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

How to change the world – by Steve the homeless guy

I can change the world.  I know that now.

I once gave a homeless man my socks. I was walking back to my hotel from a concert in Sydney one night and this fellow was asleep in a lane without a blanket or shoes and socks. It was really cold. I took my boots off. Removed my socks and put them on his feet myself. He didn’t move. I thought he might be dead. But he wasn’t. He was probably just a bit frozen.

From that time I always wondered about people living rough on the streets. Where were their families, their friends? What happened to get them here? What mattered to them?

Today though, I’m walking the streets of Melbourne trying to find a coffee shop that’s open.  It’s early and I’m bemoaning the weight of my laptop bag and my choice of shoes.  First world problems.

I read his sign, I look at him briefly as I pass by.  Not wanting to make eye contact – I mean what do I do if I make eye contact with him?  Smiling is hardly appropriate, the guy’s lying on the street with a piece of cardboard asking for help – and I briskly walk past and smile?  Hardly.  So maybe I could just nod.  You know that slight tilt of the head in the other person’s general direction, an acknowledgement without emotion or message.  Just a nod.  Yeah maybe I could just nod.  There’s too much to think about – so I divert my eyes as he looks up, but I still see, from my peripheral vision, that he smiled at me.  I didn’t smile back, I didn’t even acknowledge this human.  Now I’m past him and I feel like shit.

I order my large and strong flat white, a croissant and some banana bread and take a seat looking out in to the busy Melbourne streets.  I try to get him out of my mind.  His name is Steve.  I read it on his cardboard sign.

Where are his family? His loved ones? Why has he got no tribe and no support? What brought him on to the streets? Why did I ignore him?

The croissant is good and the coffee is better.  I needed that.  It’s been a big few days and I head home tomorrow.  Another full day of business to attend to first .  I think about my day and what’s in store.  I struggle though, because Steve’s all I can think about.

No matter what I turn my mind to – reading, people watching, tram watching – I can’t get Steve out of my mind. I finish my croissant and grab my bag. I keep out my pre-packaged banana bread I just brought and get a $20 note from my bag. I have to go help Steve.

Then I stop myself, put the money back in my bag.  What am I thinking? How can I help him? There are hundreds of Steve’s on the streets of Melbourne right now. I can’t help them all. I can’t change the world.

Then I remember something I heard in a presentation a few days ago. It was said in the context of community engagement but I feel it relates to all aspects of our lives:

Show up on a scale where you can be powerful.

 How might I show up on a scale where I can be powerful?

I can be powerful in my compassion and care for Steve on this brisk but sunny Melbourne weekday morning. I can’t get Steve an apartment and a job and I have no idea what really matters to Steve. But this morning on this Melbourne street, I can read his sign. I can acknowledge him as a fellow human being.  I can hand him a coffee and banana bread.  I could drop the $20 in his hat along with the coins already in there and walk away.

Or I could look him in the eye, talk to him and tell him I hope he can keep his spirits up and that his circumstances get better and actually hand him that $20. I could really let him know that I see him, here on this Melbourne morning, outside a café, lying on cardboard and asking for help.

I get the money back out of my bag and I go to Steve.

I showed up this morning on a scale where I could be powerful.

I didn’t change the world, but in Steve’s world I made a small dent.

So in a way, I guess I did change the world this morning – thanks to Steve and lessons he taught me by just being Steve.

“Sweetheart. Oh thank you sweetheart. Bless you. You’ve no idea. Thank you sweetheart. Bless you”. 

That’s what I heard when I was walking away from Steve, and that’s what I heard all day in my head.

Bless you Steve for the lesson and for allowing me to change to world, to dent your world, just a little, today.

What are you doing today to show up on a scale where you can be powerful?  How can you dent the world today? 

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi