The Dominion Post
First aid to unmask the pain of mental health
Since I write quite often about my rarelyyielding battle with depression, readers kindly contact me with advice and questions. When it comes to advice, I’m grateful for their ideas, and stand ready for anything short of yoga.
As for questions, the most common relate to how to identify depression in others, and how best to deal with them in a depressed state. These are great questions, but my own affliction doesn’t confer expertise any more than diabetes makes one an endocrinologist.
So when I had the chance to meet with a Wellington-based social enterprise which offers workshops throughout New Zealand on mental health first aid, I jumped at it. Finally, I thought, this might equip me with some answers.
Coliberate delivers mental health first aid, arming people with the skills to recognise signs and signals of developing and ongoing mental health challenges. It offers techniques for how to respond in these moments of distress, addressing both the immediate crisis situations and how to help people through a strategy to recover.
Coliberate runs workshops ranging from large corporates to start-ups, as well as some government clients. It is designed to inspire change in the workplace culture where managers typically struggle to respond to mental health problems that emerge in their team. It also repudiates the idea that mental health is to be dealt with outside office hours, and confirms that a responsible employer will take these challenges seriously and address them with confidence.
For employees, it confronts the challenge of ‘‘masking’’, which is where people take pains to conceal what they’re going through, fearful it will impact their employability, function as a burden on other staff and lead to discrimination.
A typical workshop takes places over two days, covering five modules: suicide ideation, depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse. Participants are offered a framework to enable them to begin by asking the right questions.
Take, for instance, a panic attack. Our typical response when we see the symptoms in others is to panic ourselves, compounding the situation.
Instead, Coliberate teaches effective ways to approach, listen and calm the situation. This includes
breathing and grounding techniques, as well as consent-led intervention. Done effectively, this first-aid approach can reduce escalation, avoid hospital visits and make a big difference to a person’s sense of security and wellbeing.
With respect to depression, the symptoms often appear in clusters. Low motivation alone may not denote depression, but when a colleague shows evidence, over a period of time, of symptoms like excessive tiredness, low appetite, negative talk cycles and absenteeism, it could be a sign that compassionate intervention is required.
Understanding these signals allows for employers and colleagues to overcome the awkwardness associated with these sorts of conversations, and open a productive dialogue.
Sarah Tuck of Coliberate told me, ‘‘Without intervention, it runs the risk of leading to a deepening crisis. By engaging early and appropriately, it can reduce the intensity of the suffering and allows people to access support inside and outside the workplace, and thereby keep their jobs, income, and the routines that help give them purpose and direction.’’
Depression is warmly receptive to shame and guilt. At times over my tumultuous career, I have found it increasingly difficult to maintain fulltime work, even with merely the prospect of the next episode hanging over my head. Even in abeyance, depression is a constant companion. ‘‘Stigma is the single biggest cause of why people don’t get help,’’ Tuck said, ‘‘and it cuts both ways – it stops people reaching out, but it also stops people reaching in.’’
New Zealand has been well served by Sir John Kirwan and Mike King when it comes to raising awareness and challenging stigma, along with the Mental Health Awareness Week. What Coliberate and others are answering is, ‘‘what next?’’
‘‘We’re about adding skills to awareness,’’ Tuck said, ‘‘so that people can express their compassion and concern in ways that will serve themselves and others. Alongside learning skills to help others, of course, our workshops help participants better understand their own mental health needs.’’
One participant, a rugby union official, said of the workshops: ‘‘I walked out of the programme feeling inspired and in a good mindset to help others. My learning is going to impact a lot of people I work with.’’ Another said, ‘‘Definitely the most valuable training I’ve done with regard to mental health [and I] feel empowered and confident to offer support.’’
I’m blown away by this idea, particularly the potential to destigmatise mental health in the workplace, and allow people who suffer like me to find support and encouragement where there was only despair. Over the years, what I would have given to know there were trusted colleagues with whom I could discuss these things, rather than shrinking into the background and hoping no-one notices.
Stigma . . . stops people reaching out, but it also stops people reaching in.’’