Mental health Charity Mind and the government are asking organisations to be much more mental health-aware.
In the first of an occasional series of more personal blogs from CAG, Partner Helen Snodin reflects on the role of meaningful work when she was recovering from a mental illness. We really hope you enjoy it, and through this new series of blogs, appreciate getting to know us all at CAG that little bit better.
I am mid-way through that most modern of phenomenon’s, my senior gap year. I never did have a traditional gap year, for reasons that will soon become obvious. When I told colleagues that I needed some time to re-charge my batteries, they were, amazingly, very supportive, (borderline jealous), of the idea. They didn’t even ask any challenging questions like ‘why’, or ‘what will you do’, or ‘will you find yourself?’ (Because I can afford to, I don’t know and maybe, but not so as to be clichéd.)
I had a notion that I would use the time to blog more, which I love. As for subject matter, I seriously considered a compare and contrast on nuclear versus wind connection costs. But then reminded myself I was on sabbatical. Instead, I’ve read a creative writing textbook from cover to cover, made a chocolate and orange marble cake and chummed a Corbett-bagging friend up some obscure, pathless, boggy, midge and tick-ridden hills. I’m so fit that for the first time ever, my partner omitted the word “bimble” (translation: I’m slow because Helen is with me) from our Strava’d-up bike ride.
Obviously, this kind of fun can’t last.
Now in the twilight of my sabbatical, my thoughts have returned to blogging. Not, you’ll maybe be pleased to hear, about Locational Marginal Pricing. But about a subject I’m even more passionate about, and which alongside Brexit and Trump, doesn’t stay out of the news for very long these days – mental health.
Just last month there was a report, backed by Mind and the government, on workplace mental health. Based on self-reported conditions in a labour force survey, “those with a consistently reported long-term mental health condition are around twice [as] likely to flow out of work than those without, and significantly higher than those with an equivalent physical health condition.” And in universities, new data released in May this year showed a trebling of students with mental health issues leaving before the end of their course.
As someone who has what I think is termed ‘lived experience’ of mental health issues, these statistics are indescribably depressing. It is 27 years since I dropped out, two years in, from an incredibly hard-won place at a vet school. Like half of all mental health problems, mine, an eating disorder, had started in my early teens. Switching university courses at aged 20 (only possible with some good fortune) it took another 7 or 8 years until I was completely recovered. All mental illnesses and individual sufferers are unique, but this kind of long tail of gradual improvement is not unusual.
In the latter half of this period, being in meaningful work was a lifesaver for me. A scheme called ‘training for work’ allowed me to sign on and do voluntary work, which then lead to paid work. It gave me much-needed structure, a sense of self and independence. My ability to do good work during my recovery was perhaps on a par to someone giving up smoking. Or, as I learnt from a recent Panorama programme, as someone refereeing international rugby.
I had my good days and bad days, which I kept to myself, and did my job well. In these more enlightened times, maybe I could have asked for flexi-time to help with some sleepless nights, but then who wouldn’t benefit from that? (e.g. any parent of a small child).
In the 1990s it was still legal to ask about mental health conditions on job applications, a question which you could easily translate as ‘tell me why you shouldn’t get this job.’ I was, to put it mildly, terrified about my work prospects. Not because I couldn’t do the work, not at all, but because of the huge misconceptions around it.
There is a quote from Trainspotting, which I think provides a brilliant insight into addiction:
“It looks easy, this, but it’s not. It looks like a doss, like a soft option, but living like this, it’s a full-time business.”
Similarly, living with a mental illness is hard, very hard work. Digging deep for resilience, patience, strength and ingenuity gets you through a day, a week, a month, a year. If you are in recovery, chances are you are wholly or largely figuring it out yourself, problem-solving, planning, researching and experimenting, being courageous, asking for help, and plumbing even deeper depths of resilience and patience. Getting back on your feet, you often have to start afresh, learn new skills, take on new challenges.
So, when, in my case, many years later, you are sitting through a particularly painful seminar on treatment of residual cash flow and the guy next to you is miming hari-kari, you can smile inside and think, this is a breeze.
This is not intended to bring on a rash of confessionals. Unfortunately, many careers advisers still suggest glossing over previous illness and framing CV gaps “positively” (i.e. don’t mention The Illness), at least at the application stage. It is though, a shout out to the one in four of us who understand mental illness first hand, and a celebration of all of those incredible qualities we bring to the workplace. When asked, I’ve said everything ‘positive’ you could think of to explain switching university courses, including: ‘it wasn’t anything like All Creatures Great and Small’ or; ‘my arm was in up to my shoulder, and I still couldn’t feel the ovaries’. Both true. But neither sound quite as awesome as ‘I saved my own life.’