I’m off to see my psychologist – and other things I say as I leave the office…

We need to step up – we can all help to reduce the stigma around mental health. The question to ask yourself is – in what way can I uniquely contribute to this issue?

There’s been a lot of progress around reducing the stigma associated with mental health – but did you know there’s still some people who shirk at the mention of a visit to the psychologist?

You might be one of them.

I was one of them.  I always thought you only saw a ‘shrink’ if you didn’t have your shit together. In fact I wrote about my first time a few years ago – you can read that here.  To say I was nervous is a massive understatement.

On an otherwise ordinary Monday morning  I read an article on Linkedin which was titled “Australia needs more mentally ill managers”.  Interesting title so I took some time to read it.

The article quotes David Westgate. 

“Mental health, especially within the workplace, will continue to thrive until senior executives stop pretending they are impervious to such problems. Nothing is going to change until they show that they are mere mortals like the rest of us”.

It goes on to suggest that corporations spending time, money and energy on courses like Mental Health First Aid and the like are futile exercises if those above them fail to raise their hands too.

The author of the article,  Jerome Doraisamy, goes as far as to say that if we, those of us in senior executive positions, won’t fess up, why on earth should Sally from accounts?

“Senior managers with the courage to admit they have battled demons, or still do, will win the undying gratitude and respect of those they lead.  Those who play out their careers in denial, will simply reinforce the stigma that mental illness is for the weak and something to be ashamed of. That success and mental illness are mutually exclusive.  And that’s rubbish.”

Whoa – that’s a lot to deal with on a Monday morning.

Later that morning

Later that morning our Employee Wellbeing team member sent an all staff email out advising that our organisation’s Employee Assistance Program providers (a psychology/counselling service) would be coming to our town and employees (and/or their loved ones) could come and have a confidential face to face session.  This is of course in addition to this service being available all year round through a phone call.

I almost deleted the email after I read it.  But I didn’t.  I took a deep breath, recalled the article I’d read earlier that morning, and pondered some recent incidents in our workforce and in our small community.  A team member dying from suicide, a tragic car accident taking the lives of three vibrant young people, years of drought, devastating bush fires, severe water restrictions….the list went on.

I also remembered we were having four funerals this week alone – three from one accident.  

My heart ached for our team members who were some of the first on the scene to the most recent tragedy.  Not their first, won’t be their last.  These are men and women who signed up to work in roles that did not contemplate their having to attend the site of accidents and other tragedies.

It made me angry – at first.  Seeing the effect this particular event had on some of our team – extending beyond just those who were on site.  We needed to keep them away from this – this isn’t what they’re meant to be doing.

That’s what I was thinking – at least until I shut my mouth and opened my ears and my heart.  When I did this – I heard a different story to the one I was telling myself.

You see, these men and women, fully aware that they didn’t sign up for this type of work, wouldn’t have it any other way.  Of course, they’d all love there to be no need for their attendance at such incidents, but there is – and when I opened my ears and listened I understood.

They don’t want to be there, they don’t want to see what they see, and they don”t want to feel what they feel – and they don’t want anyone else to have to do this either.  They also see themselves as a part of this community – and this thing they do – this dreadful part of what they do – they consider as a service to our community in times that are unbelievably difficult and challenging.

Wow – paradigm shift.  I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t see this before – I was in protective mode.  I needed it gently explained to me.    I am so glad someone took the time to do so for me.

So had I continued with the story I had crafted,  I would have pushed to have our staff not be involved at all – until I listened and understood.  Now my focus is on continuing to support these men and women in our teams before, during and after they attend these incidents.  To work as best we can to reduce their exposure.  To be there – for them – whatever they need.  To recognise both what they do and more importantly, why they do it.

 

Mental Health Awareness
Let’s raise our hand

Back to the email – am I willing to raise my hand?  

So instead of deleting the all staff email about our counsellors coming to town – I clicked on “forward” and sent another all staff email – not something I do lightly with over 140 staff – but this time it was coming from me, in a senior executive position. I was raising my hand.  

In the email I spoke of our recent tragedies, our awareness of the affect this has had on our teams and our community.  I spoke of my regular psychologist visits – this part I deleted and retyped a few times before deciding to leave it in there – to raise my hand so to speak.  I urged our team members to consider making an appointment and I offered to speak to anyone about the service we offer at any time.

Then I clicked on “send”.

Now maybe you think this was a good thing to do, and maybe you don’t.

All I  know, deep in my heart, is that I couldn’t hit the delete button, I couldn’t walk away from this.  I couldn’t not sent this email when our community and our workforce were dealing with so much.

If one person, just one, can read that email, say to themselves “wow Michelle sees a psych? She looks like she has it all together” (a comment I receive quite often) or can read on, open the brochure or maybe store the phone number away for later use, then I’ve made a small dent.  If one person books in for a session, if one team mate mentions it to another, if one person stops me in the tea room for a chat – then I’ve made a dent.

I’m not out to change the world , I’m still learning my place in it.  I am out to dent the world where I can.  If that means raising my hand and sending these emails, if that means sharing parts of my journey, the darker parts,  in support of others I care about, then I’m going to do that.  

What are you going to do?  What can you do to support the breaking down of the stigma that remains around mental health?  You’re contribution will likely be different to mine – but it will be a contribution all the same.

“Let your life be your Message” Mahatma Gandhi

Written by Michelle McFadyen

Michelle is the founder of Life Support Australia. She is a writer, an adventurer and a traveller, a corporate leader, a student and a teacher. A Strengths Profiler, Conflict and Strengths Coach, qualified Counsellor and Positive Psychology Practitioner, Michelle’s focus during her extensive career in senior executive positions in the corporate and public sector has always been on people.

Michelle loves to hike and travel and makes this a priority in her life. Her experiences include annually guiding groups across the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, summiting Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mt Kinabalu in Borneo and trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. A solo 920km pilgrimage across Spain has kept those fires alive, along with a recent hike across the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route in Japan.

Learn more about Michelle on the Life Support Australia About page

Getting to know, and question, your fears – Part 1

Have you taken the time to get to know your fears? 

All of us have fears.  Some are evolutionary fears, like the fear of the dark and looming objects. We see horror movies making the most of these fears through selective lighting and “jump scares.” Some fears are more personal fears brought on by an experience, often early in life, that then stay with us submerged in our hearts and minds.  These fears can be fears inherited from our family history or shared experience.  Some of these fears seem to be logical fears (the fear of snakes for instance) and some seem less logical (the fear of butterflies). Regardless of how we gained them, these fears are a part of us and can be triggered without warning.  What follows then is usually a trip down a well prepared response path including physical, mental and emotional reactions

As we progress down the path of living mindfully it becomes important to question all of our unthinking reactions and our fears often fall into this category.  Often our fear exists in the background waiting for a trigger and in those cases it can spring upon us quite suddenly and with great intensity.  Before we know it we have reacted without thought and then our mood, our day and possibly the days of those around us have been affected. Yet often we don’t know why we react and simply accept our fears as an ever present part of our lives.

 

crow
Know your fears

Can your fears be a positive presence in your life? 

One of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves is to get to know our various fears and understand our “pre-programmed” reaction to them.  In this case we can view our fears as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better rather than something that is negative and to be avoided.  It can lead not only to self-exploration but also discussions with family to discover the long lost reasons for reacting a certain way or avoiding certain circumstances.  This then presents an opportunity to be free of ingrained behaviours or at least to be more understanding of ourselves when we do react in a certain way.   

To use myself as an example, one of my enduring fears is my fear of heights.  This fear develops in most children once they begin to move around more on their own.  In my case I believe that this was enhanced by a few early childhood events which has increased my reaction.  Over many years this reaction has become ingrained and I simply accepted it for a long time as a “normal” part of my life.  This fear can cause me discomfort if I find myself suddenly exposed to heights but it can also greatly increase my enjoyment of life by adding an adrenaline rush to my activity or by giving me a sense of accomplishment as I work through the fear to achieve my goals. 

While on holiday recently I was walking across a high multi-use bridge, in order to see the sights on the other side.  In the distance I could see a tram coming towards me and so I moved away from the tracks.  As I crossed away from the tram’s path I happened to look down and realised I could see through the bridge.  At the same time the bridge began to wobble and sway due to the motion of the oncoming tram.  My reaction to this combination of events was to become literally “weak at the knees” as my fear suddenly leapt into being.  I felt light headed, my legs grew tingly and weak, my heart rate accelerated and I found myself fighting against my fear and not enjoying myself as I had been only seconds before.

I was amazed at the strength of my reaction and so took a moment to explore what had happened.  I was faced with the logic that it was a strong, metal bridge, over which travelled the city trams on a regular basis. In another more reactive part of my brain I was trying to deal with the sure knowledge that the bridge was going to collapse and I needed to turn and run as fast as I could.  Needless to say I was very happy to get to the other side of the bridge and on the return journey we walked across a lower level and my fear did not resurface. 

 

bridge and shoes
Know your fear – mine is heights

What opportunities does your fear give you?

Having crossed back with no issues I reasoned that I had an excellent opportunity to better understand my fear and so hopefully reduce my reaction to it.  This was not just for personal learning and development, but also driven by the fact that I would be climbing the highest peak in Iberia in a week and I really need to prepare myself if I was to be able to complete, and more importantly enjoy, that climb.  Exposure to heights is a process I go through before every climb and normally over a period of months I can become comfortable enough with heights to get onto a mountain, after which my love of climbing comes to the fore and I am fine.  In this case I had only days to overcome my newly awakened fear so that I could undertake the climb – and so the challenge was set. 

The first step to achieving this goal was in answering the following questions.  We can all ask ourselves these questions as we begin to explore our fears and continue down our path of self-knowledge and acceptance:

Do you really know what your fears are?

Do you know why you have them?

Are you prepared to get to know them better?

How could you explore them in a way which still leaves you feeling safe?

What benefits would you receive through knowing your fears?

In part two of this blog next week I’ll take you through the process I undertook to answer these questions and you’ll find out whether or not I was able to come to terms with my fear and reach the summit!  

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

Peter McFadyen