For about 8/9 years now, I’ve struggled with my mental health in some capacity. It all started when I was 12 and had experienced some major life changes that upended everything I knew and forced me to live in a new way.
For mental health awareness week, I want to share what led to me feeling comfortable enough to share these parts of myself with the people I work with; often the most formal, non-vulnerable relationships one can experience.
When I started my first year of University at the age of 17, I was excited and hopeful. That shattered when my motivation to do anything completely vanished. I managed to pass my first year, despite not completing a whole module, and vowed to do better for my remaining time at university.
In my second year I got pregnant and didn’t feel like I could tell anybody. My father and two of my closest friends at the time knew, and that was it. I only felt more comfortable opening up about it after my daughter had been born. Luckily, most of the people in my life were supportive and understanding and now my 2-year-old daughter is growing up alongside her aunts and uncles under the loving care of my mother. That year was one of the hardest years of my life. I had to apply for an extension on my university work, and with the right support and self-care, I managed to get it all done.
During the past year, everything’s been topsy-turvy and next levels of complicated. The pandemic struck mid-way through my second semester of third year and I, luckily, managed to graduate despite finishing my degree in lockdown. I’ve been away from my daughter for the longest time, as I didn’t want to risk the lives/health of my family. I’ve been battling with the complexity of my gender identity and trying to accept my gender fluidity as a valid, real experience. And the cherry on top, I finally got referred to a psychiatrist to, hopefully, get an official diagnosis.
Sometimes it feels like my life can be a convoluted, confusing mess. And I’ve developed the bad habit of not telling people things to avoid ‘being a burden’. But I learnt the hard way that not wanting to be a burden is a far more burdening experience than simply sharing your concerns with the people that care about you.
It started with me coming out as non-binary/genderfluid. For about 3 years now, I’ve known that my pronouns are they/them. I’m still not completely comfortable casually telling people that – it causes a lot of anxiety for me any time I think to bring it up. But I was lucky enough to have the benefit of a young, vibrant team. I knew that they would accept me, even if they may not completely understand. Most of my journey of coming out was overcoming personal anxieties and incessant over-thinking. But after about a month into my new role, the desire to not be called “she/her” overrode the fear I felt in coming out to my colleagues.
I had found it so easy to do everything else with them; laugh, talk, get along. Why not this? It was definitely easier being entirely digital. I typed my message into the Slack chat and just sent it. I didn’t give myself room to hesitate or overthink. I just did it because I knew that they would accept me for who I am. And they did. Now multiple people in the team have their pronouns listed on Slack, LinkedIn, or in their email signature. It’s so refreshing to see companies work to accommodate employees from all walks of life, and all it took was me being vulnerable for 2 seconds to see the change I want to help make in the world.
Some drinks, some laughs, some games and some months later, the core Steam Team was having our monthly ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’. One of our colleagues was away on leave, taking some time for their own mental health. When this was shared with us, I was surprised at the openness with which they talked about it. All of this “You can talk to us about anything” over the months hadn’t been a ruse to seem more approachable and forward-thinking. This company and these people genuinely cared about each other’s mental wellbeing.
Talking about this led to a ripple effect in the team. We all started to open up, including myself. I told them that I was seeking professional help and shared the complications of getting referred to a psychiatrist through my GP. It felt good to talk about it to someone that wasn’t my boyfriend. I felt heard and listened to. 3 out of 4 people in the call had opened up about their mental health struggles. It felt good to be part of something like that. Although I didn’t share the specifics with the team, I still felt like they understood, and that if I were truly in need, I could go to them and talk things out.
The truth is, I’m incredibly lucky to have the workplace I have. It’s tight knit, caring and, most of all, it values fun. At Steamed Egg, we’re driven to providing fun experiences that bring your team together, but we’re also dedicated to making each other feel safe and comfortable. I don’t think I could’ve come out about my gender identity or mental health struggles if I was in a typical work environment that didn’t foster laughter and casual conversation. I could open up about feeling down because my team brought me up.
“Laughter is the best medicine”, right? We’ve heard it since we were kids, and to someone who struggles to even smile at the things that make them the happiest some days, this sounds like complete nonsense. But that isn’t the case. Not only is it scientifically and psychologically supported, but when you think about it, if you can laugh with someone, and I mean TRULY laugh, you’re being vulnerable with them. Perhaps it isn’t the laughter itself, rather the situation in which the laughter occurs. If someone makes you feel comfortable enough to let out a good snort or laugh without putting a hand in front of your mouth, then maybe that person is someone worth being vulnerable with.
Feeling comfortable enough to have casual conversations or play games that illicit true laughter is key to creating an environment in which people can feel safe opening up. I’ve worked in places where the only stress we share is that of the job, and that often makes the job itself more stressful. If I can share my personal stressors at work, then that gives me the space to realise that maybe it’s not work stressing me out so extremely but whatever else is stressing me out in my personal life leaking into my work. With lockdown and working from home, those lines have become ever more blurred. If our work can be a source of fun, laughter and casual banter, then perhaps it could also be a safe haven from the struggles we face.
Life’s too short to not get help when you need it. Life’s too short to not come out to people who will understand. Life’s too short to work in an inconsiderate workplace that doesn’t care about your mental health.
If you feel powerless in changing how things work in your company, or even in your team, know that you’re not alone. I had no idea that when I told everyone my pronouns that other people would adapt and start sharing their pronouns to create a more inclusive environment. I had no idea that I’d feel comfortable opening up about my need for a diagnosis until others shared their mental health concerns.
We all have the power to advocate for the work environment we want to see. And if you’re not being heard, maybe it’s a sign to move on to greener pastures. A team that facilitates fun, peer support and mental wellbeing, is one that you can count on to be there through thick and thin. Everybody deserves to have a work environment that caters to their needs, especially when that need is mental health support.
For this mental health week, check in with your teammates. Make them laugh. Organise a non-work-related event that you can all participate in together. Make everyone feel included and welcome. Be there for each other. Ask, “Are you ok?”. Be understanding, thoughtful and kind. Your team will be grateful.