Trigger warning: suicide and grief
Content Strategist Ben Jackson tragically lost his father 24 years ago, after he took his own life following a time of stress and uncertainty at work. For International Fathers' Mental Health Day, Ben discusses the progress he has seen in workplace mental health and wellbeing support since then, and how having the confidence to ask how someone is feeling can make all the difference.
Mental Health Awareness Week is always a time of reflection for me. Each year it dovetails with the anniversary of my dad’s death. He killed himself 24 years ago following a time of stress and uncertainty at work.
Because of this, I often think about workplace mental health and how things have changed since he died. The question I return to is whether things would have been any different if his illness had happened now rather than in the 1990s.
Broadly, I think there have been a lot of positive developments in the intervening years.
Modern workplaces are better set up to support their staff. From employee helplines to well thought-out policies, important layers of triage are now commonplace.
This is coupled with a well documented shift in attitudes to mental health. It’s not the taboo it once was, which hopefully means people are able to speak up when they are struggling.
It is getting easier for people to return to work, after a mental health episode, at a time that is right for them. As attitudes (and therapeutic pathways) have changed, there is more understanding of how work can be part of the recovery. This might help to alleviate some of the fear a person may feel if they are struggling and worrying about losing their job.
So while there are reasons to be positive, I also feel that there is still a way to go.
Triage is brilliant, but it needs a person to access it. Having seen my dad’s health deteriorate so quickly, I’m not confident awareness of a helpline or a policy alone would have helped him.
There is a chance that an action could have. By action, I mean someone having the confidence to ask him if he was OK and to start a conversation.
This is why I am so encouraged by initiatives like Workplace Mental Health First Aid training from MHFA England. Training staff to recognise warning signs in others and giving them the confidence to start a conversation could potentially make a big difference. It’s also a great way to compliment any existing support methods, such as a helpline.
As a freelancer I get to visit a lot of offices and I am so pleased to see that this training is becoming more common.
Of all the things that might have made a difference for dad in the context of a modern workplace, this is the one I think about most.
For this reason I’d encourage you to find out more about how your employer can get involved.
Before I finish, I should address the question you probably want to ask: do I blame my dad’s employer for his death? The answer is no.
My dad was very ill. One of the saddest things about his suicide was how much guilt it created in its wake. Family, friends and colleagues were universally affected. I’m not an exception to this. As I’ve got older, I’ve analysed it many times and wondered what I did not ask or did not say.
Perhaps for this reason I’ll always go out on a limb and ask a colleague if they are OK. I’d encourage you to do the same. While it might feel awkward, take comfort in the thought that it could potentially make a huge difference.
Ben's story was originally published for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019.
We shouldn’t be afraid talk about suicide. Doing so helps others to open up and can prevent suicide and save lives.
For support contact Samaritans. Samaritans is available round the clock, all year and provides a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel. Please call 116 123 (UK), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.