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‘INVITE SOMEONE YOU HAVE REASON TO BELIEVE MAY BE STRUGGLING TO OPEN UP ABOUT IT’

Penny Mitchell is head of internal communication at the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Her sister, Jenny, died by suicide in 1999. In recent years, Penny has led a number of initiatives in the workplace to encourage colleagues, and particularly leaders, to be more open about their approach to managing mental health. In this article in our series on suicide, Penny talks about her sister and BEIS's Being Real About... discussion sessions.

25th August 2021


Trigger warning – this article discusses suicide

My sister, Jenny, 20 years my senior, was a mother figure to me. Warm and gregarious, Jenny was a great mum, and she absolutely loved children.

She had trained in classics and worked as a school teacher. I spent many of my holidays with her and her family – her children were close to me in age.

Jenny’s life focused around people – friends, colleagues, family. Her home was always bustling with visitors and she took time to get to know people’s names, their interests, their children.  Whenever we went to visit, there was a chocolate cake in the oven or Easter eggs hidden in the garden for our children. She always had time just to hang out with us and listen.

In her later years, she had become committed to voluntary bereavement visiting for a local hospice. Her ability to care for and empathise with those in pain quickly won her recognition and she was often asked to visit the most difficult cases.

Jenny, her husband and two children were a close family unit and family life continued to be her focus even after the children left home. 


When I was at primary school, Jenny had suffered severe post-natal depression after the birth of her first child. My parents hadn’t told me the full extent of Jenny’s illness – perhaps because they didn’t understand it themselves. I later found out that she had been hospitalised following a series of suicide attempts. Treatment at that time was more crude than it would be now, and included electric shock therapy and group counselling.

After some months, Jenny recovered, and went on to have a second child and rebuild a full and active life.

The 25 years following were happy ones, and while, with hindsight, we could identify a few moments when Jenny seemed to have behaved strangely, she seemed in the main to have moved on from that depressive period.

However, in her early fifties, a number of factors seemed to come together, and although she hid it from all those close to her, the depression returned.


I now know that people suffering with suicidal thoughts often harbour them secretly – on and off - for some time, moving in and out of a mindset that points towards taking their own life. Looking back on the months preceding Jenny’s tragic death, I suspect this had been the case with her.

By then, she knew her way around suicide – and she also knew how to hide her thoughts from those close to her. Only with hindsight did we realise the significance of a few things that hadn’t quite seemed right at the time – a distressed phone call from her to talk to me about a conversation she’d had with someone that had really upset her; a sudden burst of anger when she missed a turn on the way to a special event we were attending together; a particularly warm hug the day she saw me off at the station for the last time; a rather distant, thoughtful demeanour when she played tennis with friends on the day she finally took her life.


It can be tempting to think people reach a suicidal state because of very recent pressures at work, at home
… and these are often factors, as they were in Jenny’s case.  But it’s unlikely that someone would take their own life just because of these immediate, circumstantial things. The roots of depression typically go back a long way.

I’m not a medical professional, but I know from reading around that people’s mental health issues are tightly bound up in key developmental experiences. Trauma in early years – mild or severe – can leave scars that hang around way into adult life. In Jenny’s case, a tricky relationship with our mother and some difficult sibling rivalry had compounded a deep sense of inner shame that she’d never quite managed to throw off. Her generation talked less than we do now about mental health and were less aware of help that, had she been around now, she might have more readily been encouraged to access.   


It’s hard to know what to do when a colleague loses a loved one to suicide. Everyone reacts differently and it can be awkward. You don’t know the circumstances. There may have been a tense relationship in the family. The person you’re talking to might not have got on well with the person who’s died.

Soon after Jenny’s death, I bumped into a friend. He’d heard the news,and said how sorry he was. I was about to thank him and say a little about how much I was missing Jenny when he moved on swiftly to “How’s work?” I caught my breath and reluctantly changed the subject. 

Jenny’s son-in-law had similar experiences, including having people literally cross the road to avoid having to speak to him in those early, grief-stricken days.


At the time Jenny died, I was working for a small consulting company and everyone was great. The most helpful people were those who stepped forward and asked if I was really OK, who made time for a coffee and chat, and just listened. Obviously, the workplace is busy and we all have our jobs to do, but it was those thoughtful conversations in the margins or after work that made all the difference.

Being back in the office can help – some people need a routine – but others need to go away for a time to process what’s happened and recover. As an employer or manager, it starts with listening to the person to see what they can cope with and how best to support them. The worst thing is not to talk about it at all.

Don’t tie yourself up in knots thinking about the right thing to say. Pretending it hasn’t happened or being minimalist in what you say can be hurtful, so do try and find a moment to acknowledge what has happened. Don’t leave it too long – you could start with something simple like, “I’m so sorry for your loss”, making clear you’re ready to spend time listening, and see how they want to take the conversation on.

Even if someone comes back to work after several months, it is still the biggest thing going on in their life, so don’t ignore even a less recent bereavement.

The impact of losing someone close never goes away. I still see people in the street who look like Jenny and get disappointed when they turn around and I realise it’s not her. Birthdays are difficult – my children not getting cards or presents from Jenny. Her absence at Christmases. And anniversaries. I once heard a line manager say that if a member of her team lost someone, she made a point of putting the date in her calendar, and the following year she would check in with them to acknowledge the anniversary and ask how they were feeling. That’s an incredibly good and sensitive thing to do, and can make a huge difference.


In the years since I lost Jenny, I’ve contributed to various internal sessions and articles on suicide and mental health.

In my current role, I was invited by one of our mental health first aiders to a tea-and-talk lunchtime session. They wanted senior people to talk openly about their experiences, as a way of role-modelling openly facing tough challenges. A panel of four of us talked about a range of things – me on bereavement; others on depression and workplace stress. It was a good taster, but I felt we should go further.

During the first lockdown last year, an external speaker challenged our senior leaders to make sure we were creating the right culture for people to be proactive and positive in addressing mental health issues. He encouraged us to walk the talk and be open about our own challenges, and how we faced them.

That was the push I needed to gather a few of my peers together and craft a series of open events. The online lockdown environment made it easier – it was simple to set up sessions on Teams without having to book rooms; people could join more anonymously; and we could provide links to resources directly within the sessions.

We used a simple format – the senior leader shares a bit of their own experience both negative and positive; there’s a time of discussion and Q&A – with online ways to pose questions anonymously as well as openly – then pointing people to various helpful resources.

I kicked it off with a session on bereavement, then persuaded a senior colleague to lead one on depression; then another on stress in the workplace. Gradually, the series took on a life of its own, with people stepping forward to volunteer to lead on a range of subjects including anxiety and suicide.

Colleagues from my own internal communication team and from the existing mental health network rallied round to support the development, promotion and administration of the sessions.  Without them, none of them would have been possible.


Is it okay to ask a colleague if they are suicidal?
This was one of a number of questions tackled head on in The Being Real About Suicide Prevention session we ran as part of the series.  Both a colleague and an external expert – a former Samaritan – talked through the signs of depression and what you can do as a colleague to offer support.

People often worry that if you ask someone if they are suicidal, you’re going to make it worse. But provided you can do it in a sensitive way, it’s definitely worth inviting someone you have reason to believe may be struggling to open up about it. You don’t need to provide them with support yourself – the professionals are there to do that. But you can play a crucial role in helping them broach the subject – perhaps for the first time - and in signposting them to support.


How do you get something started in an organisation where no one talks about mental health? It’s obviously harder in some organisations than others. A closed or macho culture – like the investment banking world I’ve worked in previously - makes it tricky.

Internal communicators need to look for allies. You can’t do it on your own, so write a blog or post something to flush out who will be willing to talk about their mental health or is already doing something.

If you can find a senior figure – ideally a man – who’s willing to be open about their mental health and legitimise some workplace discussion on the topic, try and get them to do a blog or an informal discussion session. Someone well known openly talking about these issues can have a huge catalysing effect on the organisation.

There may be existing groups you can engage to help get some more discussions going. We had a senior women’s network which provided a rich source of people more willing to talk about their experiences and provide people to lead some of the Being Real About… sessions or blog on things like postnatal depression. Or you might be able to find a men’s group who have tackled some of the psychological pressures of competition.


Mental health is important for helping people perform to their best ability in the workplace. With our physical health, if we have a broken leg, clearly we can’t perform as well as someone who can walk without crutches. So with mental health – if we are in a bad way, we’re not going to perform as well.

The worst thing is to deny there’s an issue, or to postpone dealing with it, hoping it will magically go away.

It comes back to senior leaders coming out and talking about it. It legitimises those conversations. If you let people know it’s OK to acknowledge the stuff they need to deal with, and if in that conversation you can encourage someone to go and get help – whether a course, counselling, a self-help group – you might be helping that person on the road to recovery.

So facing things, and creating a culture where people are encouraged to do so, gets you a more healthy – and therefore more productive – workforce. And who knows – a happier one too!

 

Penny’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 Gordon's story: 'It is not a weakness to realise there is something wrong and to ask for help'

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 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

 

 

 

 

 

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