May 17th 2018

Let’s make every week a Mental Health Awareness week

I’m putting pen to virtual paper this week, to again discuss a topic that is close to my heart: mental health.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with the focus this year being on stress. Stress. A word that we all use quite liberally; a feeling we’ve all undoubtedly felt in some shape or form, some more so than others. But what is it?

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” The interesting part of that sentence is the latter: “adverse or demanding circumstances.” What constitutes adverse or demanding? People feel things in different ways; what’s stressful to me might not be so stressful to you. This is where mental health and the treatment of it becomes wildly subjective, and where we may struggle to empathise or show tolerance for issues impacting our mental wellbeing.

Last February, I wrote a blog about a report published by PR Week into mental illness within the PR industry. The 2017 #FuturePRoof report interviewed 120 PR practitioners to get feedback on their experiences of mental health in an industry that is notorious for piling pressure on its professionals. Alarmingly, fifty-seven percent of those interviewed said they would feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health in the workplace. Some of the PR practitioners even went as far to say that mental health had been cited as grounds for dismissal.

The reality is, despite mental health gaining the awareness it deserves, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done to educate people and provide appropriate resources on how to handle mental health issues effectively, as well as better support those who are suffering.

Last year we worked on a project with student brand-engagement platform Dig-In, in collaboration with mental healthcare provider The Insight Network to promote the results of one of the largest-ever surveys into student mental health. The survey revealed that a third of students has suffered a serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem for which they felt they needed professional help. We’re only really just beginning to understand the scale of the mental health crisis, and how it can impact people of all ages and walks of life.

Earlier on this week, The Guardian reported on a similar Mind study, which found that three in four Britons have felt overwhelmed by stress. This study is so significant because of the large number of participants, which is thought to be representative of the UK. The other key takeaway from the study is the impact that stress can have on our lives, whether clinically diagnosed or not. It’s something we can no longer ignore.

Looking at PR specifically, stress continues to pervade the industry. A month ago, the Evening Standard reported that a London PR worker had fallen to her death after being signed off work with stress. Sadly, at the end of last year I also said goodbye to a former colleague, who had taken his own life after years of struggling with depression in silence. The news came as a shock – he’d never openly spoken about dealing with such issues, and was outwardly a very sociable, fun and happy-go-lucky person.

We’re often told in PR that we have to mask our emotions. Don’t feel or act this way, always be positive, don’t talk about your problems, be a role model for the rest of the team. But wouldn’t we be better role models if we forged a new path – one where we’re able to show our vulnerabilities in a safe environment without judgment or prejudice? We take mental health very seriously at Babel – people are our assets, so why would we not protect or support them in the best way we can? I always encourage staff to open up about how they’re feeling about work, or about anything else that may be affecting their time in the office.

We simply need to do better – as an industry, as a nation, as a world. It’s time we stopped looking at mental health as a problem; as something that holds us back.

I’d like to say the future looks positive. As support groups and organisations continue to fight the fight on our behalf, pressuring ministers and government bodies to make necessary changes to the provision of mental healthcare, slowly more people are starting to become comfortable with sharing their own stories. Footballer-turned-boxer Leon McKenzie has shared his own stories of battling depression, and a number of Hollywood celebrities have recently tried to turn the tides by opening up and pressing the issue of mental health in a society that continues to judge. The latest movement, I Don’t Mind, aims to “defeat the stigma surrounding mental illness with a simple phrase: IDONTMIND.” Actively backed by celebrities such as Melissa Benoist and Christopher Wood, I Don’t Mind is using digital channels such as Instagram to help open younger generations up to starting a proactive conversation about mental health.

As someone who has dealt with stress previously, it’s not always easy to share what’s going on. But the first step is to try – say what you need to say, take as much time as you need, but rest assured that someone, somewhere is going through the same as you. And it’s ok. It will be ok.