Trigger warning: some of the content in this blog post may be triggering. Themes include abuse, suicide, alcoholism and death.
Opening up about our mental health can be scary. According to mental health charity Mind’s recent research, over a third of adults living in the UK never make space in their day to speak about mental health. There should always be the space to talk about mental health at work and access support – if that’s what we need and feel comfortable with.
In this blog post, 3 members of the Made Tech team share their experiences with mental health-related struggles, and talk about how we can support each other. If you want to find out more about where to get mental health-related help and support, we’ve included information at the end.
Childhood, grief and talking to the right people
“No matter where you’ve come from and what you’ve struggled with, you can be successful.”Arnie Armstrong, Principal Security Engineer
My mental health journey is very personal and it’s taken me years to get to a point where I’m comfortable talking about it. When you feel like you’re different, and don’t quite fit in, it makes it harder to talk about your vulnerabilities. It can be quite scary. I sometimes think: what will other people think when I tell them?
But the way to remove the stigma about mental health is by normalising it, which happens when you talk about it. We should all feel comfortable showing our vulnerabilities, and know it’s OK to share our story. So here’s mine…
I remember my first experience with anxiety in the 80s or early 90s, when I was a primary school student. I thought I felt sick all the time so my parents took me to the doctor. The doctor said I was probably suffering with anxiety, but I should buckle up and get over it.
There was nothing they could do for a kid my age back then. People didn’t really understand it, including doctors and my parents. So I found my own personal coping mechanisms. One of them was opening a window and sticking my head out of it, while taking deep breaths. The cold air made me feel better.
I didn’t have a great childhood. My mother was an alcoholic and treated the entire family pretty badly. That definitely contributed to my mental health problems. My father wasn’t very well health-wise and I felt responsible for taking care of my siblings. I started to understand my mental health a little better when I was around 15. I knew I wasn’t coping well.
I went to the doctors again and got the same response I got as a child, “No, don’t be silly. You’re absolutely fine. You’re 15 you don’t have anything to be depressed about.” Luckily I found a different doctor who helped me. She knew my family circumstances and really listened to me. She saw me every week and gave me medication, which I took daily for around a year to help me manage my mental health.
Being on medication wasn’t easy as a college student. It made me feel drowsy. But I had a couple of really supportive teachers. They checked in on me and knew I wasn’t just slacking off if I didn’t feel great. I didn’t do very well in college and was exempt from my A levels. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. But I did dedicate my time to learning about what I’m most passionate about – technology. And then I went to university.
The impact of grief
I lost my mother while I was at university. A year after that, my brother died by suicide. I really struggled during this time. After I finished my degree, I got my first cyber security job in the civil service. It was my dream job. And then the week I started in the role my dad died.
I tried to push through it but all of these things absolutely destroyed me. Luckily I had decent support at work. A combination of counselling and going back on medication helped me get through it all. It took me many years to get to a point where I felt settled. I also have mild OCD where I feel an urge to wash my hands, face and feet. It’s a compulsion. It doesn’t have logic. Even if I try to ignore it, I eventually cave. There were periods of time where I couldn’t do new things.
But I’ve found coping mechanisms for all of these things. Now, I can say I haven’t felt depressed for a long time. I still suffer from anxiety, though it’s fairly mild. I guess that follows some people through life.
Talk to the right people
No matter where you’ve come from and what you’ve struggled with, you can be successful. You can come out the other side. But a lot of that requires you to have the right people around you to support you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support.
Talk about your vulnerabilities to people in a way that’s comfortable. Find people who are comfortable talking about mental health. Anxiety and depression are super common. Neither are weird or strange. A large number of people in any organisation will at some point in time suffer from a mental health issue. It isn’t hard to find people who will understand you and what you’ve gone through. By not normalising mental health problems and not talking about it, we make it a lot harder for those people to get help. We also make it a lot harder for organisations to support us.
Supporting each other at Made Tech
There are a bunch of ways we can support each other. I want to give a shout out to Made Tech’s mental health first aiders. They really care about others’ mental wellbeing. They can help people who aren’t in a good place with their mental health. But it isn’t a counselling service. It’s more about listening, offering support and directing people to the right professional help.
If you’re comfortable doing this, be open about who you are and how you feel when you speak to people. But also support others and allow them to be themselves at work. If you notice someone might be struggling, reach out and just check they’re OK. Let them know you’re there for them if they need you.
Find what makes you feel comfortable
Find a safe space that will help you to feel better. That could look like going for a walk, or into a quiet room and taking a few moments to yourself. But also, don’t be afraid to lean on other people and ask for support. And it doesn’t mean shouting, “Hey I’m anxious, help me.” You can ask to grab a coffee, and talk about things that will help bring your mind back to a state of ease.
And don’t beat yourself up over having mental health issues. It doesn’t have to have come from a traumatic experience. You don’t need to attribute it to anything. We’re all different.
Being open, and the power of therapy
“Being open about mental health feels so worth it when it means other people can feel comfortable to take action.”Stacy Oswald, Associate Software Engineer
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 13. At that age I’d moved to the UK from Southern Africa, which contributed to me having Seasonal Affective Disorder as it gets dark quickly and cold in the UK in winter. For the past decade I’ve been getting panic attacks, which was hard during school exams and in university.
Mental health problems are more personal than physical ones
There’s a stigma around mental health. For example, it’s a lot easier to see a broken leg and understand that than how mental health problems can affect people. Mechanical issues are just easier to talk about. It feels a lot more personal and intimate because it’s in your head. It can be more difficult to say you’re having some thoughts that are making it difficult for you to function.
Being open about my mental health
I used to feel ashamed talking about my mental health, and a bit embarrassed. I’m an Explorers leader in the Scout Association. And I’ve seen firsthand how much being open about my mental health has made a difference to the Explorers. A lot of them come from families where talking about mental health isn’t normalised. Seeing me as an adult who struggles with mental health has helped them to be open about their own, and they’re getting help and support. Being open about mental health feels so worth it when it means other people can feel comfortable to take action.
The same applies in work-related scenarios. It’s important for people to get the support they need before managing their mental health becomes an emergency. Ongoing support can help prevent people from getting to that stage. It also benefits the organisation because people will be off work less often because they’ll have the tools and support to manage their mental health.
It should be normalised to say you’re feeling anxious. For example, if you’re supposed to be presenting a show and tell you should be able to ask someone else to do it this time round, and you’ll do the next one because your anxiety is flaring. Being open about these things makes it easier for us to work as a team.
Join a community at work if there is one. We have a wellbeing sub-community on Slack. You can find support here. It’s a safe space. We need to make sure people are engaging in the channel, so others feel comfortable sharing things in there – especially senior team members.
The power of therapy and local resources
I’ve found going to therapy on an ongoing basis very helpful. You acknowledge things that are coming up before they become a major thing that impacts your wellbeing. I’m a big believer that everyone should go to therapy (if they can). If you’re feeling stressed about something you can get it out in the open in a safe environment instead of internalising it. It’ll help you get to the root of the problem.
There are other resources you can use. Try the NHS website for mental health support. I find looking at local resources useful. They’re more relevant to where you live and so they’re easier to apply. I live in rural Devon so it recommends things like going out into nature which is a great mindfulness exercise. Where I live there are lambs everywhere so when we come out of the sad season in April I like to go sit and watch the lambs play.
Remember help is available to you at work. Our mental health first aiders are all lovely and can make time to help sign post you to the right support.
The world of work, and having friends who understand you
“Find a community that will nurture your vulnerability, and nurture theirs too.”Owen Blacker, Lead Software Engineer
I’ve experienced varying levels of anxiety since I was a teenager. My anxiety was particularly related to travelling to unfamiliar places. Once I got there I was fine, but the travelling bit made me super anxious. For a long time, it meant I didn’t go anywhere. I’d get quite severe panic attacks. It started when I was in sixth form, and then got worse during my time at university.
I took a year out of university because the prospect of a bus journey to my lectures was too much for me. I’d get a bad stomach when I was anxious. But I’d also get anxious about whether I’d get a bad stomach which would make it worse. It took me a long time to realise this was actually a brain thing, not a stomach thing.
It wasn’t about whether I’d have a bad stomach, it was about whether my brain was going to freak out about whether my stomach would be unwell. I didn’t go to parties that weren’t in my own flat, or go clubbing. It’s affected my career too. I stayed at an agency that I should have left long before I did, for 14 years.
It’s a lot easier for me to consider going to places now than it was during my 20s and 30s. But it’s still hard. I haven’t been back home to Devon for 25 years, which is where I grew up.
The world of work
I’ve had a job offer in the past from a company who withdrew my offer when they found out I had panic disorder. Things aren’t like that so much anymore but I guess you could say there may be some unconscious bias. If an employer doesn’t hire you for mental health reasons, you’ve had a lucky escape.
I’m very open about my mental health on social media and I’m not afraid to speak about it at work. If you’re feeling vulnerable about these things you should speak to people you trust, who’ve gone through similar things. But also as part of your interviewing process if you feel comfortable with it, ask what support is available. For me, our work on diversity, equity and inclusion was part of the reason I joined Made Tech.
Understanding mental health
Mental health has been very stigmatised. In the past it wasn’t understood in the same way physical problems were. Society isn’t used to approaching mental health struggles as something that makes us unique.
Part of the reason I’m so open about my mental health is to make sure it’s better understood. Over time, I hope people find it easier to understand it, accept it, and live with it. And then, we can help our friends, family and teammates who may be going through similar things.
No one should feel like they have to talk about their mental health. It’s more about people who don’t feel safe but want to talk about it knowing they have a space to do so. And it is becoming more normalised, and more common to talk about these things. The world is changing, but we need to continue to help society evolve in a positive way about these things. And it’s not just mental health. As a queer man, if I were in a meeting with a client and they said something homophobic I wouldn’t be afraid to challenge them. And I would expect my employer to back me up. This is how we can help to make change happen.
Low battery mode
I find the low battery indicator on Slack super useful. It’s an emoji icon that you can use on your Slack status when you’re not feeling great without having to make a public statement about it. It’s implied that you’d like people to be a little more gentle with you, and teammates should respect that.
If someone asks you a question that needs a lot of thought to answer, teammates should bear in mind you may need a little longer to process it and answer them. This helps us support each other and shows that the workplace is a safe space to feel comfortable being vulnerable.
Having friends who understand you
Self-help tools like books can be helpful. Though, admittedly I’m terrible at finishing these books. For me, It’s about having friends who understand me. I get together with friends on Friday evenings and play games over Zoom. It’s helped me a lot, as an introverted person. Find a community that will nurture your vulnerability, and nurture theirs, too. It’s one of the most important things in life.
Where to find help and support
If there’s a mental health emergency involving you or someone you know, call 999 for an ambulance or go straight to A&E. If you can keep yourself safe for now or still need urgent advice make an emergency appointment with your doctor, call your local mental health helpline (England only), or 111.
If it’s not an emergency but you need mental health support or guidance, here are some people that may help.
External support and resources
Samaritans – If you’re going through a difficult time, you can talk to someone at Samaritans. You can call 116 123 for free from any phone. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call the Welsh language line on 0808 164 0123 (7pm–11pm every day). If you’d prefer to write down your thoughts and feelings you can email email@example.com. You can also visit an in-person branch.
Cruse – They offer bereavement support. Its helpline is run by trained bereavement volunteers, who offer emotional support to anyone affected by grief. You can call them on 0808 808 1677. Their opening hours vary by day. See when they’re open. You can also chat online with grief counsellors.
Shout – If you want mental health support but don’t want to talk, you can text SHOUT to 8525. It’s a confidential 24/7 text service.
SANEline – This is a national out-of-hours mental health helpline that can give specialist emotional support, guidance and information to anyone affected by mental illness. This includes individuals, family, friends and carers. It’s open every day of the year from 4pm to 10pm. You can call them on 0300 304 7000.
Zero Suicide Alliance – This is a charity hosted by Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust. It was set up to support people, communities and organisations to meet people’s mental health needs before, during and after experiencing crisis. The aim is to help prevent suicide. Individuals can do suicide awareness and social isolation training. There are also some resources like workplace guides.
For more support options, take a look at the Helplines Partnership website. It has a directory of UK helplines.
Support at Made Tech
Reasonable adjustments: Speak to your line manager or a member of the people team about reasonable adjustments. For example, you could get your work hours reduced for a little while, or cut down or change some of your responsibilities and tasks.
x-wellbeing Slack channel: This is a space where you can, for example, ask questions about mental health support, share your personal experiences with mental health, and share tips on managing mental health struggles. The team also shares updates about mental health support here. Many mental health conditions can be classified as disabilities. #x-disability-allies and the x-disability-private channels can also be good to go to for mental health community support.
Mental health first aiders: Our mental health first aiders are here to listen to you, comfort you, and signpost you to the right support. They can also help facilitate a chat with the people team to talk about working arrangements. There’s a slide deck on the wellbeing channel that includes the names of our mental health first aiders.
Counselling: You can get counselling via the Unum Help@Hand app. The sessions are usually over video call. You can have unlimited counselling sessions. See the details and find out how to get this support in the Made Tech handbook. If you’d prefer to choose your own therapist or counsellor, Made Tech can contribute up to £360 per year towards your sessions.