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Mental Health: The Perfect Storm

Safe Work Month 2019

Donna Thistlethwaite

Presented by: Donna Thistlethwaite

In 2012 Donna attempted to end her life. Her actions shocked those who knew her and who regarded her as a competent human resource professional and a friendly, enthusiastic person. Donna journeyed from breakdown to receiving an ‘Entrepreneur of the Year Award’ in 2016 and found her purpose in career coaching and professional speaking. As an entrepreneur and speaker, Donna shares her story to help both organisations and individuals.

If you or someone you know needs assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

Run time: 29:25

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 27 MB)

Mental Health: The Perfect Storm

Presented by: Donna Thistlethwaite

[Start of transcript]

Spencer Howsen: Please know that the following conversation includes discussion of mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know needs support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. Donna Thistlethwaite, welcome to the podcast.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Good morning, Spencer Howsen. Great to be here.

Spencer Howsen: I want to ask, I want to break from where you expect I'm going to start. I want to ask you what it feels like hearing that warning when you're about to talk, because usually that warning's tacked on later and people don't get to think about the association between what they're about to say and how it might impact someone listening.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, look, that warning's actually really comforting for me because I know the sensitive nature of what I speak about and the potentially triggering impact that it can have. So, it's really important to me that what I communicate doesn't actually trigger something for somebody else. So yeah, it's something that over time as a speaker, I've become really aware of and very occasionally people have been upset to the point where they've needed to leave the talk for a period or even leave the talk and not return. But the good thing is that then it becomes clear to them and the people around them that maybe they need some support as well. So, it's a comforting thing.

Spencer Howsen: Yeah, and we've got to a point now, I think, in 2019 where people wouldn't judge you for leaving a talk, would they?

Donna Thistlethwaite: No. No, people, I guess by nature, people are kind and caring and would be concerned for that person and realise too, I think, that we've become much more aware that mental illness, mental health challenges can be common and that different people can be impacted because of either their own experiences or someone that they know.

Spencer Howsen: So, if you know that you're going to be triggered by something we're going to be talk about here, fast forward a few minutes, let's deal with some of that material straight up. I mean, your life it strikes me, had sort of pre-2012, something happened in 2012, very significant, and post 2012. Just tell us about the Donna before 2012.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, so the Donna before that time, I guess presented to the world as an outgoing, enthusiastic, friendly person, and was that. But there had always been these cracks in my psyche that were obvious maybe to some people who knew me well, but weren't generally that obvious to other people that encountered me professionally and socially.

Donna Thistlethwaite: But yeah, it wasn't like I was pretending. It was just that I sort of lacked some confidence. And in a way, felt that I was flawed, and that probably I believed that probably other people weren't in the same way. So yeah, I think it's so important that we talk about that stuff because you can often think it's just you and there's something wrong with you.

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, in 2012, I made a significant attempt on my life, suicide attempt, after an unravelling that was triggered by work. So, while I don't think it directly caused it, it was as though my sort of history, my psyche collided with a particular challenge that pretty much created the perfect storm. And that was a very, very difficult time in my life. And yeah, I couldn't see how to get out of the situation, and I felt very exposed, and I felt as though everybody now knew what I had always thought about myself, that I was hopeless and that I was a failure. And so, that was very difficult for me to deal with. And I started to feel that I was going to get sacked from my job. And that was quite a sort of scary prospect for me because I had invested quite a bit in my career, I guess emotionally, sort of financially and I guess linked my identity to that quite a bit as well.

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, while I'd always had those feelings of not being good enough, going off to university and doing well there and then experiencing some career success, that actually helped me to feel like, "Maybe I am okay." And then when things started to go sort of south at work, then I felt that, "Oh no, it's true." And so, I had this massive crisis of confidence. And yeah, it led to a pretty sort of dramatic event.

Spencer Howsen: So, we can tell by now, you're very well qualified to be speaking to employers and organisations about the importance of looking after the mental wellness of their staff. The last ... And before we get to some of your tips for that. So, since 2012 to now, I mean, you were named Entrepreneur of The Year in 2016, four years on. That's extraordinary, isn't it, when you look back?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, I guess so. So, that award was from my chamber of commerce. But look, if somebody had have told me that those sort of things were ahead of me, I wouldn't have ever believed it. So, it took a little while to rebuild myself, to be honest. And I took a completely new pathway in moving into career coaching, away from human resource management, which I'd done for 15 years before that. And I just knew that I still wanted to help people. And over time, what I realised is that as I grew personally and professionally, it was like magic started to happen. Like, the right doors opened and I became more successful at what I was doing. And yeah, never did I imagine all of that stuff was in store.

Donna Thistlethwaite: I became a career coach, and two, three weeks ago I won the career industry Excellence Award for Career Practice. And yeah, it's just amazing the things that have been happening since. I think really, I feel like I'm on my path now, and that that's been an amazing experience.

Spencer Howsen: Talk to us then about what you've learnt from that as an employee point of view, what all of us, and then we'll get into what managers need to be doing, and then organisations in general, because I think it's not just the immediate managers, it's the culture of the whole organisation, isn't it? But individuals listening to this who themselves might recognize some of what you were talking about.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, look, I think it's so important to not wait for a crisis to actually test our capacity to cope, you know? I think building resilience every day, especially in the good times, because it's actually easier in the good times, but then you've got that capacity for when you encounter a life challenge. So, I think that's really important. And to recognise that failure doesn't define us. I had absolutely personalised the failure. And I think this isn't my original words, but failure is an event, it's not a person.

Donna Thistlethwaite: When I heard that, that was just amazing. And I think it's so true. I think that failure, even perceived failure can give us amazing lessons and insights. So, I think that's quite important. Another thing would be just to accept yourself. Like, I know for me, this was a total game changer. I had always felt like there was something wrong with me. And I worked with a professional who helped me to shift that. And I remember there was a visualisation exercise I had to do. And that was something quite challenging for me because I always lived in my head and it was a very busy place, that head.

Donna Thistlethwaite: And it felt really awkward to try and visualise. And I remember the final attempt I had at it, I just sort of went, "Oh my god, this is so awkward. This is so contrived." And I sort of sat back. And then I just had this insight. It was like this voice said, "Oh my god," my voice, "You're missing the point. There's nothing fricking wrong with you." And it actually felt like a weight lifted off me that moment. It felt physical. And it was amazing. And I haven't had those same feelings of being flawed since that night. And it was a good few years ago now.

Spencer Howsen: So, that's a couple of tips. So, we've got there not waiting for a crisis to test your capacity to cope, not letting failure define you. Seeing failure as a lesson, almost. Any others?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, I think just not believing everything you think. I used to have these very unhelpful thoughts all the time about being boring or there was something wrong with me. I wasn't as popular as other people. And you know, they were really ... It kept my mind busy. And it amazed me when one day I realized that it was actually possible to change your thoughts, you know? That it's a conscious decision. And I would have 10% of those thoughts now. And if one of those thoughts comes up, I basically say to myself, "All right, is this taking me to where I want to go?" And if it's not, I just let it go through to the keeper.

Donna Thistlethwaite: And doing that enough has actually rewired my brain, as they talk about in neuroplasticity. And it's replacing it with the positive thoughts as well, it's been amazing. And so, another insight I share is just the importance of getting out of your head or reaching out for some help when you're in turmoil because we can get really caught up in that. And I know for me, I was completely irrational, but I couldn't see a way out of it. And it's so important to get out of your head and make contact with somebody to break that thought pattern.

Donna Thistlethwaite: And you know, I say, look, if you have to make five phone calls to connect with an actual person, do it because it's really critical that you get somebody to work with you on it. Marie Forleo says, "Everything is figure-out-able." And I love that. And I just think sometimes we need some help to figure it out.

Spencer Howsen: Just talking to other people, just opening up to other people. What about ... I'm not sure whether you touched on this this morning in the session. But worrying about things that you have to do? I find that if I don't really need to worry about something that is two days away, I've actually worked out how to tell my mind now, "You don't have to worry about that until that day," rather than it all piling up.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, there's this beautiful saying, I've heard it attributed to a few people including, I think, Mark Twain. And it's that, "I've lived through some horrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened." We have this ridiculous habit of just projecting and thinking ahead and worrying about things, where we need not do that because it'll happen when it's meant to happen. And by all means, be prepared for stuff and everything, but we can contain our thoughts. We absolutely have so much more control of our minds than anyone sort of actually believes that we do. And it's been really nice to discover that on my journey.

Spencer Howsen: Okay, let's talk about what an employer or at least the immediate sort of management can do, need to do to support staff with all this.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, look, I think there is so much that leaders can do, employers can do, including educating themselves and their staff about mental illness. It's incredibly prevalent in society, and therefore in workplaces. One in five Australians experience a mental illness in any year, 45% of us over our lifetime. So, those people are everywhere in organisations right as we speak. And so, being aware of that and knowing how to support your staff is really important, I reckon.

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, knowing the signs, people withdrawing, maybe they're talking about feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, comments about not sleeping. Even knowing that they're going through some life challenges at the moment, you know? Relationship breakdowns, making sure that you actually know your staff and that you can identify when something's going on for them, so you can have a conversation.

Donna Thistlethwaite: But what's more, unless you've got a relationship with them, it's pretty difficult to have the conversation because you don't really have permission because you haven't had that ongoing sort of investment and relationship with them. So, I think it's important that organisations have mental health strategies and that they're supporting their leaders to understand and be able to have wellbeing conversations with people.

Spencer Howsen: It goes beyond putting an EAP sign up next to the photocopier, doesn't it?

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, beyond that, absolutely. You know, there's been a study done that said 8% of employees actually regard the EAP as effective. And while I think that in reality it's far more effective than that, it's all about perceptions, isn't it? So, I think it's having senior leadership buy in, and that's not an email from a senior leader to say, "I support this." It's about them getting out and having conversations with people and building positive cultures around this stuff.

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, I've seen some great work done. Energy Queensland are obviously a fantastic example of this, where they have a mental health strategy and they have lots of different sort of touch points and angles that they're influencing or linking in with their staff on, building lots of capacity to recognise mental illness concerns. But to normalise this stuff as well because people feel like it's only them. And the more we can share our stories, the more we can normalize this stuff, the greater the potential to have a positive impact on it because people know it's not just them.

Donna Thistlethwaite: But we can't say, "Yep, look, let's normalise it," and everything, but then have a culture where people actually have seen negative things happen to people who have talked about their mental illness. Maybe they've had negative or adverse career impacts from that, you know? What behaviours are the leader’s role modelling? Are they saying, "We care about you and we want you to be well," but then the work expectations are unrealistic or the way the job's designed is actually not helping somebody's wellbeing, or the leaders working ridiculous hours and then the staff are thinking, "Oh, that's what you have to do to be successful in this organisation."

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, you need to look at it really holistically and get that gauge of what's happening throughout the organisation. I mentioned in the talk I just delivered that some research Beyond Blue organized in 2014 says that 91 per cent of the employees surveyed believed that mental health was important, yet only 52 per cent of them felt like they worked in a mentally healthy workplace. So, we need to make sure it's not rhetoric, that we're actually walking the walk as well.

Spencer Howsen: Yeah, when you were talking there about what the culture is, I can imagine say Barry being given a day off because he just needs a doona day, but the boss behind his back all day joking about how Barry's a bit unstable. It's all that sort of stuff, isn't it?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, absolutely, you know? We haven't necessarily been good at this stuff in the past. And you know, I think it's contributing, contributed to the situation that we're in now. And I see lots of positive changes, but we've still got a way to go yet.

Spencer Howsen: I think about the immediate line managers I've worked to over the years. And in recent years, many of them have felt they can also just take a day off because they need to. And they've told everyone, "Look, I just need a day." And I think that's ... I mean, I'm not the expert here, so I shouldn't be saying, "I think," but to me, that was reassuring that they were actually walking the walk.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, absolutely. I think they play a pivotal role in all of this, you know? They're our role models and they will have a big influence on what the culture is in the team.

Spencer Howsen: And so, this comes from the very top of every organisation really, doesn't it?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, absolutely. I've seen some great stuff where leaders are being vulnerable and they're sharing about their experiences, which gives people permission to talk about their own. But yeah, it needs to, as I said, be quite a holistic strategy as well.

Spencer Howsen: So, are we ... The fact that there's been so much more of this being talked about and so much more acceptance, even though there's a long way to go still, does this mean that there is more mental illness in society than there was? Or is it just that we're talking about it more, do you think?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know that I 100% know the answer to that. So, interestingly, I'm doing a mental health first aid facilitator training currently. So, I'm actually leaving this interview to go back to that. So, we've been talking a lot about mental illness. And I'm not sure. Like, I know the statistics are one in five. And what I absolutely anecdotally have observed is that the conversations are increasing. I know that over time there has definitely been some increase to the suicide rates, but yeah, I'm not sure.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Maybe there's even been an issue around the statistical capture of this in the past. But you know, certainly it is a major issue in today's society. And there are things that would no doubt be impacting on that too, you know? Like work is more insecure than it used to be for people. Change is so constant and prevalent in our lives. So, while I don't know exactly that it's increased, I know that there are a lot of factors that have an impact on mental health for individuals and workplaces.

Spencer Howsen: Well, that alone, what you just said there about change in the workplace is another tip for management. If you can reassure someone that you're going to resign them for another year or what have you, don't wait until the last minute to tell them. If you can tell them sooner, just think about them as a human being, they need that reassurance, don't they?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, I think you hit an important point there, Spencer Howsen, in just be human. Be kind, you know? Be nice to your staff. Put yourself in their shoes, do what you can to support and respect them.

Spencer Howsen: Think about that employee as if it's your daughter or your son or yourself and see how you would like to be treated. But I guess where I was heading to then with that question about whether it's more prevalent, just to be the devil's advocate for a moment, there would be some bosses who would say, "Yeah, taking a doona day." Like, it's so easy now, people are using the conversation, do you know what I mean? It's awful to even suggest that, but I'm sure that there are people who think that.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Yeah, yeah, it's awful to think about that definitely. I'm sure that there would be. And that's really, really unfortunate because we know that mental illness is real and that it has a stigma. And that sort of behaviour really is adverse towards making the changes that we need to make. And you know, there's something for this in terms of organisations as well, you know? If they've got well staff, if those staff are in roles that use their strengths, if we've got good job design, that's great for a company as well. And then there's the whole risk side of things, you know?

Donna Thistlethwaite: The cost to the economy of poor mental health or mental illness has been estimated at 10.9 billion dollars per annum in terms of absence and presenteeism, you know? Those people who are at work, but they're not really functioning properly. And then you go on to think about the impacts of dealing with a suicide in your organisation, that's massive. It affects so many people. It's going to have a massive impact on the culture of the organisation and put a lot of people through a lot of challenge. So, I think it's so important that we look at it because I don't believe that the organisation is responsible for the staff, but we can make a really big difference. And they do have a responsibility to ... They've got a duty of care to provide a safe workplace. And you know, some of the practices and informal processes and stuff that we see in organisations compromises that safe place of work.

Spencer Howsen: Yeah, there's a lot of effort goes into physical safety and risk, but yeah, let's think about the mental safety and risk as well. Let's finish up with your business card here, which has this ... I love this. You've got the word thrive. And each of those letters is a key message. So, let's leave people with Donna Thistlethwaite's thrive mantra. What is it?

Donna Thistlethwaite: Okay, so these are the six resilience strategies that totally changed my life for the better. So, the first one is to have a gratitude practice. So, you can do gratitude in lots of different ways, you could write it in a journal, you could ring people and let them know how much you appreciate them, that sort of thing. The practice I have involves five people including myself text gratitude three a day to each other. And it's been incredible. So, you get a reminder when theirs comes in, you get some accountability because they're expecting to receive them.

Donna Thistlethwaite: What I hadn't appreciated is that you actually vicariously live the joy of these other people and it's incredible. It's like a mega dose of gratitude. The incredible honour that comes with witnessing other people's lives is mind blowing. So, ours has been going for three years. It's self-sustaining. It just makes you feel amazing.

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, the next one is to actually be still and breathe, okay? Live can get so, so crazy. But if you can take some time out and just connect with yourself and be present, maybe focus on your breathing, there's lots of different patterns of breathing that you might look at, you can Google this stuff obviously. There's some great apps around for meditation, if you care to take it to the next level and meditate. That's what I do every single day. It's created this sense of calm. It's created space for ideas to drop in, now that I'm not obsessed with all of this other stuff in my crazy busy mind.

Donna Thistlethwaite: The next one is to create best year goals. And what I mean by this is to think about what you've like to have happen in the next year. And one way to look at it might be, imagine we were to meet again in 12 months and you say, "Oh my gosh, I've just had my best year ever." I want you to think about what has happened. Write five or six things down, write them in the past tense as though they're already here. Put a picture next to them because the subconscious mind thinks in images. And oh my gosh, it's an amazing process. It's very simple. My opinion is it's so simple, why wouldn't you give it a go, right?

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, it's not your whole smart goals process, I know that process and I think it has its place. This is more of a manifestation type process. But what I think happens as well is that when you have a sense of where you're going, it means that it influences the micro decision that you make on a daily basis. And I can't tell you that ... I've been doing it about four years. I can't tell you that every year I've got six out of six, right? But I've had three or four, and to me, that's a winner, right?

Donna Thistlethwaite: So, I really recommend it. I'll often get calls from clients saying, "Oh my gosh, I just came third in my ocean swim that I put on my goal list," or, "Booked my tickets to New York." And it's so exciting when that happens. So, simple, give it a go.

Donna Thistlethwaite: The next one is to do your thing, okay? So, this is whatever it is ... They call it flow state, puts you in flow, it energises you. It builds your capacity for everything else in life. So, for me it's cycling. But for everybody, it's something different, you know? It's about knowing what that thing is for you and prioritising it. So, often when we get busy, we'll drop that sort of stuff out of our life, but that's the time we need it the most. And it builds our capacity. So, if you haven't found it, just please keep looking for it, all right? Because it's out there waiting for you to find it. And if you have found it, please make sure you're prioritising it.

Donna Thistlethwaite: The next one is to choose positive people. So, Jim Rowan famously said we're the average of the five people we spend the most amount of time with. So, who are your five? And do you feel energized after you spend time with them, you know? Sometimes we have people in our lives that they drain our energy. And so, we live in this amazingly connected world where your five don't even have to be physically in the same town as you, you know? You could be following somebody that's via social media or somebody that's got an online presence. So, if you are supporting somebody with mental illness, it's really important that you have the right scaffolding around you as well. So, do think about who you're spending your time with.

Donna Thistlethwaite: And finally, help one person every day. I heard this quite a few years ago, and I don't know if you call it a pneumonic. The acronym was HOPE, help one person every day. And I just loved it. So, I feel so honoured to be in a role in my life as a career coach and a speaker that I get to do that every day. But we all can help somebody, whether it's in our family, in our workplaces. One of the best ways to get out of a funk is to do something for someone else. It releases serotonin in our brain, that happy chemical. And then, there's some research that says that when we do something for someone else, they're likely to pay it forward twice. So, we can have this amazing effect, this amazing ripple effect in the world and in our workplaces. Imagine doing something like that at work where you actually write people a note or do something when they're in need to show them that they're supported. So yeah. They're the six strategies.

Spencer Howsen: We've heard of the economic multiplier effect, but the emotional multiplier, that's quite something. The two extra people that they will praise or thank today paying forward. Donna, thank you very much for being on the podcast. Just a reminder that if you or someone you know needs support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. It's been great hearing from you, thank you so much.

Donna Thistlethwaite: Thanks very much, Spencer Howsen.

[End of transcript]