“We need to talk” – Council staff open up during Mental Health Awareness Week

Staff and leaders at Somerset County Council have spoken out about their own wide-ranging experiences during the pandemic this week in order to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, senior leaders have written blogs and created videos in which they open up about their own mental health, in addition to encouraging colleagues to come forward if they are struggling. Staff across the council have also contributed to two word clouds – giving a snapshot of how they have been feeling during the pandemic, and what they have been doing to cope.

Niki Shaw, Strategic Manager: Quality and Performance for Adult Social Care wrote a moving blog about her battle with cancer during the pandemic, and the impact this had on her mental health and wellbeing. She said: “On reflection, I think it is fair to say I was pretty naive about the reality of what I was about to face.  I am a trusting and positive person, but being separated from my husband, my pets, my home, not being able to even open a window for some fresh air, let alone head out round the block for a little walk or a coffee, and having to face up to not only the rigors of my own treatment but also the exposure to the difficulties of other people on the head and neck cancer ward, was really tough.

“Opening up to people can make a world of difference, and help you process your own thoughts and feelings. I learnt that even when we may feel quite alone, we never truly are, and that you are cared for in ways you never realised.”

David Partlow, Somerset County Council’s Strategic Manager for Adult Social Care, also shared a moving account of his own experience with mental health, writing: “When I reflect on Mental Health Awareness week I look back at a fairly varied career. I spent 23 years in the ambulance service experiencing many highs and lows, attending calls where I’ve delivered babies and where I’ve held the hand of someone as they have died.

“That exposure to significant trauma and the sheer emotional rollercoaster that is life in the emergency services has helped me appreciate the need to manage my own mental wellbeing.  Seeing some friends struggle and some be totally overcome with their mental ill health has driven me in many respects to work within such a fantastic team within adult social care in Somerset, to try, as we all do, to make a difference in some small way.”

Mel Lock, Somerset County Council’s Director of Adult Social Care shared a video with staff, in which she opened up about her own experiences during the pandemic. Mel said: “Mental health and physical health are often not discussed in the same space, but they should always be. If I physically break my arm, everybody knows that, but people don’t see what’s going on in somebody’s individual mind. It’s so important that we address the stigma around discussing mental health, and it’s our responsibility as leaders to create a culture where people feel they can be open about how they have been feeling so they can get the support they need. Every single one of us will have times where we struggle, and it’s so important that we feel safe to share that with each other.”

Councillor Clare Paul, the County Council’s Cabinet Member for Education and Public Health added: “For too long there has been a stigma around openly discussing mental health, and that needs to change. The pandemic has taken a real toll on our collective mental health over the last year, triggering feelings of worry and loneliness for many, and it’s important that people feel free to discuss how they have been feeling without fear of judgement. These feelings are a normal response to an unprecedented period of disruption. If you are struggling, remember that help is available.”

Somerset was one of the first areas in the South West to have a 24/7 staffed helpline dedicated to mental health support. Mindline is available on 01823 276 892.