I was invited to attend the 20th birthday bash of the Employees’ Forum for Disability in London recently. The host was Ruby Wax, a popular UK comedienne.
I didn’t know this prior to the event, but she has battled with repeated, severe bouts of clinical depression for many years.
Depression is one of the most silent, least visible afflictions that people can experience. And the enduring stigma attached to mental health issues means that many people suffer in silence.
Ruby Wax shared some data with us that really caused me to think. Depression is one of the most prevalent illnesses in the world today. Twenty five percent of the population will suffer depression at some point in their lives.
Think about that for a moment: that means that in every group of people that you work with, socialise with, interact with on whatever basis, one in four of them may be or have been depressed.
I am no exception. A very close friend of mine has struggled with depression for many years. I am glad to say that in her case, she had the courage to speak up and let people know what she was, and is going through. My friend’s case is unusual though.
A majority of people tell no one, except their immediate family or medical supporter. Because depression is still seen as taboo. We can suffer a cold, or a stress-induced ulcer; we can come into the office with an arm in plaster and no one bats an eye-lid. And yet, when it comes to our mental well being, we close ourselves off, worried about how people will see us.
How many colleagues are you aware of, who have spoken openly about depression? If we have a truly inclusive workplace why do you think that is? For many people, opening up to close friends about how they are feeling is not easy. In the workplace, the vast majority of people will suffer in silence to avoid being stigmatized, or have people make assumptions about what they are or aren’t capable of.
Let me share that statistic again. One in four people will suffer a depressive episode.
Depression is one of the most prevalent illnesses there is. It is also one of the most treatable. Most episodes of clinical depression last no more than six months, and in the vast majority of cases, respond well and quickly to treatment. Because someone is depressed, it does not mean that they have changed, or cannot necessarily do their job, or function as a human being. They are, however, likely to be having a difficult time. And that requires understanding, support and open-mindedness from those around them- as colleagues and as friends.
I think that at times it is too easy to be dismissive about mental health, make judgments or just think someone needs to “cheer up”. I’ve learnt from my friend’s experiences that we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves, not to judge, and to be aware of what support we can offer. After all, one in four could be any one of us.