herald

Wednesday 23 July 2014

support

Would you tell your boss you were depressed? When Journalist June Shannon told her employer she was being treated for a psychiatric illness, she was surprised at the reaction. And with one-in-four of us expected to

experience mental issues some time in our lives, her story is one of courage and optimism On Thursday, August 25, 2005 I was voluntarily admitted to St Edmundsbury Hospital -- a private psychiatric hospital in Lucan Co Dublin -- suffering from an acute episode of depression and anxiety. In hindsight, my mental health had been deteriorating for some time before I finally shut down. I had been suffering from frequent panic attacks, weight loss, early morning waking, sweating and nausea.

The physical manifestations of anxiety and depression were for me the most striking thing about my illness. My appetite and all interest in food disappeared completely.

When coaxed to eat, I physically could not swallow any solids. For six weeks I existed on yoghurt, fruit juice and coffee and as a result lost three stone.

I suffered from diarrhoea, pins and needles, excessive sweating and exhaustion.

When I finally gave in and acknowledged that I wasn't recovering at home my GP, who was a fantastic support throughout my illness and continues to be to this day, finally said the words I was both dreading and longing to hear "You are not beating this at home, June, are you?"

The next day I was admitted to St Edumundsbury Hospital and part of me was relieved.

It meant that I could give up fighting and allow someone else to take over. I was broken, terrified, sick, weak, confused, too tired to fight and too exhausted to care. I just wanted it to stop. I was put on a treatment programme that included medication and psychological therapy.

Once I felt up to it, I was allowed home for weekends and after seven weeks I felt well enough to come home for good. Three weeks later, I returned to work and, seven years later, my experience has taught me that with the right supports in place it is possible to recover from mental illness -- a lesson we all, not least those responsible for funding mental health services, need to remember.

I'm hugely aware I was one of the lucky ones; lucky to have the unfaltering support of my husband, family and friends.

And while it galls me to say it, as a patient in Ireland's increasingly inequitable health service, I was fortunate to have private health insurance.

I am not saying that it is easy or that I am completely cured, I know that my illness is there and if I am not mindful of it I am prone to a recurrence. This was brought home to me in 2009 when I suffered a relapse and was very ill for some months.

But this time it was different.

This time I knew what I had to do and was determined to do it.

I also knew that with medical and psychological input as well as the unwavering support from my husband, family and friends I would, once again, recover.

I realised too that if I was to remain in work, which in my case was central to my recovery, I had to tell my employer how I was feeling.

I had to explain that when I am ill, the crippling anxiety that accompanies my depression forces me to spend hours double -- and triple-checking my work, and that this may lead to missed deadlines.

I had to explain that there may be days where I couldn't find the strength to get to the office and may need to work from home instead. That I may need time off for medical appointments, but above all I had to explain that with the right supports in place I would recover. I was terrified that my employer wouldn't understand how important remaining in work was to me, and that at the mention of mental illness they would instantly panic and recommend a year's leave of absence or, worse still, that I would lose my job.

But instead of looking at me as if I had two heads, my employer simply listened and I was gently told that whatever supports I needed would be put in place. I was told that if coming into work helped, then I could come in as little or as often as I needed.

And that if that meant a few weeks of me just sitting at my desk producing little or no work, then that was okay, too. The relief I felt on hearing this was immense. Every morning I willed myself to get up, dressed, washed and get to work. Once in work I aimed to make it to lunchtime, then from lunchtime to dinner and from dinner to bed.

After a while I found it was dinnertime and I was still functioning, bed time got later and later until I realised that I had gone through the whole day and survived it, then days started passing and eventually I felt myself again. Peace of mind returned and I was okay.

For me the daily routine of getting up and going to the office definitely helped to hasten my recovery.

In writing this piece, I looked back on the work I produced during those months and realised that despite my illness I managed to produce a lot of copy.

I was sick and I needed support, but I didn't stop being a good journalist.

People with mental health difficulties don't stop being who they are, just because they get sick. Having a mental health illness does not mean a person cannot recover and continue to work as a valuable employee, and employers need to know this.



SILENCE

Thankfully, the veil of silence surrounding mental illness is slowly lifting. The work done by organisations such as See Change -- Ireland's national anti-stigma campaign -- is making a big difference.

But I still feel there is a huge need for more openness in relation to mental health in the workplace.

A 2012 survey by See Change on public attitudes towards mental illness found that 57pc of people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would have a negative impact on job and career prospects. Imagine the uproar if that sentence read cancer or heart disease.

In 2006, the overall economic cost of mental health problems in Ireland was estimated to be in excess of €3bn and the bulk of these costs were associated with lost employment, absenteeism, lost productivity and premature retirement.

So the huge human cost aside, it makes good financial sense for employers to support their employees through a period of mental ill health.

The Irish Business and Employer's Confederation (IBEC), has recently launched a helpful guide for employers to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace. Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Line Manager's Guide, has been produced in collaboration with See Change and aims to support individuals with mental health problems in the workplace.

It is available at www.ibec.ie.

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The Samaritans provides confidential, non-judgmental, emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair and can be contacted on 1850 60 90 90.

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