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Coming out of the darkness

Virginia Newman

Why do mental health problems seem acceptable in some situations and not others? It’s time we banished stigma and adopted frankness, understanding and a willingness to help sufferers

Mental health is not a black or white state of mind. It is a grey scale on which we all sit, with some people tending towards black and some towards white, some travelling up and down the scale in a gentle, controlled manner and some veering wildly from one extreme to the other. But we are all there.

This scale became very apparent to me when in a conversation with John – not his real name, but sadly mental health is not sufficiently ‘mainstream‘  for him to feel comfortable using his own name. John’s story starts in a way that every architect will be able to relate to. He worked for a large commercial practice in London as a newly qualified architect on fast-track demanding projects. There was an expectation that he would work long hours, so he rarely left before 8pm and spent most weekends in the office. It was stressful work but he was part of a team and coping. So far so good. Should he ask for help to enable him to have a personal life, or should he just keep coping?

Gradually John became aware that the project was taking over his life. It was the first thing he thought of in the morning, the last thing he thought of at night and whenever he woke up during the night there was always the sense that he was being overwhelmed by the work he needed to do. He would make notes in the pad he left by the side of the bed just to feel that he was managing the situation. John was still coping and producing the goods, so no one in the office noticed that he had dark rings under his eyes and a habit of ’resting’ his eyes during meetings. Does this sound familiar? Is this acceptable behaviour?

As John began sleeping less and less, the anxiety became worse and the issues that he could face during the day developed into sweaty panics at night. His wife noticed that he was no longer communicating when he got home and at work he became gradually more isolated. He no longer had the time or energy or inclination to go to the pub on a Friday night and generally avoided socialising with his workmates. He changed from being a cheery communicative team member to one who just came in to the office, put his head down and worked. The practice probably saw this as a good thing as John was still hugely productive.  If John is still working effectively, there can’t be any problem, can there?

John could not sleep at night, but would come back from work and fall asleep on the sofa every evening. He would wake up and immediately check his emails – I bet everyone does that – then start redesigning a detail that was already constructed – now that cannot be normal. It was his wife who brought things to a head, pointing out that he needed some help. The office still did not notice any adverse changes in John and the subject of mental health was certainly never discussed in the office. Is it ever discussed in your office?

So, was it necessary for John to suffer in this way? Is that what is expected when you sign up to architecture? Is it a sign of weakness to have anxiety or depression or insomnia or any other of the complex range of mental health problems?

In the end it was John, with massive encouragement from his wife, who decided to do something to get his life back on track. He paid for private therapy sessions to avoid the lengthy waiting list for NHS treatment. This was not cheap but did enable him to get back in control of his life at the earliest opportunity and without needing any time off from work. Eventually, when well on the road to recovery, John spoke to both the HR director in his practice and to the partner he worked for. He explained about his illness and between them they agreed how to deal with the original cause of the stress, and how to improve John’s, and indeed the entire practice’s, mental well-being.

This is no isolated case; mental health problems are on the rise. There is plenty of help out there, and over the next few months the RIBA, in conjunction with the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) will be raising the profile of mental health and emotional wellbeing, and in so doing will provide signposting and practical help for businesses, teachers and individuals experiencing anxiety, stress or depression. 

There is no architect who has stood up and said: ‘I have mental health problems and I am still a successful architect.’ It is said that one in four of us will have a mental health problem during our lives, therefore it is inconceivable that none of the senior partners in the top 10 practices has suffered

With regards to practical help, the Architects Benevolent Society has partnered with Anxiety UK to provide support to members of the profession experiencing anxiety, stress or anxiety based depression via a range of services. These include 1:1 therapy, dedicated helpline and email services to provide emotional support, self-help materials and annual membership to Anxiety UK. Anxiety UK is a charity which has over 40 years’ experience of supporting individuals and organisations.

ABS president Angela Brady says:  ‘We believe this very important support will give real help to the many people in our wider profession experiencing mental health difficulties; adding to the financial assistance, advice and other practical support that the Society already provides.’

It is worth noting that no self-respecting artist/writer/actor/comedian will admit to having achieved success without mental struggles. From Spike Milligan and Tony Hancock to Stephen Fry, they have all had very high profile 'breakdowns' and yet still remain national treasurers. Even international sports stars have admitted to experiencing mental health difficulties. England cricketer Marcus Trescothick had to leave an overseas tour due to depression, and Andrew Flintoff has also spoken of battling his own demons. 

As yet there is no architect who has stood up and said: ‘I have mental health problems and I am still a successful architect.’ It is said that one in four of us will have a mental health problem during our lives, therefore it is inconceivable that none of the senior partners in the top 10 practices has suffered.

So the message here is that we are all have mental health issues, it is just that some of us cope with them better than others, in the same way that some of us succumb to every cold that passes through the office while others seem to shrug them off. We need to all start talking about emotional wellbeing, approaching it with sympathy and understanding but also as treatable and recoverable. The more people who come forward to say that they have suffered, the less stigmatised the subject will be. I wait for that high-profile architect to stand up and announce proudly, ‘I have had mental illness, and look how great I am now!’ and then to hold out their hands to help the people who are at present in darkness.

Virginia Newman is RIBA ambassador for equality, diversity and inclusion

For more on Mental Health Awareness week see