‘See Me’ – the anti-stigma mental health campaign

I welcomed Scotland’s See Me anti-stigma Mental Health Campaign. Any attempt to challenge the attitudes of some people towards mental ill-health is a good thing in my book.

I met with a client today who demonstrated just why campaigns such as See Me are necessary.

A middle-aged man who had previously worked at Director-level in a very demanding area, he had retrained following redundancy. The first episode of depression came in the middle of his training. He dropped out and was admitted to hospital. He was suicidal. Very ill. Unable to function.

He was proudest of the fact that he returned to college and completed his course – facing the people who had witnessed his original disintegration.

He is one of the most articulate and intelligent people I have met for a long time. With the greatest insight into his condition that I have ever encountered.

He had attended a meeting with managers yesterday. The meeting was a lesson for all managers in how not to behave.

Prior to the meeting he had been told by the biggest boss that ‘we don’t ‘do’ unions here’. So he ‘hadn’t to bother involving them’. He could ‘bring along a colleague or friend’ but ‘they wouldn’t be allowed to speak or contribute in any way’ to the process.

The external managers in attendance arrived an hour late. During which time my client and his colleague were sitting outside in a corridor.

The meeting degenerated into a bunfight between managers wishing to off-load any responsibility they may have for making the required (and Occupational Health recommended) ‘reasonable adjustments’.

The lowest point (and there were many low points) came when the managers in the room decided to discuss my client and what ‘would be good for him’ as though he were not there. Maybe it would be better for him if he did a different pattern of reduced hours to those recommended. Maybe he would find it difficult to perform 4 full days. Maybe it would be better if he did 3 full days and two half days.

As he told his story the tears trickled down the space between his spectacles and his nose. They dripped onto his chin and through his hands. I made him tea and got him the only tissue I could find – a toilet roll.

I listened.

He was worthless he said. He had pretended to his family that he was working today and had left the house as usual. He had found himself here. He could not face going into work. He knew he was ill. He was deteriorating. He was sorry. He felt guilty about it all. About troubling me. About letting his family down. About being a worthless failure.

When he left – calmer and with some ordered thoughts and a written plan of action (for me) – my own colleague expressed extreme sympathy with this man. My colleague thought their words were enlightened and understanding. In fact, my colleague betrayed yet another misunderstanding: that depression must have a how and a why. My colleague made a common mistake – they began speculating about how this man had ‘caught’ depression, about why this man was depressed. Was he intrinsically weaker and unable to cope? Had he suffered some deep and hidden trauma? Was the depression a manifestation of psychological turmoil?

I tried to point out that we do not ask how or why someone developed multiple sclerosis. That there need be no psychologically traumatic and deeply buried trigger for the depression. That it wasn’t useful to us to think of depression in terms of ‘what happened to make the person become depressed’. That we didn’t baulk at giving a diabetic insulin so why should we moralise about giving a depressed person anti-depressants.

My words were falling on incomprehension.

My client knew he needed help.

I can help some. I can make his employers act according to their legal duties under the Equality Act. I can take the pressure off by being his advocate in meetings. But I can’t make the depression go away.

There are many reasons why See Me is so important. Until mental health is treated in the same way as ‘bodily’ health, clients like the man today will continue to endure attitudes and behaviours which actively mitigate against them seeking help or being open about their health needs. Clients like the man today will continue to self-harm and to commit suicide.

The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will soon be the second largest illness worldwide. One in 5 Scots will suffer from depression at some point in their life.

We need to open the closed doors behind which this illness is hidden away like our dark secret shame. Our sin. We need to be honest. Challenge the prejudice with our refusal to be stigmatised.

I have suffered from depression in the past.