A Conversation with Joe Robertson
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Joe Robertson is a Contract Specialist at Shell UK, working in the Wells Department, predominantly managing contracts in the Well Interventions portfolio. Joe has been working at Shell for the past 4 years, in various roles in Contracting and Procurement, having previously worked for Wood as a buyer. After suffering with symptoms of depression for almost 10 years, Joe finally spoke up about his mental health struggles with a colleague in 2016, which turned out to be the first step in getting the help he needed to get a formal diagnosis and begin to manage his depression.
In what ways do stereotypes of masculinity create difficulties for people with mental health issues?
While there are a number of factors that I believe can impact someone’s ability to seek help for mental health issues, for men specifically, the masculine stereotypes definitely have a negative impact.
Regardless of any societal progressions that we may have made in the past few decades to dismantle harmful stereotypes, men are generally still pressured to be “tough” and not show emotions. The pressure for men is that displaying emotions can be perceived as a sign of weakness or irrationality, which makes talking about mental health with others incredibly challenging. In reality, many mental health issues are due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is in no way linked to “strength” or “manliness”.
Personally, I felt that I couldn’t talk with anyone about my depression, because of the fear of judgement of others of thinking that I was weak or being told that I had nothing to be upset about. 9 out of 10 people with mental health conditions are impacted by stigma or perceived stigma. The “perceived stigma” for me was the main issue, as I had built up an image in my mind of how people would think of me differently. The only way that I overcame this was by taking that incredibly difficult leap of talking to others and finding out that a lot of my perceptions were not correct and that many others understood and could empathise.
Gender roles, such as “breadwinners” can also increase the risk of mental illnesses, though I do feel that society is moving away from the stereotypical gender roles, with women taking greater strides towards equality in the workplace, and equality as “breadwinners”. This probably doesn’t solve the issue, however, rather shifting the pressure and stress from one person to another. Unfortunately, we are not likely to find any silver bullet or cure to prevent mental illnesses from occurring, but we can put in place a culture that allows for the discussion and better coping mechanisms.
What happened when you told colleagues about your depression?
Initially I only told one colleague, my line manager, about what I believed was depression. It was an incredibly difficult thing for me to do, but I felt that it was impacting me at work and I wanted to try and explain why. As I mentioned in my “story”, this set me on a difficult journey towards coping with my mental health which I genuinely believed saved my life. I appreciate how dramatic that sounds, but it is the sad reality of it! Once I began to cope more with my own mental health, I began to think about how others in my organisation were dealing with mental health. My therapist had told me that she had other clients that worked in my organisation, and it made me reflect that this was something completely invisible to me, and not openly discussed. I began to think of ways that would have helped me to come to terms with my illness and get help sooner, and the only way that I felt that I would be comfortable talking about it was knowing that there was someone else like me that was going through something similar. I wrote a “story” to be published on the internal website and asked to have it published. Despite all of the help that I had received in the past 6 months since talking to my line manager, I was still extremely apprehensive. I did not talk to anyone else in my team about it before publishing it, and I feared the impact that it could have on my future career opportunities. Once again, I found that my perceptions and beliefs could not have been further from the truth. I had hundreds of colleagues messaging me, thanking me and often sharing their own experiences with mental health or those of family members. It was overwhelming how much support and kindness I received, often from people I would have thought would reinforce the “masculine” stereotypes.
Where can people seek help?
Most organisations will have some sort of “employee assistance” programmes, which can be a good place to start, but there are so many other organisations and programmes that are there to listen and help. Charities such as Samaritans, SANE, PANDAS, and many others have helplines that you can call, the NHS has services that you can utilise, your GP is available, the list of potential options are so extensive that it’s almost daunting! I was very fortunate to have had a strong relationship with my line manager, to the point where I felt comfortable to bring this up to them, but I appreciate that that may not be the case for many. Who you go to seek help from isn’t the most important thing, the most important thing is that you do seek help. Mental health is something that you can not deal with by yourself, and trying to do so can often exaggerate the issue and cause more longer term problems. The best way for people to seek help will be different for different individuals. Initially I didn’t call a helpline or see a doctor because I didn’t feel that I could explain why I felt the way that I did. I didn’t have a long bullet point list of things that were causing my depression, and I feared that I would be told that there was nothing wrong with me. When I eventually did speak to the doctor, I did have a list with me, but I didn’t end up needing it or using it to justify my depression. Once again, my perceptions were wrong and the doctor was quick to offer support and set me on the steps to recovery. Don’t be afraid to talk to professionals, no matter how “irrational” you may think that you are being. If you had a long term physical illness, you wouldn’t feel guilty about going to the doctors, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking help for a mental illness.
What has been the impact of speaking about mental health?
Talking about mental health for me has been the toughest thing that I have done, but also one of the most rewarding. I have managed to cope with my depression rather than just ignoring and suppressing it, which has allowed me to live a much more fulfilling life. I am not “cured” by any means, but the bad days aren’t as bad and aren’t as frequent. For me, this is a humongous improvement.Speaking out about mental health has made me aware of how supportive so many people are and how much it affects so many others. Family members, friends, colleagues, have all shared with me their own difficulties with mental health that I would have never been aware of. It allows us to better look out for one another and try and build a culture where we can help dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health that makes so many of us suffer in silence. Within the workplace I have seen an improvement over the past 12 months, although I’m not sure if that’s as a result of people talking more about mental health, or if it is because I am now looking out for it more. Shell Health do a fantastic job within our organisation and we have a number of events lined up for Mental Health Awareness week to help try and break down the stigma.