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

That one time when I was handed a human skull at my desk – the joys of local government

Choose Local Government as a career they said.  It’ll be fun they said.

I’ve never taken the time to record the stories I have from my more than 20 year career in local government despite many people urging me to do so. Not the run of the mill everyday stories, but those moments that come out of the blue, those times when everything you know, everything you feel and everything you’ve learnt come in to play. Those times when there’s no procedure, no precedent, no guidebook and no-one to turn to.

Local Government is a diverse and challenging environment – that is not without it’s rewards.  But at times, the beast that is Local Government can throw a curve ball at you and whether you’re ready or not, you need to deal with it.

Local Government 101.1 – What to do when you’re handed human remains.

Seriously. There was that one time, when I was sitting at my desk, in Outback Queensland, doing CEO stuff as you do, when my Parks and Gardens Supervisor knocked on my office door.

“Hi Bob! What’s up?” It was unusual to see him in the office.

A quietly spoken hard working man, Bob just looked at me, and held out to me a brown paper bag.

It looked to me like the brown bags the bakery in town used to put your freshly baked cream bun in. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cream bun – going by the look on Bob’s face.

“Errr what’s up Bob? What’s this?” I said as I reflexively put out my hand to take the bag he was holding out to me.  Maybe it was a cream bun?  It was about the right size.

“I think that’s most of a human skull, it’s in some pieces and all, but yeah, I’m pretty sure. Not that I’ve seen a heap of them, skulls that is…..I’ve seen pictures….but…well take a look….tell me what you think”.

My lack of any verbal response had him talking some more – as I remained stationary holding out the bag in front of me at my desk.

“Jacko noticed it when he was moving some soil around – he dug it up. There’s more out there but we just brought this bit in to show you and find out what to do”.

They say there’s a first for everything.

Here’s how it played out.

Trying hard to quickly work out which of the 4000 questions I had rushing through my brain to ask first – I started with asking where exactly we dug up this – what seemed to be – human skull?

At the cemetery Bob told me.

Out there, in outback councils, it’s not uncommon for the council to maintain and manage the town cemetery and we did that here. It’s also not uncommon for the council to be the undertaker – we were that as well.  It’s unique to be able to add Undertaker to my resume. 

My mind started swirling with the headline in the local paper – thinking we must have accidently dug in a area that had already had graves in it.

Ah but no – we were digging outside the cemetery as it turns out, and we’d moved soil from just outside the perimeter into the cemetery proper and stockpiled it to use for, well, filling grave sites and to level out the uneven ground.

That basic information at hand, I figure that, even though I have never had to identify a human skull before, I’d have a look.

I had a look – tentatively.

I tried to recall my degree studies, my post graduate studies, past episodes of Bones and CSI, specific local government studies – nope, nothing was coming to me. I must have been away for the class on human skull identification 101.

If I had to make a call on this, and it seemed like I did – yes – I’d hazard a guess that it is a human skull in the brown paper bag I’m holding in my hand.

Do something Michelle.

Anything.

Oh where to go from here – so much to think about.

Seeking support and taking early actions

Bob, have we stopped work on the site?
Yes.
Are there any burials today?
No.
Close the cemetery please Bob – leave everything as it is. Set up two blokes at the entrance. Don’t let anyone in.  And Bob, check on Jacko – I’ll come and see him later. 

I asked my assistant in my best fake calm voice to get the officer in charge of the local police on the phone.

Oh and to call the Mayor and ask him to come in to see me asap.

What else?

Get the boardroom ready.
I’m not sure why, but I felt like I needed to get these human remains out of my office. Actually out of my hands – I was still holding the brown paper bag.

Take these to the boardroom Bob, please – handing over the bag.

We met in the boardroom. Senior police, the Mayor, my Environmental Health Officer (I don’t know why I invited her – but I felt I needed her there) and me.

The people who’ve actually dealt with skulls before tell me yes, it definitely looks like a skull.

That being the case we came up with the following potential scenarios:
1. It wasn’t human – unlikely given it …well if it looks like duck
2. It was human and:
a. It was recent – this held a range of serious issues as you can imagine – starting with the police declaring the entire cemetery and surrounds as a crime scene – complete with blue police crime scene tape!
b. It was not recent, that is, these were part remains of a person having been buried outside the cemetery many years ago. Not as serious as 2a) but still significant.

Seeking answers and solutions

With those options at hand, firstly the site was officially declared a crime scene, until it could be determined otherwise.

Through a process of using normal office rulers and a camera, with the police staff we photographed the pieces of bone on the boardroom table. We emailed the photos to forensics on the east coast and waited for their initial assessment. The nearest forensics were about 800km away.

I called the media – they’d already seen the crime scene tape at the cemetery….they wanted the story.

I called the historical society. Back in times before I was thought of, bodies were sometimes buried outside the perimeter of the cemetery. If you didn’t identify with one of the religions signposted within the fence, if you had disgraced your family, if you were poor, if you were an Afgan trader or Chinese market gardener (of which there were many in past decades in this region) it was likely you were buried outside the fence.

Who knew?

I took a breath.

We waited.

Getting results

Results are in! Forensics call – from their initial assessment it’s human.
Crime scene remains. We wait.

Another call an hour later.
It’s female and it’s definitely a skull.

I hold off the media.

I get a coffee.

Forensics call again.
She was approximately 50 years old when she died.
She’s been not alive (‘dead’ sounds far too harsh) for over 100 years.

Crime scene gets dismantled and police are removed from the cemetery.

When everyone goes home

I breathe again.
The Police sergeant hands me the brown paper bag.
What am I meant to do with this? I ask.
No idea he says.

I send my staff home.
I call the Coroner.
He tells me to bury the skull pieces in the actual cemetery and GPS the location to add to our cemetery records.

I call the media.
I call the historical society.
I call my husband.

I have another coffee thinking it should be a bourbon, and head back to my office.

It’s late and I’m tired.

I think about this woman. She was about my age when she died. Buried with no headstone and likely no ceremony, in a paddock outside the cemetery. Back in the early 1900’s. She was a 50 year old female living most of her life in the late 1800’s. What was her story? Who was she? What was her life?

My mantra is a Mahatma Gandhi quote “Let you life be your message”, and I wondered, what was her message?

I took a moment to honour her – I held the remains of her skull in my hands and I said a few words. Just to myself, and to her, in my office.

Me and her.

I took another breath and then I went and locked her in the safe – she was now a ‘her’ to me. She was a she. She once lived where I live.

Pondering not for the first time, and not for the last time, life, death and the diversity of local government, I headed home.

“Let your life be your message” – Mahatma Gandhi