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Opening up about mental health

Analysis shows public attitudes changing towards mental ill health
Hajera Blagg, Monday, May 13th, 2019

During World Mental Health Awareness week this week (May 13-19), figures have revealed that while mental ill health is a protracted problem plaguing society, the stigma surrounding it is slowly but surely decreasing.


An analysis of previous studies by the Telegraph found that mental health disorders are more common that many people may think – one in 6 people had a mental health disorder in the last week according to an NHS study in 2014, while more than a quarter of adults will suffer from one at least once in their lifetime.


More people have become aware of mental ill health simply from knowing family, friends and loved ones who suffer – in a YouGov poll in 2017, two-thirds of those surveyed said they knew at least one person who had a mental illness, while only 14 per cent said they did not know anyone.


One of the most difficult topics surrounding mental health to discuss openly – suicide and suicidal thoughts – has also in recent years undergone a change in attitudes. While the overall number of suicides has decreased in the last few years, the rate of people openly saying that they have experienced suicidal thoughts has increased.


Time to talk

Data shows, however, that men under-report suicidal thoughts, even as they are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.


It’s this fact that inspired Unite member and mental health nurse Alex Cotton to found the men’s mental health charity It Takes Balls to Talk.


The charity uses sporting themes to encourage people, particularly men, to talk about their feelings and mental health problems. The campaign group trains volunteers who go to sporting events such as football and rugby matches to break down the barriers that men so often erect in caring for their own mental health — by simply listening.


Alex developed her idea with the help of Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust and now the campaign has partnered with a variety of organisations including Unite, Samaritans, Mind, a number of football clubs and others.


With Unite’s support, the campaign has gone into male-dominated workplaces such as Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover to encourage men to open up.


“I’ve seen the effects myself of a society that doesn’t encourage men to talk – I’ve been both professionally and personally bereaved by male suicide, from patients as well as colleagues and friends,” Alex told UniteLive earlier this year on Time to Talk Day. “It Takes Balls to Talk isn’t just for men – it’s for all of us who have men in our lives who we love and care for, and that of course includes every single one of us, both male and female.”


Workplace mental health

Rising rates of mental ill health in the workplace were also highlighted in the Telegraph analysis. Shockingly, for the first time ever last year, work-related stress, anxiety or depression accounted for the majority of all working days lost to stress.


Unite has long been an advocate for improving mental health in the workplace. Most recently, Lee Wiggets-Clinton, a Unite convenor at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, made mental health training a priority when he noticed two years ago that in sickness meetings with members, time and again mental health issues such as stress were among the biggest reasons people had missed work.


He 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 commits employers to specific mental health goals.


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 the number of sickness days fallen but Unite membership has increased as well.


But much more needs to be done to improve mental health in the workplace – especially in light of a recent CIPD poll which found that work days lost to stress are being driven by poor management.


Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said that trade unions are vital to bringing about change, “but action must also come from the government and the HSE to ensure that employers are held to higher standards when it comes to protecting the mental health of their staff”.


He added, “Employers must also make sure their line managers are provided with the training and tools to ensure they are not part of the problem.”


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