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'IT IS NOT A WEAKNESS TO REALISE THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG AND TO ASK FOR HELP'

For our latest series on mental health, Voice spoke to communication and employee engagement specialists and mental health experts to hear their personal stories about suicide. Here, Gordon Knight MBE, Planning and Risk Manager for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), shares that he has experienced depression since he was a teenager. After a suicide attempt in his thirties, he began talking at work about his mental health, and now runs BEIS’ Mental Health First Aid Network. In the 2020 New Year’s Honours List, Gordon received an MBE for public service and mental health awareness.

26th July 2021

If talking about difficult subjects as part of your regular internal communications results in even just one person seeking help – possibly life-saving help – when they wouldn’t have done before, it is well worth a few people feeling awkward.

GORDON KNIGHT, BEIS



T
rigger warning – this article discusses suicide.

I have suffered from depression and anxiety since my teens. Alcohol was a coping mechanism. At my lowest point, I attempted suicide.

For many years I was in denial that I had mental health issues. I thought I was just someone who life saw coming and that would be my lot. Life was going to be difficult.

At various times, friends and colleagues attempted gentle interventions, but I constantly brushed them off. I refused to accept I was unwell and I didn’t want to be listed as someone who was mentally ill. My “logic” was that I’d have to pay more for insurance, or it would count against me at job interviews. Stigma stopped me admitting I had a problem.

A recent documentary by Roman Kemp, Our Silent Emergency, highlighted the importance of asking how someone is more than once.

“How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” “Are you really OK?” “Well...” If friends and colleagues had asked me that second question, I might have opened up.

But as it was, I wore a mask at work and at home to hide my feelings, both from myself and others. I was always quick with a dry joke, especially while drinking. But behind closed doors I was having trouble sleeping and quickly got angry.

I went to the doctor, assuming I’d be issued with sleeping pills, but came away with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, a prescription for antidepressants and a place on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy. I went straight back to the office and exclaimed, “Guess what! I have depression! Me!”

The medication made me feel sick and I had to take some time off. When I returned to work, people seemed comfortable asking me how I was. This was because I had been open about it to start with. I found this cathartic and it started me on the road to talking to people in the office about my mental health, which in turn gave permission for others to put their hands up and say, “Me too!”


When I was well enough, I became interested in mental health as a subject. I trained as a psychodynamic counsellor, for which I had to be in therapy myself, which was very useful.

Before the counselling course finished, I realised it wasn’t for me, but it led to me being a listening volunteer and trainer in my local Samaritans branch for five years, and then, in 2016, I became a Mental Health First Aid instructor.

I started raising awareness of mental health issues at work, with the goal of encouraging more people to ask for help if they need it. The message I wanted to get across, and am still promoting, is that asking for help is a sign of strength. It is not a weakness to realise there’s something wrong and to seek help.

It is positive that mental health is discussed in a work environment. When I started work in 1989, it was a different world. People still smoked in offices and had liquid lunches. Wellbeing and mental health were never talked about. People are more open now. Prince William, Prince Harry and many celebrities have helped raise awareness, particularly among men. Press coverage of celebrities who have taken their own lives have helped the conversation on suicide, just as other tragic events have opened up conversations about racism and violence against women.


There is a statistic that one person in four will have a mental health issue in their lifetime, which may leave three-quarters of people thinking, “That’s someone else, not me, and I don’t need to engage in that conversation.”

To reframe this, consider mental health and physical health as two sides of the same “coin of wellbeing”. We would never expect to go through life without a physical health issue, so why would we expect to go through life without a mental health issue? At the very least, we will all experience stress or suffer a period of emotional difficulty following traumatic life events, such as bereavements.

If we can get the message across that it is completely normal to have a mental health issue, then hopefully everyone will engage with the conversation.


We know there is gender disparity.
Three-quarters of suicides are by men. In BEIS, two-thirds of our Mental Health First Aiders are women, even though our workforce is roughly 50/50. Why are fewer men engaging with mental health? Phrases like “man up” and “keep calm and carry on” don’t help. If a man sees a car’s engine fault light come on, I guarantee they wouldn’t ignore it. But if they spot something medical happening to them, be it physical or mental, they’re more likely to ignore it and hope it goes away. I know I did.

Our work cultures need to be supportive. “Check in before you check up” is a phrase I’ve started to promote. I think it’s important for line managers to ask how people are feeling before asking how work is going. How someone is coping will have an impact on how well they deliver their work. This is even more important when we’re working remotely. It’s harder to get the vibe from someone as to how they’re feeling when you can only see their head and shoulders on your laptop screen. We need to be more proactive in offering support.

We also need to give reassurance to line managers and colleagues that if they ask someone if they are OK, they’re not going to make their situation worse. If someone says, “Yes, I am feeling suicidal”, you’re not expected to have all the answers. You aren’t expected to fix a mental health issue any more than you’re expected to mend a broken leg. If you’re not sure what to say, put the shoe on the other foot. What would you want someone to say to you if you were unwell?


Suicide is a big and emotive subject. Organisations sometimes shy away from discussing difficult topics, fearing it might upset colleagues. But only good will come of talking about it. I don’t recall anyone saying anything negative about me or BEIS for being open about these subjects – in fact, it’s been quite the reverse. When I’ve blogged about suicide prevention, the comments have been overwhelmingly positive, and people have thanked me for highlighting the issue and opening the conversation.

Having said that, the reality is that some colleagues will find these topics difficult. Perhaps it’s too close to home, or cultural backgrounds don’t fit the narrative of being open about mental health, but they may be the ones who will benefit most from hearing about others’ experiences. If talking about difficult subjects as part of your regular internal communications results in even just one person seeking help – possibly life-saving help – when they wouldn’t have done before, it is well worth a few people feeling awkward.


BEIS has a culture of helping employees to better understand each other and be more inclusive. We’ve had colleagues of all grades talk about their mental ill health, under the heading “Being Real About…” Subjects have included bereavement, suicide, anxiety and eating disorders. When someone senior is open in this way, it sends the message that having a mental health issue does not create a glass ceiling.

As well as hosting specific events, it is also important to communicate sources of support regularly. A regular “drip-feed” of information keeps the conversation going, especially if you have a constant turnover of staff. A message at the top of our intranet news page will slip out of sight in a few days.

One source of support which has been very successful in BEIS is Mental Health First Aid. Mental health first aiders support someone who is experiencing a mental health issue, in the same way as a physical first aider would support someone who is experiencing a physical health issue. If a colleague is in crisis, having a panic attack, feeling emotionally overwhelmed, stressed or depressed, or they just need to rant and get stuff off their chest, they can call on a mental health first aiders.

We also look to mental health first aiders to promote mental health awareness in their teams, which is another way of keeping that drip-feed of information flowing. I should stress that mental health first aiders are not therapists, just as physical first aiders aren’t doctors – but they will be able to listen, reassure, and help in a crisis, and will be able to signpost someone to get the help they need.

If your organisation hasn’t yet got a mental health first aiders network, contact MHFA England for advice. You can pay independent instructors to train each of your volunteers or train people within your organisation to be in-house instructors, and they can then train others and run the network.

In conclusion, mental health is sometimes considered a taboo subject, and suicide is the taboo of taboos. Stigma and discrimination feeds the taboo. We can’t avoid talking about these subjects. Talking about suicide is essential to improving our mental health on personal, organisational and national levels. Within our organisations, we must do the communications. Some of our colleagues are just coping with life. As organisations, we can help people not just survive, but thrive.

 

Keeping it real

Gordon offers some advice on talking with your internal audience about challenging subjects.
 

  • Consider your audience. What do you want to achieve? Awareness raising? A call to action?
  • Provide a warning of difficult content to allow the reader/listener to opt out if a subject is triggering.
  • Ensure speakers are in an emotionally good place.
  • Be responsible about the details shared. While it is positive for someone to talk about their situation and how they felt at the time of a suicide attempt, it would be inappropriate to talk about the method.
  • Ensure support is available for anyone who is affected by the subject discussed. Flag this before, during and after the event.
  • If a Q&A session is included in the talk, ensure participants have the opportunity to ask questions anonymously. This encourages engagement.

 

Gordon’s story was told to Rob Jones. Read our introduction to this series and guidelines for reporting and communicating about suicide.

Read Caroline's story: 'The more we talk about suicide at work, the less it becomes stigmatised'

Read Kiera's story: 'It's vital students believe they are in an environment where they will be emotionally supported'

Read Andrew's story: 'Bring a sense of community into your culture and show you are interested in people'

Read Penny's story: 'Invite someone you have reason to beliueve may be struggling to open up about it'

Read Rachel's story: 'Managers are not counsellors, but our roles involve relevant skills'

Read Karen's story: 'Whatever we did had to be informed by insight and evidence'

Read Dane's insight: 'Many employees fear opening up if they're struggling'

 

Talk to someone if you need help

Samaritans is a registered charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. If you're having a difficult time, or you are worried about someone else, call 116 223 or visit samaritans.org

 

If talking about difficult subjects as part of your regular internal communications results in even just one person seeking help – possibly life-saving help – when they wouldn’t have done before, it is well worth a few people feeling awkward.

GORDON KNIGHT, BEIS

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