’m really looking forward to being part of a movement and a group of people who share my passion to see real change in how we view mental health difficulties. It’s so important to me to feel that I am playing my own part in making a difference.
On a personal note, I like many others have experienced difficulties with my mental health largely through several difficult experiences and have struggled to make sense of the things that happened in my life. After exhausting the approaches I had hoped would make me feel better I approached a clinician and almost begged for a diagnosis. In my mind, at the time, I thought I would be able to hide behind this label and give up on quest for healing. Instead of a diagnosis I was introduced to the concept of formulation or a way of telling my story and finding meaning within it. For a creative person, an avid reader and lover of literature I found this approach fascinating and so started my journey. I must say it wasn’t always easy, many times I wanted to get off at the next stop and hitchhike backwards but with the help of a very skilled and truly compassionate therapist I have come to a place of reconciliation within myself, a rediscovery of the person I might have been if those events hadn’t happened and a renewed sense of hope that the person who emerged has a much better life to enjoy. Lucy’s discussion and teachings on formulation during the event in Bristol was invaluable as were the other workshops available on the day. Gary Sidley ran a really thought provoking session on the power of language and how it can reinforce stigma. He gave us all a chance to reflect on our choice of words moving forward and how we might make some changes.
Finding this group, a community of like-minded people has helped to reinforce my long held views that change and healing are possible if we view distress through a more humane and meaningful lens… I’m looking forward to all the opportunities this will bring and the continual impact this will have on me both personally and professionally! Thanks to Jo Watson for real energy and passion and for a real sense of heartfelt welcome to the group!