A few years ago I broke my arm. It really hurt and because of where it was broken, I had a compression bandage and a sling, rather than a cast. I had to be careful not to bump it and had to walk gingerly through the halls at work, rather than striding purposefully as was more my style. I couldn’t get as much done as I could when healthy. I was in pain.
The stigma was huge. People didn’t know what to say. If I started to mention how my arm was, people quickly changed the subject and it felt like they started avoiding me. It got to the point that I didn’t really feel I could tell anyone how I was feeling or ask for help. I felt judged and alone. HR tried to be helpful but in some ways the ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies just made me feel worse. They kept focusing on what I couldn’t do rather than helping me focus on what I could do. I needed an approach that helped me re-calibrate my work situation for a time so as to find some positive solutions and results.
If you’re appalled reading this, I’m not surprised. However, my retelling is untrue, at least for the case of my broken arm. Truth be told, people were so understanding. They opened doors if I was carrying a coffee. (Coffee was prioritised as morning coffee is even more important when you have a broken arm). When I couldn’t carry the normal number of folders down to my office, someone else carried them for me. People were helpful.
Generally, when we turn up to work having broken our body, people know what to say and do. When we turn up to work with a broken heart or mind, people are less equipped. That’s not necessarily their fault, and it’s rarely their intention. It’s often the result of an unfortunate cultural context but not one that we need to perpetuate over time.
In Australia, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience anxiety during their life. Hang out with just a few friends and one of them is likely to experience an anxiety condition during their life.
Every caring conversation helps to removing the stigma of talking about health conditions and introduce hope. This helps not just the person suffering, but each of us, as we all benefit from breathing in the life-giving atmosphere that hope produces.
So what do we say to the friend at work who we think has a health condition like anxiety?
- Are you ok?
- I’m really sorry that you are experiencing this. Remember that it’s not your fault.
- I don’t know what this feels like for you, but I’ll support you in whatever way I can. Is there something I can do for you right now?
- You will get through this with the right support. Have you spoken to a health professional?
Maybe even offer to buy them a coffee or herbal tea, and be willing to sit and listen.
Sometimes the greatest way to remove a stigma is to sit with a person and allow them the freedom to sit with their condition, allowing it to be present without having to be analysed. We can allow the heath professionals to do the serious work of designing recovery strategies. As community, we get to be part of the recovery process – because recovery is possible, and the hope of that always remains.