Not Weakness. Just the way it is.

Tuesday 10th October 2017 was World Mental Health Day (#WorldMentalHealthDay2017). Organisations such as Mind and Time to Change are among those across the world have been producing information, and circulating messages of advice and support via social and standard media channels. Many individuals, including a number of well-known people, have shared their own stories. Some of the key facts and figures can be found in this BBC piece ‘Mental Health: 10 charts on the scale of the problem.’ Anyone who doubts the seriousness of the issue should take a look at this.

The theme of this year is mental health in the workplace – looking at how our workplace experience can be improved to promote mental health and wellbeing. At the same time and separately there is – not before time – increasing attention in the higher education sector being paid to the mental health of students and staff. Dame Janet Beer, current President of UUK issued a statement, as did Paul Farmer, CE of Mind, who wrote a blog for UUK on this topic. Earlier in 2017, UUK produced their Stepchange framework intended to encourage university leaders to ‘adopt a long-term, strategic, whole-organisation and whole-population approach to mental health.’

I have in a few earlier blogs, for example The Diversity Challenge – and outline of my journey, touched on the fact that I am among the many who are dealing with and/or have had to deal with a mental health challenge. In this piece and in the spirit of being open the World Mental Health Day encourages, I will give some further insight into my own journey. This blog is much longer than usual, for which I apologise. I hope readers will find if out interest/use.

I have come to realise – belatedly – that I have suffered from bouts of depression since I was in my teens. When I was growing up it just wasn’t the sort of thing that was readily admitted to or discussed. Terms like ‘breakdown’ and ‘weakness’ were commonplace. I must also make clear that I regard myself as lucky – the number, regularity and severity of these episodes is not nearly as great as those many others face. And, at the time of what I now regard as my ‘crisis episode’, I was supported at work and I received good (NHS) medical care – many people benefit from neither.

This is not the time nor place to delve into the times when, in my younger days, I can now see that I did become depressed and why. Suffice to say that there were in my case some obvious triggers, for instance the death of my parents (both before I was 35). It was when my father died in 1992, and I struggled to come to terms with this that the term ‘depression’ was first mentioned – in a one-off sense triggered by my bereavement. Two years later, my youngest child was born. Within a few months it was clear he was missing all sorts of milestones. As it turned out, and for no reason that has ever been determined, he is now categorised as having a severe learning disability. I became very down as that knowledge and the lifetime implications began to sink in. Incidentally, aside from a few months off for maternity leave I always continued to work full time. Did I confide in anyone? Not a chance. Did I try my hardest to conceal how I was feeling? Definitely – and not just at work either. Were there times that I didn’t want to face the day? Yes.

Move forward to 2003 and it was then that I had a major mental health crisis. The clarity of hindsight shows me that it had been building for a long time. A growing inability to wind down and increasing problems sleeping were additional warnings that I should have heeded. I didn’t. In fact I threw myself into work, as to me that was the only area I felt I was in control and that this was the only thing I remained ‘good at’. Or so I thought, as I was barely clinging on. The catalyst for change was a small issue that resulted in me simply bursting into a prolonged bout of tears during an informal meeting with my boss (a Vice-Chancellor – white, male, quite a bit older than me). His supportive reaction and understanding, along with a directive to get medical help, quickly saved me from hospitalisation and maybe worse. My GP later said to be that he felt when I first saw him that I was near to that. His response was echoed by a small group of other VCs on the Board of London Higher. I owe them all a debt.

I ended up having to take some weeks off. I learned to face up to my demons, and I accepted that depression is very real and very tangible, it’s not something that you can readily snap out of, and that I suffered from it and likely would again. Everything seemed bleak for a time and I cried; a lot. My coping strategies and the ability to make a decision almost completely left me.

Like most people I was living then, and still am, with a precarious juggling act. I believe myself to be pretty good at keeping the various balls in the air. Or if one dropped it was seemed fairly easy to pick up. At that point in my life I didn’t just drop one I dropped the lot and fast, but pretended that I hadn’t both at home and at work. One non-work example is that I just forgot one afternoon to collect my learning disabled son from his after school club, and did not admit that it was totally down to me. After my first visit to the GP, which I would not have sought had my boss told me to, I had to accept that I couldn’t even decided when I wanted a cup of tea.

Everyone is probably different in learning how to recover in these sorts of situations. For me, an integral part was getting outdoors for as long as possible each day. I got a dog and walking on the hills in all weathers helped enormously. Medication in the short term, and some counselling, improved things as well. Setting small and achievable daily milestones and then gradually increasing them became important. I returned to work, and whilst I have had down spells since, I have learned how to manage them more effectively and to recognise the warning signals earlier and much better. Talking to people I trust early on, and keeping up with the regular walking, both play a role.

London Higher was much smaller then and was in its infancy. Those few who worked with me knew what the score was, and the Chair made it clear that I was to be given time to recover and reset. These days London Higher is a lot bigger, I have had some time to take stock and I believe it is for me to set the tone. The fact is that nearly all of us lead busy lives and juggle many balls. Few feel immune from the pressure to be a success personally and professionally, and often as partner and/or parent as well. Mental health is today talked about more openly and far more employers have support structures, but often the prevalence and seriousness is dismissed.

Anyone can suffer from a mental health problem, or like me suffer a crisis or a near-crisis event. We all need to be more open about this. I now believe that those of us in management and leadership positions have a responsibility to be approachable, to listen, show tolerance and be flexible and also more open about our own situations.

In my experience, and I stress it is only my experience, often what people with a mental health condition need most are an ear and a bit of time. For instance, to be able to work part-time and/or flexible hours to access counselling or other services, or simply to be able to talk to people who will listen but not judge. The biggest boost to my health and wellbeing recently has been a move to a 4-day working week. A move that was supported by the London Higher Board.

I am a CEO. I am also a person who juggles a lot of balls and has episodes of depression. My efforts to manage myself nowadays are successful (usually anyway – yes I can drop the odd ball). Has it made me less effective? I don’t think so. I hope young people and anyone struggling with a mental health problem but who takes their career seriously might find some comfort in my example. Not a weakness. Just the way it is.