Mental Health at Work – to Declare or not to Declare?

I couldn’t resist a comment on a recent article in the Times Higher  (written in response to an earlier piece expressing an opposite view). The question addressed by these articles is whether a member of University staff should be open about mental health issues or not. The latest comes down firmly on “no” side. Although I understand the argument, I disagree very strongly with this conclusion.

In fact I’ve taken this a bit further than just disclosing my problems to my employer; I’ve even blogged about them, both here and elsewhere. I also stood up in the University of Sussex Senate about two years ago and spoke about them there. That latter episode was in response to the attempts by some members of Senate to play down the extent of the violence and intimidation associated with a protest on campus that erupted into a full-scale riot on March 2013, accompanied by theft, vandalism and arson. Since violence is the root cause of my longstanding troubles I was incensed by the casual attitude some academics displayed about something that should never be tolerated. I don’t know whether my intervention had any effect on the discussion but I felt I had to make my point. It still troubles me, in fact, that the culprits have still not been brought to justice, and that some of them undoubtedly remain at large on campus even today.

Anyway, two full years have passed since then and I have received nothing but supportive comments from colleagues both in the School and among senior managers in the University.

When I applied for my current job at Sussex, it was just after I’d recovered from a serious breakdown. When I was offered the position, paperwork arrived that included a form on which to declare any health issues (including mental health). I have moved around several times in my career and have never made a declaration on such a form before, but this time I felt that I should especially because I was still taking medication then. I did wonder whether I might be declared unfit to take up a job that promised to have a fair share of stress associated with it. In the end, though, what happened was that I was put in touch with the Occupational Health department who offered their services if there was anything they could do to help. All these discussions were confidential.

I think it is very important that staff do declare problems with depression or other mental health issues. That’s the only way to be sure of getting the support you need. It’s also important for your colleagues to be able to put arrangements in place if you need to take some time off. On top of all that, employers need to learn how widespread such problems can be so they can try to deal with any factors that might exacerbate existing conditions, such as work-related stress.

Going back to the article in the Times Higher, though. I should say that I can understand the author’s reluctance. It took me twenty-five years so I am hardly in a position to criticise anyone! I was particularly struck by this section:

To disguise my illness, I try my best to be the very opposite of what depressed people are. I become the funniest, the smiliest and the most supportive colleague at work. At times, the performance succeeds and I feel a fleeting sense of being invincible. However, this feeling quickly dissipates and I am left feeling utterly alone, dark and lost. A colleague once said to me that she thought I was the most positive person she had ever met and that everyone enjoyed working with me. I couldn’t say anything to her in that moment. But if I was to speak my truth, it would have been to tell her that I was probably the darkest and saddest of her colleagues. That darkness frightens the hell out of me – so I keep it to myself.

That will ring very true to anyone who is living with mental illness; it becomes part of who you are, and it does mean that you find somethings very difficult or impossible that other people take for granted, no matter how effective your medication is. Putting on a brave face is just one way to avoid dealing with it, but it’s just a form of denial. Another common avoidance strategy is to make up fake excuses for absence from events that fill you with dread. I’ve done that a number of times over the years and although it provides short-term relief, it leaves you with a sense of shame at your own dishonesty that is damaging in the long run to your sense of self-worth and will only serve to give you a reputation for unreliability. The darkness can indeed be frightening but it does not follow that you should keep it to yourself. You should share it – not necessarily with friends and colleagues, who may not know how to help – but with compassionate and highly trained professional counsellors who really can help. It will also help your institution provide more and better assistance.

This is not to say that there isn’t a downside to being open about mental health issues. Now that my own genie is not only out of the bottle but all over the internet I do wonder what the future holds in store for my career beyond my current position. Then again I’m not at all sure what I want to happen. Only time will tell.

4 Responses to “Mental Health at Work – to Declare or not to Declare?”

  1. Hi Peter, I think what you are doing in being open is incredibly brave and also incredibly helpful to others who are in similar difficulties and are just finding out how to deal with things. Knowing that one can still be successful after going through a difficult period brings a lot of hope to those who may not see a way through yet. So good on you, it can’t be easy at all but I really hope you will make some difference to removing some of the stigma attached to having mental health issues.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “Now that my own genie is not only out of the bottle but all over the internet I do wonder what the future holds in store for my career beyond my current position.”

    So head of school at Sussex is just a stepping stone to something higher and greater? As Jeff Healey sang, your problems are another man’s dreams. 🙂 (Wondering about your future career, of course, not mental-health problems.)

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually I didn’t mean that. The question uppermost in my mind is whether to retire when I reach the end of my term here at Sussex.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        OK; I was genuinely surprised, but this puts a different light on it. This seems to be a new trend among academics about my age. (Maybe some who read this blog will own up to this in the comments.)

        I guess “end of my term” implies that you don’t actually have a permanent job, like in the old days (in the UK) of tenured professorships?

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