Mental ill health affects one in four people, so it is very likely that you, or someone you know, could be affected says Leanne Cripps

People who know me, and who I trust, know the real me. So, I will trust you with my secret – I have a mental health condition. In my case, I have mixed anxiety and psychotic depression, which means that I hear, see and believe in things that others do not hear, see, or believe in. This can be incredibly distressing and hard to explain to another and has been known to lose friends and family at various points in my life. I am treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. A combination of a good GP and a friendly Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). My condition is life-long and fairly stable, but it takes a lot of hard work, and not just on my part, to keep it that way.

This is only really a secret because the world is unfortunately rife with the stigma that belies people like me as some lesser being or somehow dangerous. A world that believes taking mental health medication makes you weak or less of a person. I will say from the outset that in reality most people are of risk to no one but themselves, and taking medication can be hard, and not always immediately effective, but life-saving just the same – this is true of me. Stigma has been known to stop people from reaching out for help when they should. All I can say to that is that we are very much our own worst enemies, and no one can think worse of us than ourselves.

My reason for telling you this is twofold. Firstly, mental ill health affects one in four people, so it is very likely that you, or someone you know, could be affected at some point in their life. Secondly, mental well-being affects everyone and works on a sliding scale from the normal stress and anxiety, which can affect any working day, right the way through to the more restrictive and life-changing bipolar or schizophrenic disorders. My point here is to say that you need to be looking after your own well-being regardless of where on that scale you fall.

I speak from a level of experience, not just in the mental health field and all that can involve, but in the day-to-day workings of an office. I learnt the hard way, I hid away until it was too late, and didn’t ask for, or accept help, when I should have. This lost me my confidence, respect and more importantly my job. I had a disastrous break-down, involving locking myself in the toilet, for more hours than I care to recall, with incredibly strong suicidal urges and an absolute terror in what I believed existed just outside the toilet doors, until my boyfriend could travel halfway across the country from work, to retrieve me.  This could have been at least slowed down or altogether stopped had I just known what I know now.

I am glad to say things have improved since, and I am now in a job where I am happy. I have also made a more important change – I have been honest from the outset about how my mental health affects me and my working life. I have learnt the importance of open, honest communication with my executive and this, almost as much as the mental health condition I have, is life-altering. I feel more at ease with my executive and more able to be honest when something is stressing me out, or if I have a query that I may previously have fretted over. More so, I feel as though there is a level of respect there – respect that runs both ways. I feel my executive can come to me, just as much as I can go to her and this is the relationship that I think should be a goal of all Executive Assistants and PAs.

Mental well-being is a two-way street – and where we may be accustomed to ensuring our executives are well and happy; making sure they meet their deadlines, telling them when to take a break or have a sandwich and ultimately, going to fetch that very sandwich, we are less accustomed to asking for the time we need. Choosing instead to bury ourselves in our work as though it would all work out well in the end. As though we will somehow be okay, however-much the opposite is true.

My point here is that we all need to learn to say when we are stressed, anxious, worried or just need a five-minute breather to walk around the park across the way. Our mental well-being, whatever state that may be in, is an important part of working out our work-life balance and it is vital that you learn to be honest with your executive, especially if you expect them to do the same to you.

As much as it is our job to manage upwards – to ensure our executives are the best they can be, in order to fulfil their part of the bargain, your executive needs to know how best they can help you. They can only properly do this if you are open and honest. It may not be easy to begin with, but ultimately, it is worth it and makes for a far better partnership with your executive.

A positive sense of well-being; individual resources including self-esteem, optimism, and sense of mastery and coherence; the ability to initiate, develop and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships; and the ability to cope with adversity (resilience)

Definition of mental health, Foresight Progamme, Mental Capital and Well-being Project, October 2008

Five Steps to improving your mental well-being

MFHA England CIC

1. Connect

with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

2. Be active

Go for a walk or a run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

3. Take notice

Be curious. Catch sight of beautiful things. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

4. Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.

5. Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger

Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.

Leanne Cripps began her career as a Department Secretary for a Hospital HR Department. She has worked as PA to CEO in the Charity and Social Enterprise sectors for the past nine years, including appointments with Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Social ... (Read More)

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