Mental health at work

What are
the most common mental health problems in Britain? Phil Boucher offers an
overview and some advice on spotting the symptoms and taking relevant action.

Mental
health charity Mind estimates that 30 per cent of people in Britain suffer some
form of mental distress each year.

Of
these, more than 10 per cent are diagnosed as having mental health problems by
a GP, with a further 2 per cent being referred to a specialist psychiatric
service. One per cent will become full-time psychiatric in-patients.

So
how does this translate to the workplace? The sheer size of these figures
guarantees that every industry is affected by the issue. And as mental health
doesn’t discriminate by age, class, sex, race or religion, it is just as likely
to apply to a CEO as it is to a postroom junior.

For
HR this poses questions about identifying the signs of mental distress and
acting in the correct way when they are found. Below is a guide to the most
common mental health problems in Britain today.

1.
Depression

Depression
is the most common mental health problem in the Britain. Figures compiled by
the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that it affects 10 per cent of
the population at any time.

As
a medical term, depression covers a broad range of psychological distress,
ranging from a mild lowering of mood to suicidal feelings of hopelessness.

People
who are depressed often experience anxiety and it is frequently related to
wider aspects of life such as bereavement, illness, childbirth (antenatal and
postnatal depression) and the time of year (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

As
the health problem is so widespread it has numerous symptoms and treatments.
People suffering from depression may have a bleak, pessimistic outlook, find it
hard to enjoy themselves, or have difficulty making decisions.

It
is equally possible that they will find it difficult to sleep and eat, and
commonly turn to alcohol and drugs.

Consequently,
each case has to be taken on its own merits and the treatment tailored to the
individual.

Ideally,
people experiencing depression should be given the chance to choose a course of
action for themselves, as admitting to the problem is often the most important
step. In practice this often comprises a combination of counselling and
antidepressants.

But
the good news is that most people eventually recover from bouts of depression
and some even look back on it as a useful experience that forced them to take
stock of their lives and make changes to their lifestyle.  

2.
Anxiety  

Everyone
can recognise anxiety, as it is a part of the natural nervousness and fear that
comprises our instinctive "fight or flight" survival instinct.

In
certain situations, such as exams and sporting events, this is highly
beneficial as the increased adrenaline and body stimulation heightens
perception and concentration.

But
if the feelings continue for longer periods it can be dangerous. Prolonged
muscle tension can cause headaches, a tight feeling in the chest, and shooting
pains in the neck, shoulders or back.

Digestion
can also suffer and many people experience faintness and dizzy spells.
Mentally, anxiety may create the feeling of being unable to switch your mind
off, making it hard to concentrate on anything.

If
left unchecked it is likely to produce a feeling of exhaustion. Often sufferers
experience panic attacks where they feel they are going to faint, be sick or
have a heart attack, even though none of these are likely to happen. Long-term
anxiety may also lead to high blood pressure, ulcers and an inability to
develop meaningful social relationships.

The
ONS estimates that 3.1 per cent of British adults suffer from generalised
anxiety disorders at any time.

Treatment
often relates to controlling the ‘flight or fight’ response through relaxation
techniques, counselling or therapy. In extreme cases drugs are prescribed by
GPs.

Often
a change in lifestyle and cutting out stress-boosting chemicals such as
caffeine and nicotine helps.

3.
Eating disorders

Everybody’s
eating pattern is different and almost all of us will have difficulty in eating
or food-cravings at some stage of our lives.

It
is when food becomes the centre of someone’s life that problems start to occur.
Particularly, if they refuse to eat when they are hungry or start to eat
near-constantly.

In
this way food can become an addiction just like anything else. And as a
substance to abuse it is particularly problematic ñ we have to eat to live, so
someone with an eating disorder has no choice but to face their problem every
day.

According
to the Mental Health Foundation, up to 1 per cent of women in the UK between
the ages of 15 and 30 suffer from anorexia nervosa and between 1 and 2 per cent
suffer from bulimia nervosa.

As
many cases of eating disorders are unreported or undiagnosed the actual figures
are likely to be much higher – particularly among men.

Symptoms
of anorexia include sudden weight loss and taking drastic measures to avoid
gaining weight such as drugs, excessive exercising and vomiting after meals.
This can lead to weakness, depression and a lack of concentration. Because anorexia
involves self-starvation, it can be fatal.

Bulimia
nervosa involves binge eating of large amounts coupled with drastic measures to
loose weight. Often this involves vomiting and the use of laxatives.

Treatment
of eating disorders usually involves counselling. This can be arranged through
a GP or a self-help group. Other therapies such as massage, reflexology and
aromatherapy may also be useful.   

4.
Phobias

A
phobia is an over-intense fear of a situation or an object that wouldn’t
normally worry people. Its effect on an individual’s life depends upon what
it’s directed at and how deeply the person holds the feelings.

In
a study the ONS found that 1.1 per cent of adults in Britain experience phobias
and that women are twice as likely to have them as men. MIND estimates there
are 10 million people in the UK with phobias of varying degrees.

In
the main, these are simple and fairly harmless phobias that do not affect a
person’s life too much. However, in extreme cases even common phobias such as a
fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or heights (vertigo) can seriously hamper a
person’s life.

In
medical terms, phobias are categorised as "anxiety disorders" as they
centre around the same reactions to fear. The major difference is that a phobia
is a fear of the feelings that are produced by being scared. Or, in other
words, a fear of fear itself.

Phobias
can provoke the same feelings associated with anxiety and panic, such as rapid
heart beat, profuse sweating, shortness of breath and trembling. This if often
coupled with an overwhelming desire to escape when confronted with the source
of their fears.

Treatment
usually starts at the GP’s door. They will generally refer you to a
psychiatrist or offer advice on where to find help. But there is no cure and
people generally have to find what’s best for them.

5.
Personality disorders

In
Britain the prevalence of personality disorder ranges from 2 to 13 per cent
according to different studies. It is also one of the most difficult
psychiatric diagnosis of all, so the true extent is difficult to know.

Typically,
a person with a personality disorder will have developed a limited number of
emotional responses to cope with life’s demands during adolescence and
childhood. These tend to be inflexible and related to a narrow range of
experiences.

In
adulthood this makes it difficult for sufferers to develop friendships,
maintain stable relationships and work co-operatively with others. The limited
range of coping strategies can also cause distress.

Personality
disorders affect people to varying degrees. Often a person suffering from a
personality disorder will have an emotional problem such as depression or
phobia. This, in turn, affects the treatment they receive.

The
various types of personality disorder also place different strains on the
individual and the people they encounter. For instance: narcissistic
personality disorder, which is characterised by a grandiose sense of
self-importance and fantasies of unlimited success; and dependent personality
disorder where a person displays an overwhelmingly submissive and clinging
attitude towards others.

There
is also a problem with diagnosis. Psychologists have long struggled to explain
what constitutes ‘eccentricity’ and a personality disorder. It is because of
this confusion and the fact that the behaviour has been learnt over such a
length of time, that treating the conditions is difficult.

Like
most other mental health problems, it takes time to resolve and involves a lot
of counselling. But research suggests that many people with personality
disorders are eventually able to change their thinking and behaviour and lead
more fulfilling lives.

6.
Obsessive compulsive disorder

A
study by the ONS suggests that about 1.2 per cent of the British population has
an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Other studies suggest that up to 3 per
cent of the population will experience OCD at some time in their lives.

Most
commonly, this manifests itself in thoughts or ideas that people feel they have
no control over and which repeatedly arrive. These ideas often involve
impending doom or danger and appear so unacceptable that people refuse to share
them.

As
the ideas swamp the mind, OCD sufferers develop intense anxiety. And to cope,
many repeat rituals such as hand washing or opening and closing a door to try
to wipe out the thoughts.

The
rituals provide relief from the anxiety, but this is always temporary. Unlike a
phobia, which produces many of the same feelings and thoughts in sufferers,
there is no escape from OCD as there is always the potential for the thoughts
to return.

There
is no immediate cure for OCD. The first step is to visit a GP who will be able
to refer a therapist. As with all other mental health problems, each person has
to do what works for them.

For
further information on these conditions and details of helpful organisations
see www.mind.org.uk

Comments are closed.