I am very fortunate to have worked for and with some amazing people and companies, but like many people I have struggled to manage a complex life, whilst also trying to cope with a family member with severe mental health issues.
My experience of poor mental health started when I was a child, growing up with a mother that suffered from “manic depression”, or bipolar disorder as we now call it. She was the first Mauritian black woman to come to the UK to study at university, moving on to become a teacher at a secondary school in Chesham.
Trying to work as a teacher and bring up a family with three challenging boys, in what was quite a hostile environment back in the 60’s and 70’s, she had the first of many serious breakdowns. She was subject to racial abuse on a regular basis. After being racially and physically attacked by a pupil, not for the first time, with little support from her fellow teachers or school, she left the profession and never went back to full-time education. Even so, after all that had happened to her, she wasn’t bitter nor did she harbour a grudge. Even up until her recent death, she suffered prejudice and would calmly challenge peoples narrow views with a smile and gentle stories of love between English and Mauritian people.
When I became an adult and visited my old neighbourhood, I told our childhood neighbours what had happened to my mum; the night when she put her clothes in a cold bath and took all our clothes and put them in the neighbours bins; when she broke down in tears on the floor of the Berlin underground when we were accompanying my dad on a business trip and with my eldest brothers guidance we had to take her home; the times she couldn’t get out of bed and we had to cook and shop for her.
The strange thing for me was that none of them knew that this was going on and they just saw her as a bit strange. Some knew of her depression but not of the depths she went to. Even when I told her closest relatives they also had little idea of how bad her depression was. I even challenged some of her previous colleagues, most of whom just fell silent and didn’t say a word.
Fortunately, she had an amazing friend called Milidred Neville who introduced her to a psychiatrist called Dr. Jack Dominion. As part of her recovery, my mum contributed to one of his books.
It seems that for some reason hereditary or not, poor mental health runs in my family and unfortunately my younger brother suffered from “bi-polar” from quite a young age. Whilst I was an undergraduate, I lived with him on and off, but even with his many deep dark days he had hope and it seemed like he would pull through. On the day of my final exam he had a mini breakdown, as he had his own exams, which he didn’t feel capable to attend. Somehow I managed to escort him to college and then just about make it for mine.
Looking back, I can’t remember him getting any counselling or therapy, apart from some anti-depressants. It all came to a sad end in my late 20’s when my younger brother came to live with me from my brothers, who was also trying to help him after recently being released from hospital.
I spoke to his doctor regularly, but the only support he could offer was a prescription of lithium and that was an experimental drug in those days, with strong side-effects. There was little support from the mental health services or the doctors and he seemed to be just sinking in his melancholy. We were extremely close, and he came to live with me in an attempt to get better and to get a job. I was totally ill equipped to help him, being in a new house, newly married in a relatively new job, with a newborn only a few months old and a wife, who recently emigrated from Hungary.
I felt lost at sea and just tried my best to encourage and support him, but I really didn’t know what I was dealing with as I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to help him. I explained to HR, my colleagues and bosses that my brother was ill and living with me. When I was late in, had to leave early or exhausted from staying up all night with our newborn or because my brother was crying with his suffering, people just didn’t know how to offer their help. Unfortunately, he ended up committing suicide and I struggled to know how to deal with it.
My bosses and colleagues didn’t know what support to offer me and in the early 90’s there was little occupational mental health support. I do understand them as I didn’t know how to express what was going on and I was afraid to tell them what I was going through, as sadly, I thought it would affect their perception of my capability. In the end, I buried my true feelings and carried on as the positive, energetic person that everyone knew me as.
I think we have moved on since my mum’s experience 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and mine in the 90’s. I believe any UK school would support my mum if she suffered racism and companies are better equipped to deal with bereavement in the family, even considering my own recent terrible experiences (see “One Step Beyond – My Experience as a Carer and the Lack of Corporate Support”). We also have many more Jack Dominion’s, also legal and education systems that stand up to racists.
However, I am still not sure how much we really understand about mental illness and what is going on with our neighbours and family members. I think this becomes even more extreme when we look at the workplace. Do we really know what is happening to our colleagues, bosses and employees and in many cases, how can we and why should we?
Well, thinking about my mum’s story, now more than ever more people are feeling isolated, more under pressure without close support around them. We can’t just run to a neighbour or call an uncle, aunt or cousin for help. In this case my mum’s story is not about racism, but about how much we support and understand those at work and in the community, who are struggling with mental health issues.
When someone looks like they’re in distress, behaves like they in distress or tells you they’re in distress, then they are. So offer them some help and support. Stop what you are doing and take a minute to hear their story. Take a moment to think about what you would do in their situation, as your help could be the hand they need to cope with what they are dealing with.