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Anastasia’s story: why I can now bring my whole self to work

Anastasia Vinnikova, Co-Chair of the Mental Health Network, at the Bank of England discusses how employers will be reaping the rewards of a more engaged, present and healthy workforce in the long-run if they look after peoples’ mental health.

Today, I am Co-Chair of the Bank of England’s Mental Health Network, a Steering Committee member of the CMHA’s Thriving from the Start Network, and a member of the Commission for Equality in Mental Health with the Centre for Mental Health. However, just 3 years ago I was hiding my own depression and anxiety,  and suffering in silence.

Afraid to open up

At age 17 I began to realise that there was something wrong with my mental health – I was going through severe periods of depression which impacted my social, family and academic life. Although I acknowledged that something wasn’t right and that it must be abnormal to feel consistently low and lost, I was paralysed with fear at the prospect of having to open up to anyone. I was ashamed of how I felt and I felt weak for giving into my depressed feelings so easily. I waded through life, feeling like I was swimming against the current, and only when I recognised how bad my feelings of anxiety and depression had become, as I engaged with more and more worrying behaviour, did I seek help from a university counsellor at age 19.

My university counsellor was incredibly supportive, and for the first time I heard actual references to my ‘depression’ and my ‘anxiety disorder’. I felt that if a professional was saying these things, I must legitimately be unwell. However, this validation didn’t mean that I was ready to talk about it to anyone else. Despite the support, my mental health deteriorated and I went on to seek further treatment, visiting psychiatrists for diagnoses, and eventually going through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). However, I still felt afraid and embarrassed about my experiences. I didn’t really know anyone else who was openly going through mental health challenges, and the handful of people that I did know seemed to have much more serious conditions than me. On an almost daily basis, I asked myself; ‘Am I just being weak? Am I just complaining too much?’ As a result, I hid everything. I lied to friends and family about where I was during my therapy appointments, and I covered the low moods with exclamations of ‘I’m just tired’. Sneaking around behind everyone’s backs was exhausting, and it led me to drop out of therapy multiple times. The darkness I felt during that time was isolating, and one of the worst experiences of my life.

Overwhelmed by a sea of green ribbons

When I began working at the Bank of England (a proud City Mental Health Alliance member) I had a pivotal moment. I happened to join within a few weeks of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal Green Ribbon Campaign, which the Bank was participating in. I saw a lot of promotion of the campaign but didn’t imagine any colleagues would be bold enough to wear a green ribbon, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to guess that I was struggling with my own psychological wellbeing behind closed doors. However, when the campaign began I was overwhelmed by a sea of green ribbons on almost every colleague I passed by, spoke to, or had meetings with. I began to understand that I was genuinely surrounded by people who wanted to voice their support for those who were experiencing mental ill-health and to decrease the stigma around such conditions. I began to appreciate the inclusive culture around me and started to make use of the wellbeing initiatives available.

Realising I was finally in a space where I could ‘bring my whole self to work’, I decided I could extend that to the rest of my life too. I opened up to my friends, co-workers and even family about my anxiety and depression for the first time, and enrolled back into much-needed therapy. Soon after, the opportunity also came up to become Co-Chair of the Bank’s Mental Health Network and I jumped at the chance to give back to a network which had, probably unknowingly, done so much for me. I was fortunate enough to be selected as Co-Chair and I have since used the platform to share my story, encourage better mental health practice, and drive discussions around the need for decreasing stigma around mental health. My passion for having open conversations about mental health, and trying to change the societal landscape around this snowballed – eventually, I also wanted to help further afield. I joined the Commission for Equality in Mental Health to try and give a voice to those in society who are unfairly and disproportionately impacted by mental health challenges and have greater struggles in accessing care. Then when the opportunity came up to support the CMHA in developing the Thriving from the Start Network, a mental health community for those early in their careers, I could not have been more excited. It was another opportunity to empower young people to have discussions about mental health and to create a mental health literate future generation of leaders.

An opportunity for employers

The culture at the Bank, and the initiatives, support and campaigns in place to raise awareness of and provide help for mental health conditions was (without wanting to sound cliché) life-changing for me. My take away from this experience has been that employers have a wonderful opportunity to help their people flourish. Changing the attitudes to mental health and ensuring that there is flexibility, sensitivity and kindness in the way we deal with those around us struggling with their psychological wellbeing is crucial. I would encourage all employers, big and small, to think about what resources they have in place, and how to best signpost them – they will be reaping the rewards of a more engaged, present and healthy workforce for the long run.