I’m Lisa-Marie Ferla, and this is me.
I’ve been pretty open about my mental health to my colleagues for a couple of years now, but last week was pretty nerve-wracking even for me. On Wednesday, World Mental Health Day, a video made under the auspices of the City of London mayor’s charity appeal, This Is Me, was sent to the 2,500 people I work with. In it, myself and four other colleagues talk about our lived experiences of working at an international law firm while managing our various mental health conditions.
The reaction to the video was pretty incredible; I daresay beyond anything I ever expected. I was privileged enough to spend much of the rest of the week reading emails and instant messages from my friends within the business, from people I know just in passing and from some pretty senior people telling me how much the video meant to them and how much they appreciated me sharing my experiences. A colleague even came up to me in the 7th floor loos to say that she had watched it and thought it was great.
On Thursday, I attended the launch of This Is Me Scotland at the offices of PwC in Glasgow (literally two floors down from where I usually sit, so it would have been really lazy for me not to have done). Afterwards, following the presentations and the excellent mini cupcakes, in that awkward network-y bit where you turn to the person next to you and remember that nobody really carries business cards anymore, a lot of the chat was around the perceived success of this year’s World Mental Health Day.
If you were on Twitter at all that day you can’t have missed seeing the hashtag, while there was lots of really positive mainstream media coverage too. One of my colleagues was actually on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday morning talking about his own experiences against the backdrop of the launch of the Mindful Business Charter, which was designed to promote better working practices in support of employee mental health and wellbeing in the high-pressure environment in which we work and of which our firm was one of the initial signatories.
And yet. And yet. We’d just heard from a representative of Business in the Community Scotland, who had told us that despite all these high-profile initiatives and employers who talk a good game on workplace mental health, just 45% – less than half – of Scottish employees would feel confident telling their line manager about a mental health problem.
I completely empathise with those people because I used to be one of them – and because I can easily see a scenario in which I still would be. It was a good two or three years before I disclosed my anxiety and depression beyond background information, and even then my hand was forced because I had been signed off from work for three weeks. It took much longer before I was fully open about the ways in which I have to manage my mental health for it not to impact on my work and that, with a few adjustments, my employer had it in its gift to make easier for me.
The week before I traveled to London to film the interview that would be used in the video, I had a day in which I was unable to leave the house, never mind make it into work (it was during my recent medication change). I cannot begin to describe to you what it means when that’s no longer something you have to hide; even if it’s not something you’re trumpeting about, on days when things are not so bad and with a swipe of your entry pass on the door and a blast of something guitar-driven and life-affirming in your ears you can put it aside for eight hours and just get on with it.
There are lots of reasons why you might not feel comfortable disclosing a mental health problem at work. You might be newly in the door, feeling as though you still have to prove yourself and build up some of the “political capital” the wonderful Alison Green of Ask A Manager describes, before you feel able to ask for your needs to be accommodated (NB: this is not the case if you have a disability or health condition that puts you at a disadvantage, but that’s a whole other post). You might, as I do, be working in a high-pressure professional services environment where everybody else seems to have their shit together, and be worried that displaying a “sign of weakness” (heavy inverted commas here dudes) will put you at a professional disadvantage when it comes to future opportunities or promotions.
It’s also the case that, even if the way in which mental health at work is talked about is rapidly changing, perceptions always lag behind – and, frankly, my type of anxiety and depression, which I can manage so well with medication that there’s no perceptible impact on my life a good 25 days out of 30, is seen as more “socially acceptable” than more debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorders and psychosis.
A friend of mine, who actually used to work as a mental health nurse before her own health intervened, posted something incredible on Facebook during the week in which she discussed privilege and the way it intersects with public mental health initiatives, hashtag campaigns and “days”. Even putting aside the usual indicators of my privilege – that I am white, cisgendered, university educated and have no physical disabilities – the fact that my mental health conditions have not prevented me from being able to work and look after myself are incredibly significant.
So my being employed, and supported by my employer in my mental sickness and health – and, now, supported in the most public of ways is why I talk about my mental health at work. I believe that I have the responsibility to do so loudly, when I can, so that those who do not yet have that confidence know that they are safe, and they are not alone.