Man Up

Picture of Sam Howes

Sam Howes

Senior Consultant

[DISCLAIMER: Some of the content in this article may be distressing to the reader]

Let’s just get this out of the way first and foremost: I am writing this article because just over a year ago today I was suffering with severe depression, to the point of what is known as ‘suicidal ideation’. Basically, I was at a stage where I was thinking about killing myself. I apologise for being so blunt, but that’s kind of the point I am going to focus on.

I have been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (for which I am now technically in remission, or partial remission,) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I have been diagnosed with Depression twice in my life, first in my late 20s, and although I was unaware at the time, on reflection I was probably depressed a couple of times before that too. The first time was around 17 years old, and the general advice I kept receiving from my parents was along the lines of “time heals all wounds,” and “you must keep going to college.” In 2009, this is probably the best advice the general population (especially my parents’ generation, who I feel inherited this tragically hardy attitude from their parents,) had for people suffering from depression. I was a man, and men don’t show emotion – or so I thought – so I went to college every single day without fail despite not wanting to even shower, let alone see or speak to anybody. Fast forward to 2018 and I did the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life: I asked for help.

The reason I think that it is so important to talk about my experiences is because of this – in the UK, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and 75% of all UK suicides are by males. Just let that one sink in for a second: suicide is killing more young UK men than cancer or any other disease. Extend it to the worldwide level and it is still the 4th biggest killer of all people, ahead of HIV, malaria, breast cancer, war and homicides. It is speculated that one reason it affects men so much more than women is that men are often reluctant to express depressive feelings, or any feelings at all. Even writing this article, which I’m sure you can understand is making me feel quite vulnerable and emotional, I am resisting the urge to cry when I well up. This is just a part of my male conditioning.

Attitudes towards mental health are changing. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the proportion of NHS expenditure actually fell from 15% in 1958 to just 11% in 1993. Jump to 2001 and Mental Health Awareness week was launched in the UK – it is now in its 21st year and will be given plenty of attention on social media, both professional and non-professional (and including this article). I can say anecdotally that I feel that within the last 5 years or so that there has been a real focus on mental health in society, it certainly helped me with my decision to finally address my problems, knowing that it wasn’t so ‘taboo’ and that there were plenty of people like me out there.

So why does this matter for business, and how have attitudes changed in the working world? Well, let’s take a look at some numbers. According to the Mental Health Foundation the economic cost of mental ill health in the UK was £5.4 billion in 2015, mostly due to people leaving the labour force altogether. That’s just under half of what the UK government spent last year on environmental protection and about the same amount that they gave to local authorities for COVID-19 response. A Deloitte study shows that the median ROI for mental health programs in Canadian businesses was $1.62 per dollar spent, rising to $2.18 for those that have been in place for 3 or more years. Companies are listening, clearly: a Gartner article shows that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 68% of organisations had introduced at least one new wellness benefit by the end of March 2021.

In practice, what can businesses do for their employees?

Firstly, businesses should consider providing first-class benefits packages that include private healthcare, full statutory sick pay for an extended period, access to free counselling services, gym membership and free membership to meditation apps (mindfulness practices are now commonplace in therapy). Having almost immediate access to top psychologists is something that probably saved my life, and being paid SSP for up to 6 months was an enormous weight off my mind.

Secondly, businesses should raise awareness of mental health issues, including but not exclusive to burnout at work. Let’s start showing people what OCD looks like, what post-natal depression looks like, what PTSD looks like. Although training is very useful, simply acknowledging and discussing these issues helps – particularly when directed by leadership.

Lastly, businesses should consider implementing ‘safe space’ support structures for its employees, with the aim of making it easier for people to reach out without necessarily involving those in authority. I’m delighted to say that Finyx launched a Mental Health Champion scheme on Monday which will allow our employees to do just that. Such schemes are simple and cheap to set up but can be very effective for those in need.

In developed countries it is believed that somewhere between 35-50% of people with severe mental health problems receive no treatment whatsoever. I truly hope that my words will encourage somebody to seek the help they need and act before it becomes a potentially fatal situation. That is the hardest step you will take, but you don’t have to suffer alone.

I’d like to finish with two things: I am happy, healthy and more on top of my mental health than I have ever been. And finally, if anybody, male or female, reading is struggling or knows somebody that is then please do not hesitate to reach out. I am proof that a better life is possible.