A Touch On The Arm – returning to work after mental health problems

This is a short version of a blog I wrote two years ago. I hope it is still useful.

The summer was scary. Symptoms I thought buried, returned. A NHS Director who had relapsed to patient-hood! Previously, I had lied on my CV about mental health problems.  Disclosure had been an impossibility earlier in my career. But now, I did not want to. I had a duty to be authentic. But it was still hard.

When you get back on your feet, they are wobbly. You are a foal. You are easily triggered and thoughts that you are weak and a failure rumble on, like fading thunder.

When I got back, I was bowled over by affection. One friend who’d been away with a physical problem asked: ‘Did you get a card from the office?’. I said, yes. ‘And weren’t those messages from everybody amazing’? She went on. ‘What messages?’ I said.

Then I realised that the organisation, rightly in terms of confidentiality, had not disclosed my illness to others. I had not had the chance for a conversation with my boss or HR to let them know they could tell others. So, I got a card with one signature and a message ‘with love and support from all your friends’. I had been further isolated through good intention. Disconnection made my return more uncertain.

Then there were a few who gently touched me on the arm and asked ‘are you OK’? That touch seemed to convey a mixture of concern, love, kindness. But also uncertainty – not about how I was – but about how to open up a conversation about my mental wellbeing. Their vulnerability created a human connection.

To me, it said ‘I am here for you, happy to listen, to be open, but I am unsure how much you want to share’. We needed a way of holding a safe conversation.

One said ‘I don’t want to treat you with kid gloves, or patronise you’. We talked about how to have that difficult conversation. She asked me to tell her if I was upset or triggered by what she asked me to do. But it was up to me to do so. She would not hang around eyeing me with concern. We agreed that would make things more awkward for both of us.

But what of younger staff? Several sidled up to me to talk about their own vulnerability – how they could not risk their career due to ongoing stigma and having a ‘blot’ on their CV. In this age of ‘time to talk’, maybe only the Prince Harrys, Stephen Frys and Ruby Waxes can afford to be open and not risk everything.

Those who can be open, should stop exhorting people to be like them. We should shut our mouths and open our ears. It is easy for people like me to write blogs. Better to be there if, and, when others feel ready. That touch on the arm showed me how it can be done.

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1 thought on “A Touch On The Arm – returning to work after mental health problems

  1. Such an interesting, thoughtful and reflective blog. As a user of your MSK service who has mental health problems, while im so sorry that you’ve been unwell, I can’t help being glad that others working in your service are having to grapple with the complexities of your humanity. I’ve found that the service, like so much of the NHS, hasn’t always dealt well with the fact that I have mental health issues as well as MSK problems. The more services understand that we are complex human beings and our physical health is fundamentally interdependent with our mental health the more likely we are to become and to stay well. Wishing you a long and good recovery.

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