Why I Work In Mental Health

If someone told me I’d leave my long and successful financial services career with a highly respected market, product and global reputation in a very profitable, niche, dynamic, client facing business, for a new beginning in mental health and performance coaching I would have laughed out loud! This journey was so completely unexpected. So, what happened?!

I clearly remember the very moment my journey began. “It must be great for you to see someone like me, at death’s door, either by their own hand, or others’, or from physical illness, begin to change, to blossom and grow”, I said to my counsellor during my recovery from a suicidal, depressive episode. That was a real lightbulb moment; my light really was switched on. “That’s it!” I exclaimed, “I want to do for others what you’ve done for me. I want to do what you do”. And so, my journey began.

I was in counselling because despite professional success, my personal life was very different. I suffered recurrent moderate depression for years, underpinned by a core belief of personal failure. I’d sought help periodically, but medication hadn’t worked, ‘talking therapies’ weren’t offered and self-help, unlike its extensive availability today, didn’t exist. I grew up in a violent, abusive, dysfunctional family and learned very early to keep quiet, don’t make a fuss, “just get on with it”, so that’s what I did. Plus, my mental ill-health struggles were a very private matter. I never disclosed. I kept strict personal and professional boundaries. Like school had been, work was my escape, my antidote, my saviour, my only success.

Later, during a personal ‘perfect storm’, I suffered a severe depressive episode. I thought I’d manage, despite now being alone and unsupported. My job and work now meant everything to me. So, putting on my workplace mask, I doggedly continued working. I coped for about two years in a life ambivalent state. Then after a routine health check, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, stress/depression related illness. I needed immediate treatment. I spiralled into suicidal depression.

Failing to cope with this latest episode, and failed suicide attempts further reinforced my belief. This curse became a blessing when after another failed attempt, I finally sought medical help. With medication and counselling I unbelievably and unexpectedly transformed from mental ill-health to full recovery, and beyond! My line manager facilitated workplace adjustments to accommodate my choice to continue working with time off for absences. I needed to work, some semblance of normality. I needed respite and escape whilst facing my personal demons.

In that lightbulb moment, I discovered passion which inspired a dream: to pay forward the help and support I’d received. This passion triggered motivation, inspiration, a fire in my belly, sense of purpose and energy new to me. My father got me the banking job, and no one said no to him. Despite success, it was only ever a job. I’d never had a dream, cherished aspiration, ideal nor direction. I was so excited to have one now.

The next stage was to invest heavily in myself. Alongside my banking career, and in my own time, I trained to be an integrative counsellor, volunteering for a mental health charity. Later a coach, then an equine assisted practitioner coach too, blending my lifelong passion as a horse owner. I made a full physical recovery too.

I started making conscious, strategic choices rather than previous ‘going with the flow’ behaviour. In the workplace, I moved into investment banking, grew my market reputation, was regularly headhunted, progressed into managerial and leadership roles, performance management, talent and succession planning. At HSBC I created a team known as ‘best on the street’ in our business. Continuing my journey, extra curricula to my day job I became HSBC’s mental health employee network Chair, champion and Business Disability SteerCo member driving the UK’s Time to Change Pledge agenda forward in the workplace.

Masterminding innovative events and activities raised awareness, understanding, acceptance, educated and encouraged disability and mental health confidence. I spoke at internal events, including HSBC’s Time to Talk launch event, regularly featured in internal communications, and represented HSBC at external mental health events.

On this journey I discovered unrealised capabilities and attributes, unlocked hidden and awakened new talents, and gained extensive personal, professional and workplace insights. The journey ended when I decided to leave financial services for a new beginning in performance, mental health coaching and consulting, particularly in the workplace.

My motivation towards workplace openness around mental health matters is simple: my dream, plus “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” which is more than talking mental health. It’s putting words into actions for attitude and culture change. It’s about creating mental health confident workplaces where, amongst other things:

  • It’s okay to talk mental health and importantly mental ill-health; eg. why, as in mine and many other cases, is it easier disclosing physical rather than mental ill-health?

  • Individuals are equipped to look after their mental health as they do their physical health. Awareness and ability to identify when support may be needed, by knowing themselves, their triggers, their non-verbal communications and ‘seeing’ them in others.

  • Confidence to have that conversation.

  • There’s choice how to manage mental ill-health – disclosure versus privacy, doctor, self-help, utilise the organisation’s support structure, on-line resources. Individuals know what organisational support exists and how to get it.

  • Advocating improved organisational support: clear signposting, easy navigation, clear structure and process for accessibility and availability.

  • Workplaces are equipped to support individuals with work-related or unrelated, short or long term, mental health conditions eg workplace adjustments.

  • There’s no fear, stigma, shame or discrimination around mental ill-health.

  • On mental health matters, everyone is better informed, equipped and enabled.

Yet, moreover, it’s about people. My leaving speech went something like ‘We have great businesses, products, markets, but it’s people that make that happen and sometimes we simply lose sight of that. Without people, fully functioning, being their realistic best, having resilience and my term ‘bounceback-ability’, support - preventative and curative - in the workplace when needed, they and the business suffers. I’m leaving to focus on people, to do all I can to encourage them to overcome as I have, and not only survive, but thrive and flourish too’. That, is my motivation.


Text written by Sylvia Bruce

Preview Image by Timothy L Brock

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