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Being a mental health ally

This article was originally shared internally within our organization - which is why currently, resources to find help are only provided for the countries we have most staff. Please comment helpful resources for your country if they are missing in the list!

Little disclaimer up front: I am no medical professional nor psychologist - these thoughts are based on my own experience and research and do not claim to be comprehensive. It felt however, like talking about mental health and how to be an ally for those struggling, was long overdue, especially in the current day and time.

tl;dr: struggles with mental health can look very different for everyone but are much more widespread than you might be aware of. At the end of this text you can find 5 things to make (work) life a bit easier for everyone (but especially those dealing with mental health issues).

Step 1: Develop a broad understanding

The WHO describes mental health as follows:
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Mental health disorders are complex and can take many forms - they also still remain widely under-reported. According to a report by Our World In Data, 10.7% people worldwide suffer from mental health issues. Among the most widely spread disorders are anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. In three out of those four disorders, women are either more likely to seek help or suffer from them more frequently.

Overview of most common mental illnesses

And of course, it’s not all black and white: symptoms and treatments partially overlap, so do disorders (you can suffer from depression and anxiety etc.) and for the most part, disorders happen on a spectrum.

Mental health being such a broad field of course doesn't make it any easier to understand from an outside perspective. You could for example suffer from severe depression and be unable to work, but you could just as well be ‘high functioning depressive’ where your colleagues most likely don’t notice you are struggling. You can have depressive episodes over shorter periods of time or symptoms which continuously last for a very long time. It’s fluid, can overlap and it can shift for some. It’s an ever changing monster. And the fact that we are not necessarily able to fully understand it doesn’t make it less real or harmful.

Drawing showing how depression overpowers ones motivation

If we stay with the example of depression, the issue is much more widespread than one might think: 8.2% of people in Germany are suffering from depression, with women making up twice as many of the patience (see Deutsche Depressionshilfe for reference). Now you probably can’t look around the office at your colleagues currently, but with these numbers, it’s highly likely someone is or has been affected during their life at some point. Under the current circumstances with increased stress levels, isolation and instability as well as the loss of routines numbers are probably much higher than is represented by these numbers.

How can you recognize a colleague is struggling?

Everybody is different and so are their symptoms. And it’s probably never been easier to disconnect, hide oneself and how we really feel than in the current remote work situation. Here are some possible signs that a member of your team could be struggling:

  • Change in behavior: maybe someone who used to be motivated to get the job done seems apathetic, down or indifferent to things they cared about before
  • Sleepiness: struggles with mental health have a tendency to keep you up at night or drown your energy in a way that makes it hard to get out of bed.
  • Difficulty to cope with routine tasks: if you are psychologically unwell, the easiest things can provide a challenge. People might strongly react to given tasks or express feeling overwhelmed.
  • Getting irritated quickly. When your brain is in fight for flight more, there is little time for kindness.
  • Hiding in plain sight: remotely it’s awfully easy to get overlooked. And without the accountability of an open office floor, you can be at work, yet connect at a bare minimum.

So how can you make (work) life a little easier for people who are struggling?

You don’t need a reason. Make it a habit not to add the reason for your sick leave. This takes off pressure from people who are not comfortable sharing their reason. You might feel obligated to explain, but you are really (also legally) not. Also: Please don’t ask. If people want to share why they were not able to work, they will. Else your ‘concern’ regardless of how well it is meant can put people in an uncomfortable position.

Are you, really? Don’t say you’re “fine”, if you are not. It’s ok, to not always be great, and it’s ok to say it. And knowing that not everyone is perfect all the time takes pressure off people who are struggling with mental health and might not be feeling great some days.
Don’t over do it. Don’t minimize or judge someone’s struggles. Regardless of how small a task, a problem or challenge might be for you - be mindful about the words you use when trying to motivate someone or lift them up. Toxic positivity might just be as hurtful as what is meant as a powerful pep talk. You don’t necessarily know what somebody is going through. Choose your words wisely - not only if you know someone is struggling, of course. Good example:

Let people know your (virtual) door is open. Check in with colleagues regularly if you can. Especially if you notice a change in their behavior or feel like something is off. Let people know they can come to you and offer help, but don’t push to accept it or share something.
Pick your timing. Maybe confronting someone about their mental health right before they give an important presentation or have to face a client is not a great idea.

In some ways, you come first. In order to be a help to others, we all have to take care of ourselves, first. Do everything you need to make sure your needs are met - in the long run, that’s the only way we can all help each other.

Where can you find help or more information?

Please note that if you suspect that you or somebody close to you could be affected by depression, seeing a medical professional is indispensable. The types of support offered highly depend on where you are located and what your specific problem is. Below you can find some general points of contact by country:

Germany:The Deutsche Depressionshilfe offers some general advice and an extensive list of links on their website.

Czech Republic:You can call the Linka první psychické pomoci hotline or can find a list of contacts, crisis centers, hotlines and much more on the nevypust dusi website. They also offer information regarding panic attacks and anxiety.

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