for better mental health

Helen's story

Tuesday, 14 January 2020 Helen

Police call handler Helen writes about the experience that set her on a path to change attitudes towards mental health.

From a very early age I've always wanted to work with the police. So when a job as a call handler came up I applied and got it first time. I've been there ever since.

When I first started the role we took non-emergency calls. A few years ago we started taking 999 calls too. The job is brilliant; every day is different. You never know what's on the end of the phone when it rings.

Looking back, I can see signs of mental health issues started to appear when I was a teenager – but nothing was really diagnosed until about 15 years ago. So I had mental illness before I started with the emergency services.

I work in a room full of 30 or 40 people and I felt like I was the only person in there. You can feel so alone and you just want to hide in a cupboard.

It was around three years ago when I suffered panic attacks. I was feeling sick, not wanting to go into work. I had depression as well; you don't even want to get out of bed, you just want to hide. I work in a room full of 30 or 40 people and I felt like I was the only person in there. You can feel so alone and you just want to hide in a cupboard. It's like you're in a little bubble.

It was around this time I had a couple of months off work. HR become involved and I put onto a process that monitors sickness leave. Suffering from anxiety, this was a difficult time. And while I can see it from a work perspective – I'm here to work, I'm paid to work – I also have a mental health illness that I can't control. It's a tough place to be, you want to be there at work because you don't want to lose your job, but your mind is telling you that you want to hide and run away.

At the time, I felt that mental health wasn't being treated as a serious illness – it was this feeling that set me on a path to change attitudes.

I worked with HR to see if any adjustments could be made based on recommendations from my counsellor. The absence policy allowed for three sickness periods a year before any HR involvement. I suggested an adjustment of up to six but was told this couldn't be authorised for my circumstances. At the time, I felt that mental health wasn't being treated as a serious illness – it was this feeling that set me on a path to change attitudes.

It was nerve-wracking going back after being off sick. People think if they ask you a question you'll burst into tears or something. It's not that they don't care, they just don't know what to say. And that's part of the stigma. I've also heard people talking about depression as though it's just an excuse to get off work. Hearing that in your work environment doesn't encourage people to be open about mental health – but talking about it helps me and others, and that's what I'm pushing for now.

The more I have spoken about it in the last couple of years, the more support I have gained from my colleagues, supervisors and management. I am now able to go to certain people at work and tell them I'm having a really bad day. Just saying that can make me feel a lot better. I have also received fantastic help and support from occupational health.

I want to encourage more people to talk openly about mental health, particularly in a pressurised career where we deal with difficult issues.

I'm supporting the Mind Blue Light programme as I want to encourage more people to talk openly about mental health, particularly in a pressurised career where we deal with difficult issues. But being open can really help. I believe no one should feel ashamed to talk to someone and no one should prejudge those who open up about their experiences.

Young woman looks outwards for help

Read about anxiety and panic attacks

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