It’s World Mental Health Day – an international day promoting the value of good mental well-being – and #MentalHealthDay is trending on multiple social media platforms. But Kirsty Plank (pictured), senior account manager at Full Circle Communications and volunteer with the charity My Black Dog has a clear message for the business community – dig deeper than the hashtags.
World Mental Health Day is a great initiative in and of itself, she said, but it must not be allowed to be reduced by corporations into a box-checking enterprise.
“There’s a lot of tick-boxing still going on,” she said. “On World Mental Health Day you’ll see a lot of businesses hash-tagging it and saying, ‘Look we’ve bought some fruit for our employees today because we care about their mental and physical health’ but I don’t think you’ll see many making wholesale changes to their businesses to incorporate better supports, such as mental health leave. It can become very gimmicky, with people saying one thing and doing another.”
Given the number of people impacted by poor mental health – with Mind reporting that one in four people in England will experience some mental health concern each year – the spotlight on the topic cannot afford to be limited to one day out of 365 in a year. Mental ill health can affect anybody, at any time of the year and any time of the day. A dedicated day of awareness is a great thing, she said, but once the day is over, the people who are suffering don’t just go away. They’re still suffering.
Through her work volunteering with My Black Dog - a service which provides peer-to-peer support for people struggling with their mental health through a free and confidential online chat function – Plank has seen first-hand that very often all people need is somebody to talk to. It’s powerful to see how many people are happy to open up, if they are given the channel to do so, she said, and it’s an invitation to open up more lines of communication.
“The main problem that we at My Black Dog see is that people don’t necessarily feel that they’ve got somebody to talk to,” she said. “In that respect, we’re the perfect service because it’s just a voice, just someone to listen – not somebody who’s attached to your life or work. If you give people channels to open up in where they feel secure, safe and anonymous, they will talk.
“That’s something we need to encourage more in business. Because there are lots of employee benefits and employee assistance programmes but there’s always that fear that something you say to them might feed back to your HR team, and could result in you being judged by your bosses. So, we need a dual approach - we need to get the message out there that it’s absolutely OK to talk about these things but also that we have to provide people with the appropriate tools to do that.”
There are so many great well-being services out there, with Calm, the Calm Zone and Shout just some of the other options available to people but also critical is creating the culture that underpins these tools. Employers need to empower their people to seek out these solutions by creating a “culture of openness”, she said, where people are encouraged to engage in conversations about their mental health.
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“I have spoken to a number of people in our industry who are leaders of businesses who are being very open about what they’re going through and what they have gone through,” she said. “And I think it’s very important that those people at the top of the chain open up about their experiences and that needs to filter down, so their employees also feel comfortable opening up. Leaders need to create that culture of openness and they need to signify the [external] resources available if the employee still isn’t comfortable talking.”
It is the responsibility of businesses to provide support to their people, in much the same way that they are responsible for their physical well-being at work. And there is a wealth of opportunities for those looking to get involved with external companies, with My Black Dog actively looking to build partnerships with businesses. As a non-profit, the charity is completely reliant on funding and donations, she said, but business partnerships offer the opportunity to further increase its coverage and to reach a new audience.
Those looking to get involved can do so in several ways – by becoming a volunteer, donating or looking into partnership opportunities. As somebody who is open about her own mental well-being journey, Plank has first-hand experience with the power of having a well-timed conversation.
“I was waiting for a referral to an NHS service, but it was about three or four months until I actually got my first appointment,” she said. “And in that time, I didn’t know who I could talk to, I felt like I was stuck, because I was waiting for the help but I needed it then and there.”
She highlighted that while she was lucky enough to have the support of her family during that time, not everybody has that and so this service that allows people to discuss what’s on their minds – big or small – really resonated with her. Feeling alone is one of the worst feelings in the world, she said, particularly when somebody is already struggling with their mental health.
Having somebody to talk to might not instantly solve all your problems, she said, but it loosens the valve on the pressure that’s building internally of emotion and stress. One of the most rewarding elements of volunteering with My Black Dog is having people share that they feel better for having had the conversation and that a weight has been lifted.
“And I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for us to get to a point where all businesses are accepting of these kinds of illnesses, especially when they are so prevalent,” she said. “We have reached a mental health pandemic, there are so many people on waiting lists and millions of people suffering. And these people are in your business and they’re in my business but we wouldn’t necessarily know about it. Because people often keep it to themselves.
“But imagine how much more supportive we could be if we build that culture of openness where we know that people are struggling, where we can spot the signs, and we can signpost each other to the resources available. It might sound idealistic now but I don’t think it’s an impossible place to get to… And these conversations are something for the whole year round. We all need to play a role in looking out for each other, educating ourselves and being able to show our family, friends and colleagues that even if they don’t feel they can talk to us, there is somebody who will listen.”