Back in 2001 the UK-based Mental Health Foundation initiated the first ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’. Their mission, “to help people to thrive through understanding, protecting, and sustaining their mental health” was expedited that year by what was then an impressively progressive World Health Report by the WHO entitled “Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope”.
In the 21 years since, the veil has certainly begun to be lifted on mental health. Doctors, campaigners, advocates of all kinds are encouraging us to be more mindful and aware of people’s ‘hidden’ problems. Continuing in this positive trajectory, let’s take a look at the history of mental health, where it is now, and how we as people and organisations can keep the momentum going for a healthier society – particularly in our workplaces.
Untangling the Issue
Mental health is no recent phenomenon. It’s been discussed with varying opinions from Hippocrates to Foucault. But academic, even medical discourse, has rarely been unaccompanied by that one word which seems consistently tangled up with this issue, tighter than the Gordian knot: STIGMA.
2001, the turn of the millennium, was also a turning point for bringing mental illness into the fold of ethical state and community care. However, this was just a start. We’re not there yet, with challenges still to face everywhere, particularly in such examples as Low & Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) and people of lower socioeconomic status in developed countries too.
Perhaps that’s why the issue of mental health still feels so new. What will it take for us all to talk freely about our mental wellbeing? This is something that goes well beyond hospitals and psychiatric wards, and into houses and offices all around the world.
Aptly then, this year, 2022, the Mental Health Week’s theme is Loneliness.
It’s easy to see why. Covid crippled the world, and confined to our homes amid the apparent hailstorm of crises sprinting alongside the pandemic, the uptick in people suffering from (or even opening up about) mental illnesses is as clear as day. Anxiety, depression, and concerns of all kinds have permeated through the lockdowns and in many cases have been carried back into the social & working lives of the ‘new normal’. That’s why we should all look out and aim to support those around us.
Working for a ‘Newer Normal’
So what can we do to help those affected by mental health problems, exacerbated by the pandemic or otherwise? An especially difficult question considering the nature of the problem. And with loneliness in particular? Even more so, as hybrid working has not brought people entirely back together.
It can sometimes take a trained eye to spot someone struggling. But brave faces and awkward laughs only go so far in masking what can sometimes be serious underlying issues. As co-workers, managers or even reportees, we should all be clued up on some of the signs someone at work might need help.
The foundation of catching these issues early is built upon an open, communicative workplace that facilitates both support, and receptiveness to support. Things like reassurances from management that mental wellbeing will be treated like physical ailments (i.e. without stigma), mental health check-ins from line managers, and the right outlets for employees to safely convey their feelings.
The act of opening up is a truly brave one, so companies need the infrastructure and training not only to respond accordingly, but to encourage this openness.
We’ve seen the wellbeing of employees rise to prominence in many considerations of a well-run company, from indices to sustainability reports. That said, we cannot forget the power of stigma. It is by nature very difficult to shrug, and Forbes hit the nail on the head with this anecdote:
“In our society, we tend to gloss over mental health issues. If a person breaks a leg, they go to a doctor. When a worker is experiencing burnout, bouts of depression, feelings of isolation from working at home and an overwhelming sense of insecurity and anxiety, they keep it to themselves.”
In order to put stigma in the rear-view mirror, we must look ahead: encourage people to speak up without fear of losing credibility at work, supplementing professional wellbeing policies with genuine promises of support, and looking out for those around us.
What to do during Mental Health Awareness Week
This year’s flagship fundraising challenge is the 80 Miles in May Challenge, so if you’re feeling fit then lace up your boots, dust off your Strava, and get involved!
You can help even from your desk. If you think someone isn’t feeling right, sometimes just a smile and a kind word can help.
And of course, we wish all of you the very best too. If you’re feeling lonely or down, then reach out to a friend, loved one or colleague. This is all in the spirit of community, so let’s break down these barriers and encourage positivity!
 Poudyal, B. N. & Y. Adhikari (2022) ‘Mental health in low- and middle-income countries: Needs, gaps, practices, challenges and recommendations’, Nepalese Psychology: Volume One (pp.195- 229). Evincepub. India: Chattisgarh.
 Reiss, F. et al. (2019) ‘Socioeconomic status, stressful life situations and mental health problems in children and adolescents: Results of the German BELLA cohort-study’, PLoS One. 2019; 14(3)
 Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program, ‘10 Warnings Signs Your Employee Has a Mental Health Issue’
 Harvard Business Review (2021), ‘When Your Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition’