A system failure
John, or ‘Briggsy’ as he was better known, had been working for a large construction company for almost 20 years. He joined them straight from school and began working on a small construction site as a general labourer. Ten years later he trained up to become a crane operator and spent the rest of his life working on big sites mainly in city centres up and down the country. John was one of the boys, always game for a laugh and you’d find him down the pub most Friday afternoons for a couple of beers with the lads. John was a family man; a wife and two kids aged five and nine whom he loved and adored helped to keep him on his toes – he always kept a photo of his family on the inside window of his crane. He liked watching the footy and enjoyed the odd bit of fishing. On the outside Briggsy was a ‘normal’ 36 year old man with no deep seated issues……or so it seemed…
January 15th 2015, 9:15pm.
“Knock knock, knock”. Julie, John’s wife, answered the door. “Julie Briggs?” asked the officer. “Yes, that’s me, is something wrong??”, “I’m afraid I have some bad news…”.The officer proceeded to tell Julie what had happened and she fell to the floor in a sea of tears.
John had finished work at 5:30pm that day and drove 30 miles to a country park. Situated in the park was an impressive 100ft viaduct which was part of a local heritage steam railway network. John was found at the foot of the viaduct at 7:25pm by a dog walker. Paramedics pronounced John dead at the scene.
An incredibly tragic story but not an uncommon one and sadly an increasing one too! Suicide is becoming more and more prevalent with increasing numbers being reported each year. It’s clear that the provisions the UK has in place to tackle mental health problems simply isn’t good enough – quite frankly in my opinion, its lacking!
THE CURRENT SITUATION
I have a few thoughts as to why the mental health problem in the UK is so bad, so bad in fact it’s got to an epidemic level. I’m a psychotherapist by profession so I have a good insight into the extent of the problems people face. Also, I suffered with panic attacks and depression in my youth so know what it takes to overcome such adversities. All too often in my practice I hear repeated stories of our failing systems and how doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, counsellors and medication couldn’t help them, these reports run concurrent with my own personal experiences as a young lad with panic disorder. So many of these people have never been given a sufficient understanding of their problem, is it any wonder they don’t seem to make much progress?
My first thought is that in our culture we do not teach people about the ‘mind’, what it is, and how ‘thoughts’ can physically change our physiology and create problems. We should be teaching kids about the dangers of worry and rumination in primary schools and more advanced teachings in high school. This will surely make a big impact on improving the problem – early prevention is the ticket! Education is paramount, but the right education by the right people is more important! A student is only ever as good as his teacher!
My second thought is this. Most people who have a chronic mental health complaint and seek help at first go to their doctor. The doctor will usually prescribe some sort of anti-depressant and possibly put the patient on a waiting list for some form of therapeutic intervention. These are the guidelines that doctors are trained to follow. This is the system our country has in place and once again, quite frankly, it’s lacking! These patients begin taking medication with no explanation how these tablets are designed to work or what the actual problem is and why it persists in the first place. The waiting times for therapy these days averages about six months (at least) due to high demand and an overstretched NHS. A large proportion of the people waiting for therapy at some point return to the doctor with further complaints of their mental illness and an increase in medication is often the prescription. All the while the patient becomes more sensitised, bewildered and more dependent on their medication! By the time the patient gets to see the therapist they’re often mentally fatigued, more anxious and more depressed! If only the doctors could give them a little understanding and explain how the medication is designed to work and a few coping strategies meanwhile, then I’m sure this would go a long way in empowering the patient to make positive and constructive change whilst waiting for therapy.
THE WORKPLACE SITUATION
Mental health solutions in the workplace are a big business these days, but are the provisions currently in place really that effective? Have they got the right approach? If they have then why isn’t there a noticeable improvement, instead increases in absenteeism due to stress is reported each year, the economic costs to the UK is a staggering 4.5 per cent of the total GDP lost in working days, reduced productivity and higher benefits spending. Also, increases in suicide are reported each year – construction, agricultural, nursing and production industries being some of the biggest contributors. One of the most common approaches to mental health solutions for the workplace is the Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) programme. ‘Specific’ people in the workplace are given a two day training course to help assess the risks, spot the signs of poor mental health, listen in a non-judgemental way and encourage professional help to those employees who need it and generally act as ‘go to’ people should anybody have any mental health issues. This may well be an improvement on existing (or non-existent!) workplace measures but would it have helped the likes of Briggsy? I have my reservations…
Firstly, the signs aren’t always easy to spot; people suffering with anxiety and depression are incredibly good at hiding their feelings. They often feel so ashamed and weak by their afflictions that they will do anything to hide it. Secondly, many people in the workplace will be reluctant to approach anybody regarding their problem, especially management or senior people (often the people who are offered the training), again, for fear of being seen as weak. The stigma surrounding mental health certainly isn’t likely to drastically change in our lifetimes and it will take many more years of raising awareness and implementing adequate measures before people feel confident to openly talk about their problems without feeling judged.
So what might have helped Briggsy then?
Firstly, if a mental health company had given a talk at his company and made it accessible to everybody (not just a select few) then that might have been the first stepping stone. Just listening to someone explain what causes anxiety and depression might have given John the right environment to listen, take note and free up enough mental space to encourage hope and optimism. Many people who suffer in silence will not seek help; instead, you have to go to them and this I believe is the beauty of bringing mental health solutions to the workplace and making them accessible to all – you can reach more sufferers through the workplace than any other platform and make a big impact!
Secondly, if John was given some understanding about how emotions affect our thoughts, I’m sure this would have helped him. Emotions flood consciousness and conscious control over emotions is weak but there are ways to exert control over this primitive response. I wonder that if poor John was given this knowledge and some tools to utilise in those despairing moments whether his outcome would have been much different on that fateful day. I’m convinced it would have. Knowledge is a powerful tool!
Employees need to be educated about mental health to a ‘sufficient’ level and not just a select few. They should be educated by external companies who also offer continued support and an aftercare system for good all round maximum impact. I personally hope to bring this much needed approach to mental health in the workplace and help to make a significant improvement to a system that is clearly failing.
R.I.P John Briggs (1979-2015) – Much loved husband and dad of two.
Written by Matthew Coleclough,
Mindsafe Matt suffered with chronic panic disorder and agoraphobia from 1997 – 2006. Dr’s, therapists and medication did little for him and in 2004 he attempted to take his own life.
Through his own research he found the answers he was looking for – recovery followed.
Later he help set up a mental health charity ‘BIG in mental Health’ for which he received the Queens Award for Voluntary Service in 2011 and studied to become a Psychotherapist specialising in anxiety conditions. Matt has facilitated over 400 support groups helping hundreds of anxiety and depression sufferers through his passionate and educational talks and also successfully runs his own therapy practice.
Matt attributes his recovery to gaining a good understanding of his illness, an understanding which wasn’t given to him by trained ‘professionals’. He believes one of the main reasons why there’s a mental health epidemic in the UK is because of a lack of understanding – nobody really knows whats wrong with them and few people are giving them satisfactory explanations.
‘Mindsafe’ is all about promoting good mental health in the workplace. They achieve this by delivering highly educational talks explaining difficult concepts in a fun, interactive and an easily digestible format.
Their motto is ‘knowledge is power’ and they believe that by giving people a thorough explanation of specific mental health topics this empowers them to make positive changes to their lives.