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Two years ago, broadcast journalist Mike McCarthy lost his 31-year-old son Ross to suicide. In his farewell letter, Ross – who had battled with depression for a decade – implored his father to fight for better mental health support in British society. McCarthy responded by founding suicide prevention awareness charity Baton of Hope, in partnership with fellow bereaved dad Steve Phillip, whose son Jordan had also taken his own life.

For Baton of Hope, 2023 promises a busy itinerary. On Sunday 25 June, the physical, custom-made Baton that is being created in the charity’s name will set off on an awareness-building tour around the UK – stopping off in a series of major cities over 11 days, before concluding its trek in London. McCarthy and the charity’s organisers are hoping that the tour will garner attention among media outlets and policymakers alike.

Between now and then, Baton of Hope has earmarked a late-spring launch for its Workplace Charter: an effort to drive mental health awareness among employers. Crucially, the Charter will also function as a sort of kitemark that organisations can earn to demonstrate that they are following best practices on providing staff with time and space to address any wellbeing challenges they may be going through. With that mission in mind, the Institute invited McCarthy to talk with Voices about Baton’s hopes for the Charter.

How is Baton of Hope working to raise suicide prevention awareness among employers?

First of all, we’re trying to raise awareness across the whole of society. We see this as a universal issue, because everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention – whether you’re at the top of government forming strategy, or sending your mate a text to ask whether he’s really all right.

But more specifically, the Workplace Charter is bringing together people with experience and expertise in a variety of domains to tap their wisdom and develop a set of best practices that employers will sign up to. So, we’re pooling the knowledge of HR experts, therapists, senior figures from the charitable sector and others from the private sector – including business leaders.

Our aim is for the Charter to become a widely recognised symbol, showing that its signatories are taking mental health every bit as seriously as physical health, and are willing to follow high-quality guidance to bring about positive outcomes.

What are the Charter’s central values?

If I could sum it up in one word, it would be that we’re looking for more compassion. In the development of societal policies and strategies, a little compassion makes all the difference – and very often, that’s about going back to basics.

We’ve come a long way in the past 10 years – but if you look at some of the language that people use to describe aspects of mental health, it’s clear that we still have far to go. People still refer to self-harm as a form of attention seeking. But what about attention deserving – or attention needing? Not so long ago, a Member of Parliament took time off work because they were suffering from poor mental health, and one of the headlines was, ‘MP admits to taking time out because of depression’ – as if it were something to be ashamed of.

You wouldn’t admit to having a chest infection, COVID or a broken arm.

When someone takes their own life, there are often many people around them who are emotionally injured in one way or another. But while younger generations have made lots of progress in terms of how to talk about this stuff, there’s still a great deal of stigma lurking around – and much of it stems from choice of words.

As a bereaved family, we often hear the phrase ‘commit suicide,’ which harks back to a time more than 60 years ago when, in the eyes of the law, suicide was an illegal act, and survivors of suicide attempts could be – and were – imprisoned. But while so much has moved on since then, the language remains the same. And it hurts.

So, in the interests of demolishing that stigma, one of the things we’re asking employers – particularly senior leaders – as part of the Charter is, ‘How comfortable would your employees be with ringing up and asking for a mental health day?’

Already this year, I’ve seen some research suggesting that only one in 10 employees would tell the truth if they needed a mental health day and felt they had to ring in sick. What we’re saying is that if we can get to a state of honesty, transparency and trust around these issues, we’ll see a day when every employee is comfortable enough to call the boss and say they need time off for depression – and not have to lie about it.

In which ways does organisational leadership in the UK need to improve in its approach to suicide prevention awareness?

First and foremost, business leaders, executives and HR managers must take a little time to look inwards and ask themselves how they’re feeling – because you can’t create an open, transparent and healthy culture if you’re not in that mindset yourself.

More broadly, though, I’m hoping that leaders and hiring managers will understand that this is a win-win. As everyone knows, a healthy workforce is a productive one. And it’s not very healthy if people are lying about why they want to take time off sick.

These are issues that affect all of us, including – and sometimes especially – leaders, because leadership can be a lonely, isolating place, where staff always look to you for solutions. That can be, and regularly is, a very pressurised position. So, there’s a massive need out there for people in leadership roles to look after themselves, and be kinder to themselves, before they start to introduce specific measures with impacts across entire staff bases. They can start looking at their organisations once they’ve found themselves with a healthier outlook.

Once they’ve reached that place, though, I see a huge incentive for leaders to take advantage of all the great, specialist training that’s out there among charities and other, knowledgeable providers. There are people out there who can offer guidance, support – and even solutions. So, grasp those resources with both hands and bring them right into the heart of your workplace. And apply the lessons you’ve learned through your own self-analysis to your organisation as a whole.

Ahead of the Charter’s launch, which sorts of steps can workplaces take now to support mental wellbeing?

It’s not a huge expense – a quarterly survey asking your employees, ‘How are you, on a scale of one to 10, and why?’ can really help to get the ball rolling. I’ve done lots of talks with businesspeople and, very often, one of the biggest concerns they express is, “Well, this is all such complex territory – the mind is so very complicated.” Sure – we all know that, and I respect it. But sometimes, just asking a few, simple questions can elicit lots of valuable information.

In the end, it’s just talking and listening: validating people who need to be heard. And we all, on some level, need to be heard – and need to be validated.

With that in mind, I propose that employers who sign up to the Baton of Hope Workplace Charter should start discussion groups, where staff can talk about mental health challenges in an open and supportive environment. Of course, the Charter will also recognise the need for quiet areas where people can speak privately. But having a level of openness, too, will help to break down stigma.

Let’s launch those discussion groups. Let’s bring in the specialist training experts, watch the videos and have the conversations that need to be had. Let’s look at all the positive work that’s being done in this field, embrace it – and move forward with it.

Voices from our community: Mike McCarthy is co-founder of Baton of Hope.

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