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Chiefs regularly break down barriers - tackling mental health stigma should be no different

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Today is World Mental Health Day, a day of immense importance for a sector that works to help and support some of the most vulnerable in society. 

Yet what is not often enough talked about is the wellbeing of the person on the other end of the phone. Today should also be time to reflect on the health of the council worker who might work with elderly residents - the most likely to suffer from loneliness - or rough sleepers, who are twice as likely to suffer from poor mental health, or those who have a nonetheless vital back office role.

The mental health charity Mind argues that one of the biggest barriers to progress is connected to the stigma of poor mental health. A recent survey of NHS doctors, for example, found the majority of practitioners would “rather suffer in silence than admit that they might have problems”. If the people devoted to good public health are struggling in this area, that suggests the rest of society is too.

But barriers are being broken down.  

Earlier in the year Nick Page, Solihull MBC’s chief executive, gave an inspiring interview to LGC about his mental health condition.

Mr Page said: “My stress, depression and anxiety comes from me, it doesn’t come from work, but work draws it out and exacerbates it because I spend most of my time at work. That’s the key thing… therefore stress, depression and anxiety, mental health for us as a sector shows more now in work.”

Mr Page, who is successfully managing his mental health condition through a combination of medication, cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness, and acupuncture, gave his interview at the same time as LGC’s workplace stress survey which found that 67% of senior council staff reported an increase in stress in the past 12 months.

One officer said: “For my mental and physical health and wellbeing I can’t carry the burden indefinitely and there may be a time to pass the baton on. Life’s too short.”

Another said: “I feel the workload and stress levels are unsustainable and I worry my mental health is suffering.”

Mr Page said he was giving his staff “more of my own narrative because I find it difficult to stay authentic otherwise” and added he was getting “a wonderful response” to that.

At Solihull, almost 30% of sickness absence is related to stress, anxiety and mental health. As a result, mental health workers have been brought in, while about 400 members of staff, as well as school children, have been trained in mental health first aid. Work-time activities including Nordic walking, yoga and meditation have been introduced, while Mr Page is urging his staff to not send emails after 7pm, at weekends or when on holiday.

Innovative work is going on elsewhere too.

Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, today spoke at Leeds’ Civic Hall of the importance of improved working practices to help in this area. Ideas such as mental health first aiders and “safe space” conversations, coupled with the council’s ‘employee assistance programme’ - offering staff 1:1 counselling and help - can and do have life-changing positive effects.

It is this sort of leadership from the very top that will help to break down the barriers associated with mental health, according to Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the charity Mind.

In an article for LGC she said: “Changing an organisation’s culture doesn’t happen overnight, but senior leaders have a role in making this happen. We know when senior leaders and figures open up about their mental health it can encourage others to do the same and contribute to this culture change.”

To do this, Ms Mamo argued, the responsibility lies on senior leaders to be the ones who will act and create positive environments where staff feel able and allowed to talk about their health - both mental and otherwise. That is the only way in which society can change.

As Mr Page said: “We have a societal role as leaders to give ourselves the opportunity to talk about [mental health]. What we do about it then is the next chapter.”

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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