Normalising conversations at work about the ups and downs of life is a powerful first step for a workplace to recognise its employees as imperfect, fallible humans, says Joel Clapham, the Founder and Chief Mental Health Champ of Hearten Up, a program dedicated to mental health first aid and suicide prevention training.
An accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Joel is no stranger to mental health trials of his own. “My mental health story is a bit like a J R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin series, many volumes.”
“When I was 16, I lost my father to suicide. And that was quite a challenge, to say the least. I mourned his passing, but I don’t think I ever dealt successfully with the grief and the trauma of the method of his passing,” says Joel.
But in the years since that experience, he began to see the effects. “Where it all started to come to a head for me was between 2012 and 2016. There were differing pressures, work, home and in my mind that I was keeping to myself.
“To be perfectly candid with you. I got to the point where I was probably one bad day away from walking out onto a balcony at work and not coming back from that balcony. And so, I went and saw my GP because I have the silver lining of my dad’s passing of knowing what not to do, which is to keep it to yourself and do nothing.”
Backed by his doctor, Joel took time off work to deal with his home life struggles. The break evolved to a long journey of redefining and rediscovering his passions in life – to help other people with their mental health and encourage them to do the same.
On the role of a Mental Health First Aider in the workplace Joel explains:
“We offer that immediate support and we encourage some discussion and thought about drawing on the help of the professionals. Our role is not to diagnose or treat. Just like a physical First Aider, it’s an assessment triage and coordination point.”
Challenging misconceptions that it’s not good to talk about suicide, Joel shared that current research by Beyond Blue shows us that it is helpful to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal.
“The evidence base that research uncovered shows that it doesn’t put the idea in people’s head but that it will show them that we’re comfortable discussing something which they might feel is a very dark taboo topic.
“But if we open that door for them and ask them respectfully and compassionately, ‘You seem as though things are weighing on you and that would be something that would be quite challenging for you to deal with. Have you had any thoughts of suicide?’ That opens the door for them to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to do that, but I have had some thoughts of that being a possible path for me’.
“It’s at that point that we then need to stay with them and keep them safe for now and recognise our role as a Mental Health First Aider, and not solving a situation, but then bring in the professional emergency help”, says Joel.
For those who are not at risk of immediate danger or harm, we can share our struggles with mental health or those of high-profile figures.
“Often we find that allowing someone just to talk can be really powerful for them”, says Joel.
From there, a Mental Health First Aider should connect them with the professionals. “Even making that first phone call to make an appointment for them and with them can be a pressure that we can help alleviate on the person who can do with that support.”