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By Ingrid Ozols, Mental Health Educator, mh@work

"Imagine a butterfly caught in a spider's web frantically trying to escape. The more the brightly coloured creature flutters and panics, the more enmeshed it becomes. Terror and paralysis sets in. The butterfly is unable to move or fly, awaiting impending doom. Being caught helplessly in a sticky web is an apt metaphor to describe an episode of clinical depression." (beyondblue, 2004).

Mounting anecdotal evidence of workplaces being unable to manage mental health issues is not surprising. Schools, universities and professional associations offer nothing in the way of preparing or educating the workforce for dealing with these commonly occurring and treatable health problems.

As one of those ill-equipped workforce members, I decided to tell my story and search for ways to change this situation.

I am a happily married mother, educated, self-employed and rich with friendships. Behind the bubbly fa├žade though, lies a chameleon who manages life with a health condition: depression. On too many occasions, my very being has been held captive, leaving my body and mind tortured, and aching to the extent I have wanted to die. I have tried to die.

Today, five years on, I share the lived perspective in many boardrooms, demonstrating that these are real health conditions that deserve respect. With basic understanding and skills they can be managed and supported more appropriately, with better outcomes for employers, employees and ultimately the community.

Generally the workforce doesn't know what to look for, or how to recognise the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. There is fear, a hesitancy to do something. Is it the workplace's business? Are boundaries or privacy being overstepped? If one is unqualified to help, could this make matters worse? These are legitimate questions. Given the high prevalence, the answers lie around how workplaces offer support with what they have.

I have been working with Telstra over the last few years developing the organisation's mental health strategy, which includes a variety of communication elements: intranet information, an interactive elearning tool mh@work(r), a booklet 'Creating Supportive Workplaces', and national awareness forums and workshops for employers, employees and their families, HR advisors and line managers.

Mental Health Week is celebrated in partnership with the Mental Health Council of Australia, bringing together clinicians, academics, consumers and carers in face-to-face seminars, and teleconferences in each State, every day of the week. These activities will be expanded to become a regular feature of the education strategy.

For the strategy to be successful and long-lasting, an organisation needs to undergo a culture change which takes time, so the investment and commitment to such a process is a long-term one and needs leadership and passion to come from the top.

Other major organisations are taking Telstra's pioneering footsteps, placing the issue of mental health high on the corporate agenda to bring heart and wellbeing back into business using the same model and approach.

Knowledgable workplaces need to learn how to befriend the enemy, and navigate through the web. With support and compassion, workplaces are ideally placed to empower their people to lead more healthy, fulfilling and productive lives.

For more information, contact Ingrid Ozols on 0414 458 964.