We were massively honoured to have Ciaran O’Connor, a practicing psychotherapist and counsellor in Brighton and Hove, visit our new year wellbeing meetup in January.
Mental health is a big focus for our community in 2017 and Ciaran managed to eloquently impart some real insight and wisdom into caring for the mental wellbeing of those around you and how, in turn, this impacts our own mental health. He’s kindly written up his talk which you can enjoy…right…now!
Impacting the mental health of those around you
Managing the mental health of any given staff member is something that we tend to see as the duty of either the staff member themselves and/or their employer. This is certainly progress, as going back in years shows us a world in which the latter held little to no recognised responsibility for their employees mental health.
However, we need to take a further step forward and consider how we, as colleagues, hold responsibility for the wellbeing of those around us. Within this lies a bonus prize, for not only do we benefit the lives of others, but in the very act of having a caring connection to others we improve our own mental wellbeing.
We have an uncomfortable dual relationship with the emotional difficulties of our workforce in developed countries. On the one hand, our ‘first world problem’ meme draws us to take the misery that comes with a functioning, safe existence with a handful of salt. On the other hand we increasingly acknowledge the reality of mental illness and the folly of assuming that someone’s psychic world should be as spotless as their circumstances. Well-to-do individuals still get distressed in an ever-growing range of life-shattering ways. And we really aren’t too sure why. Within the workplace this becomes a confusing monster that we are poorly equipped to deal with.
Prioritising Mental Health in the Workplace
What we are lacking is a solid use of the Eisenhower principle with regards to mental health (Eisenhower 1954). The 34th US president realised the power of focusing AWAY from what was immediately urgent and instead turning to tasks that would make the biggest impact in the long run. Perhaps the most important instance of this, as magnates such as Branson understand, is to prioritise the wellbeing of their staff above all else. Without this, all aspects of a business suffer.
How the mental health of staff is best allowed to flourish in the workplace was the subject of Brighton Digital Women’s first 2017 gathering. Here we have a collection of exceptionally bright, outwardly functioning staff members for whom a quarter, as widely known statistics will tell us, are inevitably struggling with mental illness.
Through the development of the NHS, police force, fire brigade, social services and the psychotherapeutic profession (among many other examples) we have systematized the care of others. When someone is seen crying on the streets, we tend towards thinking that someone else is on the case of managing this problem and steer clear. It’s not that we are uncaring, it’s just that we have become reliant upon our highly developed national institution to handle crisis for us. This permeates into the office whereby we tend toward seeing another staff member’s crisis as something for the manager to manage. Not us.
The Impact of Caring for Others
Dan Siegal, a psychotherapist and author of the book Mindsight, recognised that the people’s suffering tends to always to come out of a deficiency of one of three things: internal reflection and understanding, embodiment and finally a connection to those around us (Siegel 2009). The third aspect shows how Siegal recognized our reliance upon others in order to live healthy psychic lives.
In the developed world we have a somewhat narcissistic understanding of managing our wellbeing. We tend to see ourselves as insulated beings that should be able to tackle our problems alone. At most we would include the institution, but we all too often exclude our peers and instead dedicate ourselves to maintaining an outwardly healthy veneer. At present the chief medium for this is social media, but the behaviour has been ingrained in us through many generations. We have an emphasis on ‘being ourselves’ that leads us to treat our own internal world as the idealized solution to our problems. We like to think that the answer is ‘in us’ and that we can work through anything alone, or perhaps with a few secretive trips to the health services.
What we forget is that our ‘self’ is actually little more than a composite of those around us, both now and historically. We are inherently connected beings. The great child therapist Donald Winnicott captured this beautifully, ‘the baby looks into its mother’s eyes and finds itself therein.’ Winnicott recognised that it is only in the sight of the other that we come to form an understanding of ourselves (Winnicott 1960).
The flip side of this is that we hold responsibility for forming and nurturing the identity of everyone we meet. It is in our responses and reactions that others gain an understanding of how to view themselves. Even the futile dream of ‘not giving a shit about what people think’ is founded upon the ultimate importance that others have for us. It is because of this that shame has such control on each and every human alive.
But on the reverse of shame is support and comradery. When we show another that we are there for them in their time of crises, we tell them that they are worthwhile individuals. In doing so we prove ourselves to be useful, wanted and impactful humans ourselves. It is through this reciprocity that we develop an important aspect of our own psychic well-being.
Culturally we are making great progress to destigmatizing mental illness. But this is more than simply increasing understanding and reducing persecution. This needs to be about restoring the confidence to fearlessly approach those that are distressed. To show our courage and care by being with people in their time of need. Even, and maybe especially, when their time of needs happens to also be our own time of need. Not only will this have a direct impact on those we help, but it will also serve to loosen and shift the shadows that lie inside our own inner worlds.
Written for our blog by Ciaran O’Connor, Counselor in Brighton and Hove and guest of Brighton Digital Women!
- Dwight D. Eisenhower (August 19, 1954), Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Evanston, Illinois. (retrieved 31 March 2015). Note that Eisenhower does not claim this insight for his own, but attributes it to an (unnamed) “former college president.
- Dan J. Siegel (2009), Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Bantem Books.
- Donald, D. Winnicott (1960) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, Karnac Books