With public support from figures like Prince William and Prince Harry, there is a growing public acknowledgement that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. But it doesn’t always feel that way. Even in the charity sector, mental health conditions aren’t often well understood.
That’s despite the evidence that they are becoming more common. According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people experience a mental health issue each year. In other words, up to a quarter of the voluntary sector workforce may be affected. Many people – regardless of their profession – deal with their mental illness behind closed doors, afraid that talking about it with their manager or colleagues could put their career at risk.
Certainly, this is how I was made to feel. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, with emotional instability personality disorder, and faced extreme mood swings. The first psychiatrist I saw told me I’d never be well enough to live “a normal life”. He was one in a long line of people who told me not to expect too much from my career. I was young, my confidence was low and, naturally, I started to believe they were right. But I wanted so much to live an independent life.
When I started working – first in retail and then sales – life was very difficult. I tried to be honest and talk to my manager early on but his reaction stunned me: “Everyone gets sad,” he said. He didn’t give me any additional support and expected me to pull myself together. My colleagues also didn’t understand and began to comment on the amount of time I had to take off. They started calling me “sick notes”.
My colleagues didn’t understand and began to comment on the amount of time I had to take off
Working in this environment inevitably worsened my condition and I was signed off work for about six months. I felt shaken by the experience and it was incredibly hard to build up my confidence to the point where I felt ready to give work another shot. Eventually I did, but when I took on another sales role with a different company, the same thing happened.
Having spent some time volunteering for Rethink, I applied for a position in the charity sector with HOME Fundraising. I knew that knocking on people’s doors to collect money for charity wasn’t going to be easy, but I wanted to do something positive at work.
I had intended to keep my concerns about my mental health to myself but found the culture was entirely different. At the start of my second week, I had severe anxiety and had to take a day off. Rather than the usual brush-off I’d experienced from past managers, my manager asked questions and sounded as if he cared.
From the start I was encouraged to share how I was feeling and to take time off when I needed to. I’m able to talk about changes in my mood and medication, and my line manager and I plan coping strategies together. I also get plenty of support from my team. They know if I say I need to go off for a few minutes that I just need a bit of space. It’s made a huge difference to what I feel I can achieve.
This doesn’t mean that life is easy. Mental health will always be a big part of my life and impact on my work. At times, depression can get the better of me and I have to work from home or in a quiet room at the back of the office. Manic episodes can also be hard to deal with, and I have to make an effort to slow down when talking, especially when discussing charitable beneficiaries. But I don’t have to brush my symptoms under the carpet. That is such a relief.
Mental health is a daily battle for many, but it shouldn’t define us. Being able to do my job – and being recognised for being good at it – has given me confidence to develop a career in fundraising. I’ve been promoted and now manage teams of fundraisers in Norwich.
All employers have a responsibility to make that a possibility for people living with mental health conditions. They need to prioritise creating a culture of understanding that provides support, rather than focusing on limitations. Until that’s commonplace, many people will never reach their potential. And that would be a waste of the huge amount of talent that makes our sector a diverse, creative and wonderful place to work.
- Fran Holland is the deputy fundraising manager of HOME Fundraising’s Norwich office
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