The majority of people will suffer from mental ill health at one point or another in their lives – but a protracted stigma has kept so many of us in the ‘silent majority’, unable to reach out for vital help.
Unite and other organisations are hoping to tackle this stifling silence, which doubles the pain and anguish of a mental health problem, on Time to Talk Day today (February 7), an initiative created by the campaign group Time to Change.
The idea behind Time to Talk Day is simple – whether it’s having a chat with a friend who’s stressed or hosting an event about mental health at your workplace, it’s all about starting conversations that so often go completely unsaid. The aim is to break the silence and end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.
Unite membership services administrator Nathan Darby, who is helping promote the initiative in the West Midlands region, said the issue is one that’s close to his heart after having struggled with anxiety himself.
“Mental ill health is so often exacerbated by feeling like you don’t have anyone to talk to,” Nathan told UniteLive. “In my experience it’s that constant worry of ‘what should I do’ you carry around in your head that makes things worse – talking about it is a way of letting go and getting the help you need.”
On Time to Talk Day, Nathan will join Lee Wiggets-Clinton, a Unite convenor for Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council as they go out and about in depots across the borough. They’ll talk to members about mental health and invite them to share their own stories.
“This initiative is vital from a trade union perspective because trade unions are in a prime position to have conversations about mental health,” Nathan explained. “This is not only because so many mental health problems are in fact caused by stress at work, but also because many workers can’t see their GP or a counsellor about their problems on a day-to-day basis. In this way, reps can play a vital role.”
Time to Change pledge
Lee agreed and highlighted how Unite in particular is taking a lead on mental health as he used the example of his own workplace at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council where the union is making major strides forward.
“It all started when I noticed that in sickness meetings with members, time and time and again mental health was the biggest issue that was keeping people away from work,” he explained.
That’s when Lee approached the council leader and councillors about ways that they can take action. Lee and the Unite West Midlands 7015 branch lobbied for their employer to sign up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge, which the Council agreed to – the whole process took about two years.
Now, staff mental health is at the forefront of the Council’s priorities, with all stewards receiving mental health awareness training and some going the extra mile to become mental health first aiders.
“Like medical first aiders, mental health first aiders serve as a vital first port of call in emergencies,” Lee explained. “Just as a medical first aider may help stem the bleeding if someone is cut until they can seek medical attention, so too does a mental health first aider act as the first person you might talk who can support you in taking that next step to get professional help.”
As a result of Lee and his branch’s efforts, not only have sickness days reduced but Unite membership has increased as well. In this way, mental health advocacy has become an important recruitment tool.
While Lee makes mental health a priority throughout the year – “We work on it continuously to never stop and always be there for our members” – Time to Talk Day will be a special day, he said.
“In five different locations, we’ll have stewards talking to workers – from cleaners to IT managers and everyone in between – about mental health. We’ll not only give people more information about what we offer in terms of training and how we can help, but we’ll have private space so people can come to us and tell us about their problems too, however big or small.”
Lee told UniteLive that he was inspired to become such a passionate campaigner for mental health in part from the example of his sister, who is a mental health nurse in Australia.
“I’ve seen the difference she’s made and it really made think – she’s helped so many people in Australia; what can I do to help here? As with most people I have friends and family who have struggled with mental ill health. I’ve seen the pain and suffering that it causes. There’s no quick fix either – you can’t just stick a plaster on it.”
Lee said that’s why it’s vital that trade unions take a lead on mental health the way Unite has done.
“Employers aren’t going to always listen – they aren’t on the ground the way unions are and sometimes they just don’t want to take responsibility. Add to the mix, massive cuts to the NHS and mental health services, which means we all have to step up and play our part – or no one else will.”
Find out more about Time to Change and Time to Talk Day here. Follow @UniteWestMids today as Lee and Nathan go out and about in Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council talking to members about mental health and check out their video below:
On February 7th it’s “Time To Talk” day. We hope to help break the stigma of #mentalhealth by having conversations. Remember mental health is unbiased and anyone can have it. pic.twitter.com/WUg5zBYl1i
— Unite West Midlands (@UniteWestMids) February 1, 2019