Why I am ambivalent about mental health as event

Two weeks ago it was Mental Health Week, a series of events held across Australia to educate and engage the community about mental health and wellbeing. It comes a month after RU OK? Day, a national day of action, and a week after Odd Socks Day, another event to raise the awareness of mental health.

I live with a mental illness and over the years, my attitude to these mental health events has changed. As Facebook would say, our relationship is complicated. On the one hand, they are better than nothing, acting as a focal point to catalyse awareness and providing pathways for participation. From this perspective, the events are having an impact. The results from beyondblue’s Depression Monitor survey show that community awareness about depression and anxiety has improved over time. More people now recognise that mental health is a major health problem in Australia with numbers doubling since 2004.

But I now question whether these campaigns can do more than simply raise awareness. The numbers aren’t promising, especially when it comes to mental health in the workplace. Research from PwC in 2014 shows that mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $10.9 billion per year in lost productivity. And the costs are not just confined to the bottom line. In another study, 45% of employees surveyed have left a workplace because it had a poor environment when it came to mental health. Only last week in an article in the Age, beyondblue’s CEO cautioned employees from disclosing a mental illness in the workplace because of the stigma and discrimination that still persists.

The workplace plays a pivotal role for people with mental illness. For me, going to work contributes to my self-esteem and self-worth and counterbalances the ugly side of my illness. I never imagined that I would suffer from a mental illness, that depression would enter my life and steal my mind like a thief. At the most basic level, going to work gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning and leave the black dog behind.

If wearing odd socks and celebrating Mental Health Week is increasing awareness but not addressing stigma, then what? Ongoing action is needed year around, to build on the platform these campaigns provide in order to drive longer term cultural change. At the most basic level, don’t just ask me if I’m ok on RU OK? Day - ask me tomorrow, next week and the week after that. Don’t be duped by the invisibility of my mental illness; I live with it 365 days of the year, not just during designated weeks or days.

Look around your workplace. Can you see signs of a mentally healthy workplace? Would you disclose? A workplace that does not encourage disclosure leads to a vicious cycle. It goes something like this: I come to work without telling anyone I have a mental illness and manage my illness without any noticeable impact. Until the day comes when my mental health takes a step back and my performance isn’t what it should be. With no knowledge of my health issues, my manager resorts to the bluntest workplace instrument – a performance conversation.

Imagine instead a virtuous cycle. My manager is aware of my mental illness and we have developed a stay at work plan. The plan outlines how my manager and employer can support me as well as my responsibilities for maintaining good mental health. It is also a touchstone for discussions about my health should the black dog make an unwelcome return. In the lexicon of policy wonks, we are co-designing, based on the principles of prevention and early intervention.

And if the moral arguments about maintaining mentally healthy workplaces aren’t enough, consider the economic benefits. The same PwC research cited earlier found organisations who implement mental health initiatives can expect a positive return on investment of 2.3. That is, for every dollar spent on investing in mentally healthy workplaces, an organisation can expect, on average, a $2.30 return on investment.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace and a culture that supports staff with a mental illness makes good sense – economically, morally and socially. It also requires sustained effort and leadership at all organisational levels to smash the stigma of mental illness and shift the dial from awareness to change. Without this deep cultural change and leaders stepping up to the challenge, workplace mental health risks being seen as little more than an event.