This week, I want to do something a bit different. We’re nearing the end of get organised month, and there’s a part of progressing that I have always, always ignored: facing my negative characteristics. Things I’m doing wrong. Things that are fundamental about me that need to change.
Last week, The Financial Diet – who are an incredible company that inspire me constantly – posted an article from their founder, Chelsea Fagan. It’s called Sorry, your mental illness shouldn’t be on your LinkedIn – so you can imagine where it’s going. I’ll let you read it for yourselves.
When I read it the first time through I stopped halfway, because it was making me feel so incredibly anxious. Was I doing everything wrong? Was I a terrible person? Did this mean that the entire foundation of so much of my work – telling real stories about mental health – was actually bad for people?
I talked on Twitter at some length about my reactions, and I wanted to bring that here to all of you as well, because when I made it through reading it the second time I had a lot of thoughts – and came away really pleased that I’d faced the idea that I might be wrong.
So here are the three major thoughts I had on reading the article, with the usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified in any form of counselling or psychology – I’m just talking from my personal experience.
‘Leaning in’ to your illness is a symptom too.
Chelsea talks about how for many people now, mental illness has become a badge of pride – something that is worn in the same way you would make your clothing choices part of you. Like it’s a fundamental part of you, rather than something that afflicts you.
It’s easy to see why we do this, because mental illness is so pervasive. There’s never a moment that it doesn’t affect you in some way, even if that way is simply as a possible future on the horizon. But I really don’t think it’s good for us. In fact, a lot of the work I’ve done with therapists has been to stop me doing precisely this.
Depression destroyed my self-esteem. Anxiety made me feel guilty every second of every day. So I clung to those diagnoses: the explanation, the reason, the excuse for how I was. Look, I would be saying every time I mentioned my illness, I am not lying! I am not terrible! I am just sick!
By doing that I was devaluing my identity. I was forcing out the space into which I could (re)learn who I was, filling it with I have severe depression and I have social anxiety disorder. I limited my capacity to grow and recover because I was dragging this Sisyphean weight as part of me.
This is something I’m still unpicking every day. It’s something I often still do. Talking about mental health on the internet doesn’t help it sometimes. But it’s also done the opposite and enabled me to separate my experience of illness from my identity.
So if you’ve read the article and are worried that you’re doing this: it might not all be on you.
That said, I think there are times where you want to disclose your mental illness to employers.
With 1 in 4 people suffering from some form of mental illness at some time, and our society becoming wonderfully and increasingly better at talking about mental distress, I know a lot of people who have mental ill health.
Many of them work standard office jobs, or retail jobs, all manner of what would tediously be considered a ‘normal’ job. And they are able to manage this in part because they use, either consciously or unconsciously, certain aides to let them do so. Things like being allowed to use headphones in busy offices, or taking more frequent but shorter breaks.
This is not the leaning in or badge waving I was just talking about. It’s advocating for your own health and wellbeing. And it’s really, really hard.
If I ever went into a job like that, you can bet I would be explaining to my employer upfront that I have certain tools and aides that make me able to work. And to be fair both to them and me, I would likely do this at interview.
Now, I’m privileged – like Chelsea talks about in her article – that I am able to do that. I too am lucid about my illness and I always have been, even when I was desperately unwell. In fact, it’s gotten me into trouble before. One of the reasons I was initially denied disability and incapacity benefits is that I was able to talk at length about my illness.
Ironically, this also gave me the benefit of learning to advocate for myself, and when to ask for outside help. Thanks, UK benefits system! One day I’ll tell you that whole story, when I feel like being incredibly angry.
Not everyone’s going to be able to self-advocate, or even want to. But the point is that it’s about how you do it, and frame it, and when. If you need those things like you need a company travel loan, I think you should ask for them.
Lastly, let’s talk about the big one: the idea that discussing mental illness on social media is bad.
This is obviously the one that is really thorny for me; the one that made me tense up with anxiety when I first read the article. I have made a point of talking openly about my good days and my bad days and everything inbetween. I draw a huge amount of inspiration from people who do that.
For me it’s tied up into a bigger question: what should and shouldn’t we share on social media?
I don’t think we’re going to answer that big a question in a single blog post, but for me a lot of it’s about intention and method. How you say it and why you say it.
If you’re posting to wave the badge, that takes you back to the first thing we talked about – it might be your symptoms again, rather than a positive thing. To be absolutely clear and honest with you: I absolutely, completely, 100% still do this sometimes.
But most of the time – I hope! – I am sharing because I want to make others feel less alone. People have told me that sharing those things makes them more hopeful, or inspired, or more comfortable with discussing their problems with the people they are close to.
So if there is something we need to do, it’s to be mindful. To seriously consider the purpose of the things we’re sharing. To use our privilege to articulate to do so responsibly. Not, I think, to stop entirely. Otherwise, thoughtful articles like Chelsea’s wouldn’t exist.
The world wouldn’t improve. Because talking publicly about mental illness is an act of incredible bravery – and I would never, ever, want you all to stop being brave. Having the bravery to go to therapy regularly, to find ways to manage our mental health, to ask for help, to take medication when people tell you you shouldn’t.
Bravery is how we win.