What is mental health anyway?

Mental health. It’s a term we hear a lot nowadays, but what does it mean? And, if we can exercise to become physically fit, what exercise can we do to become mentally fit?

The US Department of Health and Human Services (https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health/index.html) says mental health includes our social, emotional and psychological well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and makes choices.

Different Types of Mental Illness

There are a number of different types of mental illness, including:

• Anxiety disorders and phobias;
• Mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder;
• Psychotic disorders, eg schizophrenia;
• Eating disorders eg Anorexia nervosa;
• Impulse control disorders eg kleptomania;
• Addictions;
• Stress;
• Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

This list is by no means exhaustive.

The problem with mental illness is that we can’t see it. True, we may be able to see some of its effects, but it’s not like a broken leg, is it? And, most of us, if we are honest, are a bit scared of it. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being weak. Maybe that’s where the stigma comes from.

And make no mistake about it, there is still a stigma in many parts of society. I’ve suffered from at least two issues in the list above, and remember telling one boss about it. He treated me differently from there on in. I’ve worked with enough people who have suffered from various forms of mental illness over the years to know that my boss was not unique.

The good news is that most mental health issues, if not curable, can be treated.

What can you do?

Some mental health issues eg schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, definitely need professional help. No question about it. And whether you are an employer or an employee, if you are in any doubt about what the problem is, seek medical help sooner rather than later. Remember, as employers, we have a duty of care to our employees, so it’s no use thinking of sweeping it under the carpet. Of course, you can’t force someone to go to a doctor, but you can advise, and record the fact that you have done so. If an employee is very resistant to seeing a doctor, it’s worth trying to find out what’s behind that and that may mean getting an independent HR professional in, someone who cannot be perceived as being on the side of management. If you don’t know what the problem is, you don’t want to do anything that might potentially exacerbate it.

Some other simple steps are:

• Ensure that your staff are aware of things that might affect their mental health. This covers things like eating healthily and getting enough exercise, not drinking too much alcohol, talking to people about how they feel, relationships with friends and family.
• You might just want to make employees aware of websites such as hse.gov.uk and mind.org.uk or – these websites both provide some useful information about mental health.

Things to Watch Out For

• Watch for any changes in an employees behaviour. For example, if a usually efficient employee starts to take time off unexpectedly or their work performance drops, it might be an indication of stress, or something similar. Whatever it is, in a non-threatening way, you can ask the employee, eg:

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been making more mistakes than usual. It’s not like you. I was just wondering whether everything is all right?”

• Ensure that you have a process of return to work interviews written into you absence management policy. This is often a good way of picking up problems.

• Assure the employee that if they discuss anything with you it is confidential – and make sure it stays that way.

• When in doubt get professional help. If the employee refuses professional help, and you feel that the employee is likely to harm themselves, contact your local ambulance service.

• ACAS provides some free online learning. MIND also runs a number of paid courses.

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