A nation becoming much more aware of Mental Health needs somebody like Natasha Devon at its helm, and thankfully she's right there. Joining the Balance Festival line-up this year, the cutting-edge Mental Health activist continues to spread her message nation-wide on the importance of Mental Health care in the workplace, with her recent 'Where's Your Head At' campaign. She explains that 56% of the public admit to having experienced a mental health problem, however 90% feel there is still a taboo around mental health. Natasha is already changing this...
What is mental health?
The term ‘mental health’ covers such a broad remit, it’s actually impossible to define in a sentence. It’s a bit like if I said ‘what’s physical health’? Some people would talk about fitness and nutrition, whilst those who have experienced illness or disability are more likely to refer to that. Mental health is just the same. There are thousands of unique experiences to be acknowledged.
Who is affected?
The commonest mistake I hear people make is using the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ interchangeably. We *all* have mental health, just like we all have a status of physical health. Each of us also has the potential to move around the mental health spectrum during our lifetimes. I think of ‘mental health’ as most like physical fitness, ‘mental health issues’ as the equivalent of the flu or a broken bone and mental illness as like diabetes or cancer. These aren’t perfect analogies but they help understand the distinction.
I really hate it when people begin mental health based conversations with the ‘1 in 4’ statistic (which is from a 2004 census and has now been widely debunked). This isn’t something confined to a quarter of the population. It’s relevant to everyone.
Tell us a about your story – what were your motivations?
I have a condition called Panic Disorder. It manifests differently in different people but for me it means I live with a little lump in my throat (which I call Nigel). Nigel is always present but when I’m anxious can start to feel constrictive or even painful, making it difficult for me to breathe. I have to take medication, have overhauled my lifestyle and had a lot of therapy to learn strategies to keep Nigel in check.
However, I didn’t know I had an anxiety disorder until I received a diagnosis, aged 31. Looking back, I now know I had my first panic attack at the age of ten. There was a 21 year period where I couldn’t understand why I seemed to find life so much more difficult than other people. I also developed some really toxic coping mechanisms - I had bulimia for seven years - for which I blamed myself.
Now, I realise a lot of my experience could have been avoided - what I call ‘anxiety’ is really just emotions I never found a healthy outlet for, so stored up. Whilst I had challenges in my childhood, including a bereavement and a very poorly sibling, it’s nothing millions of others don’t go through - It occurred to me that my mental health education had always been presented to me through the prism of mental illness and i didn’t consider it would ever be relevant to me. That’s what inspired a lot of my work in schools and colleges.
How are you trying to change mental health?
There’s two main ways to campaign in this area - culturally and structurally.
To change our culture, I visit an average of three schools per week delivering classes and conducting research on every day mental health issues like poor body image, anxiety and exam stress. I also write a weekly column for the TES sharing my experiences from the coalface and the best and worst practice I see with an audience of educators who can take this information into their place of work.
I also created the mental health media charter, a list of seven simple guidelines for anyone who wants to speak or write about mental health responsibly. Language and imagery are crucial to the way mental illness, in particular, is perceived so it’s important to get it right. To date, more than 50 media outlets, including Grazia Magazine, Heat Radio and the Eastern Daily Press have signed up.
Structurally, I am currently campaigning to change the law so that mental health first aiders would be mandatory in all work places in the same way as ‘regular’ first aiders are. Whilst not a substitute for professional care, mental health first aiders can save lives, just like their physical equivalents. The government have been talking since 2011 about ‘parity of esteem’ so this would be a way they could put some action to the rhetoric. I am presenting the petition to Downing Street on 8th October.
Depression and anxiety is at its peak in young people right now – why?
Adolescents have always been particularly at risk from mental illness because it’s a stage in our brain development which sees a spike in a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine encourages risky behaviour with poor judgment, which in turn promotes independence from our parents, so it’s a necessary stage in our evolution, but it also increases stress and interferes with clarity of thought.
Having said that, young people today are, I believe, uniquely burdened by a combination of social-economic factors which make anxiety and depression more likely. Austerity measures, for example, disproportionately affect young people. Education policy has meant increased testing and class sizes, stressed teachers and less outlets for difficult feelings in the form of sport and arts. Combine that with worries about future prospects, student debt & everyone bellowing at them that they’re ‘snowflakes’ and it’s little wonder that they’re struggling.
The stigma surrounding mental health – where are we at with it now?
There is, thanks to brilliant and tireless work by campaigns like Time to Change, undoubtedly less stigma than there was a decade ago. Having said that, there are still certain demographics and cultural groups which remain relatively untouched. Your chances of being able to speak about your mental health without being ostracised or judged are still much higher if you’re white, female and middle class (it’s for this reason that middle class girls consistently rank highest in polls about anxiety and depression - it’s not that they’re afflicted more, I don’t believe, they simply have more freedom to discuss it and are more likely to be heard and given a compassionate response when they do).
Will it ever change?
I believe Where’s Your Head At
, my work place campaign mentioned above, will go a long way to challenging stigma. We did a survey with our media partner, Bauer, to launch the campaign and found that up to 50 percent of people who have had to take time off work for a mental health problem told their boss it was for a different reason. You can’t fight that with awareness alone. We need structural change so that people with mental illness get the same support as those with physical. This sends an unequivocal message - mental illness isn’t malingering, it’s not something that can be wished away and it has nothing to do with professionalism or character.
What does a mental health accepting society look like?
Mental health is inextricably linked with everything we do, from how much sleep we get, what we eat for breakfast, our commute, our work or education environment, or community, how much family and leisure time we have - a world designed with mental health in mind would, I think, radically revolutionise most if not all of these things. The most pressing issue is social injustice - Oxford University recently published research stating we are a nation ‘in danger of becoming permanently divided’ - we have 4 million children in the U.K. living in poverty, half a million of whom have to use food banks. There is a direct link between poor mental health and deprivation. A mental health accepting society would therefore need to be one with with decent standard of living for all.
How does mental health affect people in the workplace?
The most common mental health issue experienced at work is stress. We all encounter stress, of course, but if for whatever reason there isn’t a healthy outlet for it we can become overwhelmed. This means we overproduce a hormone called cortisol which plays havoc with our body and mind. Common symptoms include high blood pressure, palpitations and decreased immunity. Highly stressed people are also less efficient, more prone to making mistakes and tend to take bad decisions, making overworking yourself completely counterproductive.
How can these sufferers in the workplace be provided with the support they need?
The support has to come from leadership. You can’t put a price on having a boss who understands the value of and invests in wellbeing.
What words of advice would you give to employers regarding mental health?
This isn’t simply about doing the right thing morally - there is a sound economic argument. Right now, it is very likely that mental illness amongst your staff is costing you money. Training staff in mental health first aid requires an initial investment. But time taken off for mental ill health represents the single biggest cost to UK employers and around 16 million lost hours of work every year.
How and where can people support your pledge?
You can sign the petition right here.
How can people suffering with mental ill health get support?
There is an incredible resource I learned about recently called the Hub of Hope
- If you can’t access or are on a waiting list for nhs care, go to their website, type in your postcode and any specific needs and it’ll give you a list of all the alternative support available in your area.
A link to the Hub of Hope, as well as a range charities & other organisations that provide safe, evidence based and unbiased support and advice on a range of mental health issues can be found on my website
This year at the Festival, Natasha Devon will be talking further on this pressing issue in The LAB. Don't miss her powerful and forward-thinking talk on Workplace Mental Health Care! More from the Journal