Opening up about my mental health at work

I’ve always been open about my mental illness in most areas of my life, but until last year I’d never spoken about it at work. I was concerned that if I told colleagues I struggle with general anxiety disorder and depression, it would hamper my progression and I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

I was diagnosed a few years ago, and there have only been a few periods where my mental illness has affected my capacity to work. Last summer, my responsibilities increased dramatically in a short space of time, creating a lot of anxiety. It began to affect my mood at home; I was irritable, unable to relax and constantly low, which was a big warning sign.

So, I decided to say something. Talking about my mental health with my loved ones has always made things so much easier, and I realised that I needed the same at work. During a one to one with my line manager I ended up explaining my mental illness and the struggles I have. Her reaction was incredible. She thanked me for being honest, assured me I’d have the support I needed and even spoke about her own mental health. It felt so good to have opened up in such a huge area of my life, and my manager’s warmth and compassion dissolved any worries I’d had about being judged.

This went a long way to helping when my mental health took a turn for the worse just before Christmas. I started struggling badly with insomnia – something I’ve dealt with before due to childhood trauma. It made me extremely anxious and depressed. I felt ashamed, but also petrified that I’d never be able to sleep properly again, and that this would completely erode my sanity.

The festive period gave us a week and a half off from work and things seemed to improve; I was sleeping well and my mental health was evening out again as I got used to the course of antidepressants I’d recently started.

My problems returned as soon as I went back to work in early January. I couldn’t sleep and the anxiety and depression swept back in. Suicidal thoughts flew into my mind. I went into the office as much as I could, but my mind was consumed by fear and panic all the time.

My manager sat me down and told me to have a serious think about taking a few weeks off work. I was worried that it might do more harm than good, so took a few days to think about it. Both my manager and her line manager gave me all the information I needed and went out of their way to assure me that it wouldn’t cause problems for the rest of my team.

When I told them that my GP had signed me off for two weeks, they were incredibly supportive. In fact, they essentially ordered me to not think about work at all while I was away – they wanted me to completely focus on getting better. This lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and allowed me the time and space to properly recover.

Before I started my break, several colleagues sent me messages of support and let me know they were there to talk. Depression can make you feel completely alone, but knowing that people have your back is so empowering.

My two weeks off ended up being extended to a full month, and in that time my colleagues sent me a card and regularly checked in to see how I was doing. To know I was in their thoughts made me feel worthwhile again and saved me from feeling cut off. It also helped me return to work; there weren’t worries about how people would react. I knew they supported me, and it was liberating to have them know what I was going through.

I had a phased return, but what also helped was how my manager and colleagues pulled together to support me once I was back. I was allowed to take things at my own pace, and no one made me feel inferior. In fact, they all treated me just as they had before I took time off. I wasn’t seen as a special case, or broken in anyway, which helps to normalise things. It also meant that when someone at work asks how I’m doing, I don’t just have to say ‘OK, thanks.’ I now know that if I’m having trouble, I can be honest about it, and that is a huge help.

Being open about my mental health at work has been a vital part of my recovery, and to have such a compassionate reaction from my friends in the office made things so much easier.

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