In an anonymous post, one member of the comms2point0 community shares the story of their struggle to maintain good mental health.
by an anonymous guest poster
First of all an apology, I’m sorry that I’m writing this anonymously. I wish I that I could overcome my self-doubt and add my byline to this piece but unfortunately I’m not at that point just yet. I’ve been wanting to get my thoughts down on paper/ screen for a couple of years now, so I guess that’s some progress at least.
Secondly, another apology (well this is a great start isn’t it?), I’m sorry if what follows sounds a bit self-indulgent but I’m going to talk about mental health; particularly my poor state of mental health. There – I said it. That wasn’t so difficult was it?… Well, actually, yes it was hard. In fact, it was bloody terrifying.
But why should I/ we feel so reluctant to open up about what (worryingly) appears to be a growing issue for more and more of us? I guess that for all the positive talk amongst our supportive networks of comms peers (thank you Leanne Ehren, comms2point0, Comms Unplugged and Comms Chat to name but a few), there’s still a great fear about the public perception of others from outside of this sphere.
Sometimes I just can’t shake the feeling that I need to put on a brave face for bosses, colleagues, friends and family. I don’t want to let them down/ admit defeat/ feel like a failure etc. In my mind, I battle with the conundrum that maybe they’re facing similar anguish in hiding their truth from me too. The last thing I want to do is add to their worries – therefore we all try to prop each other up with an unrealistic notion of strength. Sooner or later the house of cards we’ve built up will collapse.
Still with me? Crikey – you’re a glutton for punishment too, huh? Must be a comms thing.
I guess that I’ve been dealing with my own mental health issues for nearly 20 years now – a mix of stress, anxiety and depression (yes I know that spells SAD – it made me chuckle too).
It’s been quite an education – I thought I’d left the bullies behind at school, but I still experienced bullying in the early part of my career; firstly with a journalism colleague who tried to make me feel inferior (laying the foundations for the imposter syndrome which still haunts me to this day). There was also the constantly-irrational news editor whose response to concerns raised by me and a fellow reporter about the levels of stress they were causing was to treat us like we were naughty children and tell us to "stop taking the f***ing p*ss". Admittedly, it was a different time back then… They’d probably just call us ‘snowflakes’ now.
I did question myself – thinking that maybe I was overreacting. After all, I’d faced much more challenging situations in the past so why should I buckle under pressure now? In the end – and following my partner’s advice – I went to see my GP who prescribed me a week off and a series of CBT sessions. It was an eye-opening and bittersweet experience – just to know that it was considered to be a big enough problem for a number of other people, that coping mechanisms had been established.
However, when my therapy sessions came to an end, and the natural buzz from riding my bike along the coast dried up, there was one piece of advice that rang true in my head: "You may need to consider changing jobs."
Thankfully, I was handed a lifeline by a more empathetic news editor who offered me a new job. This served as a valuable stepping stone before securing my first post in public sector comms. It gave me the thinking space I needed to re-evaluate my career choices and realise that I no longer wanted to chase headlines and bylines but instead help communities from the inside.
I honestly believe that I found my calling in public sector communications. It felt like I was part of a family; where I could put my creativity to good use for the benefit of others.
The grass gets greener but grows denser
However, my new-found vocation came at a price. I threw myself into my work; constantly pushing myself to keep up with my peers and "better myself". The more comms I produced, the more it consumed me. I vainly craved the recognition I gained, and colleagues would play on this when they piled more work on my shoulders – dressing it up as an ego boost for me.
Alongside this was the eternal struggle we face in public sector communications – attempting to uphold the reputation of the organisation against continued funding cuts. I took every attack on our "family" personally and considered it my responsibility to either defend us robustly or convince us to take action which corrected our (often careless) mistakes.
More and more this was having a detrimental effect on my actual family life the elephant in the room (in any room in our home) was smartphone-shaped. I kept reacting to the regular ‘ping’ of notifications (which usually alerted me to the negative tone taken by commentators). Even if I removed the corporate Twitter account from my personal mobile, our Facebook page was linked to my profile so it felt like there was no escape (especially with people on Facebook frequently flinging foul insults around) I found it was increasingly becoming anti-social media.
I too was getting more irritable (and consequently being more irritating to my family). When I wasn’t being irrational and negative, I was finely honing my unhealthy obsession with producing more creative comms. If we were enjoying a day out my mind would soon wander off – looking out for some genius content; whether that was a killer line, perfect picture opportunity or brilliant video. It was never enough and, conversely, I wasn’t really there enough for my family.
My time management was another big challenge (and by "challenge" I euphemistically mean a really huge problem). My ever-increasing workload and meeting schedule wreaked havoc with my work-life balance. I would kid myself that a five-minute walk in the park would be enough to get me through each day (some days I would even work right through without stopping). I was "banking" the half-hour lunch breaks that I should’ve been taking and building up flexi-leave time. However, I was just trying to fool myself (along with everyone else) that it was okay to put in the longer hours as my reward would be a few extra days of holiday. But what was the point when I still couldn’t truly switch off mentally even if I was away from the office?
I witnessed the years taking their toll on both me and my Head of Comms as we tried to support our colleagues through endless "transformation" programmes (which often impacted on our own team too) and having to respond to angry customer reactions to cutbacks (not easy when we were frequently being kept in the dark as well).
Seeing the glass half-full and bottling up too much
However, I think the hardest part of the job was dealing with the aftermath of young people’s deaths in tragic circumstances – particularly kids who had taken their own lives – some of whom were barely older than my own children. Having been through the trauma of suicide in my extended family over a decade ago, I’m still living with the consequences. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t wish I’d done something differently to keep my beloved family member on this earth. While I don’t believe I’d consider suicide myself, I couldn’t help but think of the horrendous difficulties those kids must’ve faced to have come to such a conclusion and the agony those parents must’ve gone through when they had to bury their child in such circumstances. So I’d think of that and count myself lucky that my worries were insignificant in comparison. And then on I’d go to tackle another challenge: “What’s next?” as The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett would say…
Yes, I knew there were employee assistance programmes – I communicated about them regularly (well, at least every Mental Health Awareness Day – along with other well-meaning platitudes) but when I was stuck in the mire, with other people’s deadlines, priorities and problems, I felt like I was too busy to take care of myself. I was not in my ‘right mind’ and couldn’t see the wood for the trees. What I really needed was someone else – boss, colleague, peer – to check in on me and help to show me the way.
Mind’s Ask Twice campaign is an excellent example of not taking someone’s response of “I’m fine” at face value. I’m afraid that I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve put on a brave face when someone asked if I was okay. I would often compare myself to a duck – seemingly gliding effortlessly along the water whilst furiously paddling underneath. But it was only a matter of time until this little duckie was going to sink, not swim.
On the rare occasions where I did try to speak up about my troubles to my boss, it was usually crow-barred into the end of another lengthy discussion (mainly about the myriad of work we were overrun with) – so it was just met with a reaction along the lines of "I know, I know." Of course they knew – they were struggling with it too but the daily demands of the organisational beast just kept on coming – with an appetite that simply could not be sated.
I hadn’t realised just how close I had come to a complete burnout/ nervous breakdown/ utter meltdown (*take your pick) until I was handed a lifeline. An offer of a fresh start with a new job elsewhere (along with a new way of working).
I think some people may have thought I was crazy to leave such a great position which offered so much potential (I guess I’d done an okay job of trying to make it look effortless). While others closer to me – who had seen the cracks forming for some time – told me I’d done well to last as long as I did.
When I finally took my foot off the gas, I not only realised how many cliches I’ve been using (sorry about that last one), but it also hit home just how much of a toll it had all taken on my family. I took the time to talk with my partner and our young children and ask if they’d noticed any change in me since I’d left the old ways behind. It was a unanimous thumbs up. And when the kids told me they liked it now that I seemed happier and was no longer angry and irritable with them, well that absolutely crushed me.
Keep calm and carry on
Despite my situation becoming infinitely better of late, I recently felt things piling up on me (for the first time in over a year). I had foolishly given in to my anxiety demons once again and had let myself fall into the trap of attempting to do everything at once. I was trying to please everyone (except myself) and failing miserably. Thankfully I recognised what was happening and I ‘reached out’ (like The Four Tops instructed) to my understanding and supportive boss. It was a huge relief to feel unburdened and supported to work through the things that really mattered and not worry about the things that didn’t.
I certainly don’t have all the answers – I’m still learning day by day myself – but I’m trying.
So, other than processing my thoughts and feelings on paper (which has definitely helped), what have I actually learned from all this that I could share with you?
Well for a start, we don’t have to be stupidly busy all the time. Both as bosses and officers, we need to take a step back from the relentless requests – which are often non-urgent, despite what the requesters may say, and are certainly not aligned with the organisation’s strategics priorities. It’s counter-productive, especially when it takes us away from the priorities that really matter (and what we should actually be doing).
Also – don’t waste your time worrying about the opinions of people who you wouldn’t go to for advice. Most of the time they are just toxic complainants whose only aim is to make others feel bad. Don’t give them the satisfaction – it will only wind you up more.
Learn from your mistakes but don’t beat yourself up about them. My old driving instructor used to tell me that the more I worried about something I’d done wrong in my lesson, the more my mind would wander and make another mistake. This is true in life too.
In the grand scheme of things, none of what we do is really that important. For the most part, nobody should die as a result of our action or inaction. But life will go on and if we become too fixated then we run the risk of missing out on it – friends, family, fun.
Give yourself a break – often. Make sure you take regular screen breaks, climb the stairs to go to the toilet or walk around the office and chat with others. And absolutely take your proper lunch breaks at the right times. Venture further on a walk each day – explore new places and free your mind. It will benefit both your physical and mental health. Go home on time too. If you’re lucky enough to have someone waiting there for you – partner, friends or family – be sure to make the most of the precious time you have with them. Whether it’s fun holidays, weekend walks or just evenings in – watching the telly, it goes all too fast.
Also, talk to one another – at home and at work – whether you have a problem or you think someone you know could benefit from a chat, please open up and share the load.
Just remember, it’s okay to not be okay, but it’s even better to talk about it and get help.
Thank you for listening – I hope that it’s helped you too.
Image via Rastamark