Breaking down the mental health taboo

By Nick Baber, Director & Chief Operating Officer, Financial Services Management Consulting

Four years ago it was hard enough to admit to myself or my family that I suffered from depression yet in mid February of this year I managed to ‘come out’ to all of our 11,000 UK colleagues when I and a colleague were interviewed about the mental health taboo for our staff magazine.

Certainly when I was first diagnosed it was something that I fully intended to keep as private as I could, but now I couldn’t feel more different. I think in part this is due to the support I’ve had from close friends, family members and up until a few weeks ago, a very small number of KPMG colleagues, but it also has something to do with there being a gradual acceptance in the media that it’s not actually that abnormal.

Each time I’ve ‘come out’ (and I use that term advisedly) and been a bit more honest, it’s become easier – firstly, and probably the scariest was admitting to my local GP that I was struggling, but frankly nothing else has ever been that difficult. I wrongly suspected the biggest stigma I would face was at work, but everyone has been hugely positive – to the extent that I was fully supported through my promotion to Director last year despite my sponsors knowing about my illness.

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t sure of the reception the article would get, but I was convinced it was the right thing to do in order to get the issue firmly out on the table. What I could never have expected in a million years was the amazing and to some extent humbling feedback I’ve had from so many colleagues – some of whom I know well, some I’ve not yet met. Let me share a few of what I think are the most powerful comments I’ve received:

“Your heartfelt comments will have lifted a longstanding burden off many employees who can relate to your struggles.”

“People are so terrified to discuss it openly so I do see it as a hugely positive step for two senior and successful people to ‘normalise’ it.”

“It’s tremendously reassuring to learn that I am not on my own and that others are finding ways of battling through it.”

“I recognised a lot of the very familiar feelings expressed in your article and it’s convinced me to seek someone out professionally to talk about this.”

“Individuals like you are part of the reason that after 14 years at KPMG, I’m still proud to work here.”

After an event KPMG held jointly with Linklaters in October 2012, my colleague, Tony Cates, wrote a blog where he stated that there was a need to build momentum through an alliance of companies actively committed to tackling issues of mental health. Some 18 months later not only has the recently formed City Mental Health Alliance got 22 members but it is also making progress against its stated aims of:

i. Increasing mental health literacy – developing the knowledge and understanding in the City of the full spectrum of mental health issues.

ii. Creating a culture of openness – supporting people, especially senior business leaders with experience of mental health problems, to tell their stories and inspire others to speak out about their experiences.

iii. Enabling practical steps to be taken by employers – providing City employers with practical tools and opportunity to share and hear other companies’ experience.

Since the article was published I’ve had a number of conversations about driving the actions we will take as a firm. I’m also finding new opportunities opening up to me, and having just been asked to become the Chief Operating Officer of the City Mental Health Alliance, my aim is to use my own experiences to get things moving in the right direction.

On a personal level I’m finding that I’ve become much more open minded about things I would previously have scoffed at – practicing mindfulness meditation being just one example, and working with a professional neuroscientist, I’m now learning about how the brain works and what I can do to keep it agile and resilient.

So for me, this is just the start of the journey, but I’m optimistic that by having senior business sponsors within organisations committed to sharing best practice to improve the mental health of people working in City businesses, the outlook is positive and we will go some way to breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness.

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