To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Alex Lane, senior manager at Accenture, talks about his personal struggle which culminated in a nervous breakdown.
In any given year, one person in four is likely to experience an episode of mental ill health, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that one in two will do so in a lifetime.
Like physical health, our mental health is on a spectrum that will change during the course of our lives, and it’s therefore important to monitor and take the necessary steps to manage it effectively.
It sounds straightforward, but I know from personal experience that mental health challenges can creep up over time. A couple of years ago, I ended up being signed off work for four months with anxiety and depression, causing a nervous breakdown.
Exhaustion, weight loss and lack of self-esteem
I had been aware that my mental health was deteriorating. Within the space of a few months, my self-esteem plummeted and I lost more than a stone in weight. I was exhausted as my mind was constantly racing, which prevented me from sleeping. At work, I was often on the verge of tears and, even though I had good relationships with my teams, I steadily withdrew from contact.
One evening I was out playing football when I became overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness. I turned around and went straight back home where I confided in my wife that I couldn’t cope anymore and desperately needed help.
That realisation and a conversation with a trusted colleague who advised me about the help available at Accenture sparked the start of my recovery.
Confiding in trusted colleagues
I called Accenture’s BUPA Healthy Minds helpline and took up the course of counselling offered. I talked to my doctor and we agreed on a course of medication. And perhaps most importantly, I started confiding in people I trusted and educating myself about what I was dealing with.
When I returned to work, I decided to speak out about my experience. I was overwhelmed by the support I received and the number of people who came forward and told me how mental health issues have impacted their lives or those of their family and friends.
My experience made me want to help others and I am now a very active member of and trainer for Accenture’s Mental Health Allies community, encouraging people to speak up and seek support. I find it really rewarding and I’m proud to be helping to drive the conversation around mental health at Accenture.
Allies are key to overcoming mental health
We now have over 1,500 trained allies in the UK and Ireland, whose role is to listen and provide support to colleagues who are dealing with mental health issues, guiding them towards the professional resources we have available as needed.
It’s all part of a movement to create an environment where our people feel safe and comfortable to discuss how they feel, assured that they will not be judged or penalized for doing so.
I know from my own experience that speaking up about mental health is critical to recovery. The importance of being able to talk and be listened to properly without shame or fear of being judged cannot be underestimated. I would advise anyone dealing with mental health challenges to take that first step of confiding in someone you trust.
My life is very different now. I have learned about tools and techniques that enable me to channel my thoughts and emotions to support my mental health.
Personally, I find mindfulness practices very valuable. Being able to recognise thoughts as simply thoughts and to be able to bring myself back into the “now” has been extremely rewarding and has improved my levels of attention, presence and focus while also helping to calm my mind and reduce the physical sensations of stress.
Many people also find meditation and journaling useful. Different techniques work for different people, and taking the time to explore what works best for you is a valuable investment in your mental health.
Prioritising healthy habits
I have also established clear boundaries for my work and personal life, and prioritise sleep, nutrition and exercise - physical and mental health are closely intertwined.
In fact, mental health issues will often manifest themselves in physical ailments such as constant fatigue or lower back pain. Healthy routines take time to establish but I recommend taking things slowly, committing to one change at a time and building from there. These habits can provide an anchor and make a significant difference to how you feel during the challenging times.
And finally, I believe it’s important to at least explore the options available when it comes to professional medical support. I knew that I needed support to get better and counselling helped me enormously.
It provided me with the opportunity to examine the triggers of my emotions and enabled me to recognise and manage my thought patterns. I still do a monthly check-in with my counsellor and plan to continue that to help sustain my mental fitness.
When you look at the statistics both in the UK and globally, it makes sense to focus on what we could be doing to safeguard our mental health.
I believe strongly that organisations have a responsibility to create a safe environment where their people can talk about mental health and seek support without fear of judgement. After all, it’s in employers’ interests for their employees to feel mentally and emotionally well enough to be able to thrive at work.
Breaking the stigma
At Accenture there’s a real momentum around what we’re doing to help break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health. Conversations about mental health are becoming commonplace, and it’s encouraging to see society’s increasing understanding of its importance reflected in our workplace.
We all have a role to play in helping to dispel that myth that mental health is a taboo topic which no-one talks openly about. What I learned from my own experience has changed my work and life for the better. Looking back, I only wish I’d spoken out and sought help sooner.
Alex is a senior manager at Accenture and is a trainer for Accenture’s Mental Health Allies programme, helping to end the stigma around mental health. He is also a member of Accenture’s Truly Human team focusing on organisational culture and employee wellbeing.