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Out of sight

July 12, 2012

Three and a half years ago, after finishing a normal day at work, I said cheerio to my manager and went home for the weekend. I didn’t see her again until yesterday. For the past 40 months she has been in and out (but mostly in) a mental health care facility, unable or unwilling to see or communicate with friends, colleagues and family. Very few of her former colleagues openly acknowledge the fact she is no longer at work, and I suspect quite a few don’t even remember why she ever left. Mental health is the last social stigma in the workplace – people accept when staff go off on maternity leave and don’t return; they understand disability or access issues that mean their colleagues can’t attend the office. They even forgive employees who are off on long-term sick for physical reasons, despite misgivings about malingering.

But mental health is a different ball game. No one wants to talk about it – it’s embarrassing, and something that shouldn’t be discussed. When my manager left, no one knew where she had gone, why she had left, and if she would be back. There were whispers in the staffroom, and the whole issue was shrouded in secrecy. Even after all this time, no one really talks about it openly. Her colleagues and friends know she is safe, and that I go to visit, and whilst they sign cards and send their love, the whole issue is still very much ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I’m not blaming them – it’s hard work reaching out to someone who can’t be reached. To begin with, I tried to keep in touch as much as possible – I would write, send texts, emails, whatever I could. She didn’t like to talk over the phone, or accept visitors, because she found it too upsetting. Then, after courses of ECT treatment, she found it harder still, and disappeared into a self-imposed bubble for quite some time.

I got to the point where I had almost given up trying to reach out. People told me (in a well-meaning, protective way) that I shouldn’t keep on trying to help when she gave nothing back – she was a ‘lost cause’ or ‘too far gone’. The problem had gone away, her name never entered the conversation.

But then a friend who had gone through a similar experience urged me to carry on trying to connect. It was the people who didn’t give up, he said, that were the ones who got through, and the ones who made a difference.

And yesterday, finally, I went to see her for the first time since I walked out the office door on a sunny afternoon in September, back in 2008. It was in very different surroundings – Spartan rooms with locks on both doors, echoes of shouts and doors banging in the distance.

And she was a very different person – frightened, anxious, unsure. But still, under all that, the same person I remembered from the time we worked together – a fun-loving, intelligent and capable woman, who had finally regained enough confidence and courage to accept the fact that people loved her and wanted to help.

I can’t say that I walked out of that door 45 minutes later with any feelings of euphoria or hope, but it’s the first step on the path for us both – her hopefully to recovery and full integration with her past life, and me towards being more open and positive about the issue of mental health; talking about it with people, and encouraging others to get in touch and not be afraid of upsetting someone or being inappropriate. We’re just people, and people have issues – all of us. Asking for and accepting help isn’t a weakness – it’s actually the most courageous thing you can do.

From → Blog

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