Unite delegates shared personal stories of their struggles in an emotionally charged debate about the importance of mental health in the workplace on Monday (July 2) at Unite’s policy conference.
Unite Scotland delegate and mental health nurse James McGinn moved a composite calling on Unite to ensure every rep receives mental health training from day one, and that reps get the support they need when they shoulder the burden of helping colleagues who are mentally ill.
McGinn asked delegates to raise their hands if they have ever supported a colleague who has struggled with a mental health problem. Reflecting statistics that show two-thirds of people will experience at least one episode of mental ill-health in their lifetimes, nearly every single delegate raised their hands.
Unite leading from the front
McGinn said that he was “delighted” that Unite has “been leading from the front” in supporting members with mental health problems and highlighted the need for Unite to go even further and ensure the priority is both being there for members but also supporting reps “who are vulnerable to getting ill themselves.”
Speaking in support of the motion, Unite East Midlands delegate Amy Roe highlighted figures showing the vast majority of people will suffer from an undiagnosed mental health problem, and noted that according to the World Health Organisation, mental ill-health is the leading cause of disease worldwide.
Unite Scotland delegate and young member Erin McCauley, 20, gave a moving speech about her own struggles with depression and an eating disorder as she highlighted the mental health epidemic among young people who’ve born the brunt of austerity and job insecurity.
Unite London and Eastern delegate Andrew Kettlety (pictured), also speaking in support of the motion, shared his experience of supporting a colleague who died after struggling with alcohol addiction.
Kettlety said it wasn’t until eight months after the funeral that his colleague’s death finally hit him – he was watching television when he suddenly broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
He was lucky enough to get counseling but said access to help and education must be expanded to support reps and members alike.
“I’m strong,” he said. “But I am not immune.”
The composite was unanimously carried.
The debate continued on Wednesday (July 4) where Kettlety was among a panel of speakers at a policy conference fringe event about mental health at work.
Also on the panel was community mental health nurse Holly Roblin, who highlighted the increasing pressures on the job amid austerity.
“Often as mental health nurses we’re the last people to recognise stress and mental health issues in ourselves,” she explained.
Unite rep Paul Mooney from Glasgow highlighted the mental health first aid training he’s undertaken through Unite and the different initiatives he’s implemented at his workplace in construction – a sector where stress and mental ill-health are common.
“Everyone can have poor mental health at some point,” he said. “The training helps you to spot the signs.”
Mental health campaigner and author Natasha Devon, MBE, spoke on the panel about how her personal experience with panic disorder inspired her to educate people – in schools, workplaces and in the media – about mental health.
She highlighted the role our social and cultural environment can play in damaging people’s mental health – a bullying boss, austerity cuts, and even the dog-eat-dog ideology of capitalism itself.
The fringe, which was chaired by Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, brought together dozens of delegates who also shared their personal stories and asked the panel questions.
Unite education director Jim Mowatt explained that his department is now heading up a mental health taskforce as he pledged that Unite would be more ambitious in supporting members, colleagues and communities.
Concluding the fringe, Unite lead professional Dave Munday said the union must not lose sight of the bigger mental health picture.
“We must recognise that the workplace itself can cause mental ill-health,” he said. “We must recognise that role austerity plays and the damage it does to our citizens.”