KHANYISWA MOGOTSI

As a society, we love screaming about how mental health matters but do we really care or is this all just performance activism?

I was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and depression in 2016 and since then, navigating in the work industry has been so eye-opening.

My first internship gave me a lot of room to grow and build myself in a safe space without me ever having to put my mental health on the line just to come off as a great employee and I believe that was because people in the office were extremely progressive.

The internships there after, however, were very mentally taxing.

Excited to be a part of a new company, I was so ready to take on everything and show off all my new skills but knowing how tough my mental illness could make some days, I made it a point to let my bosses know that I have anxiety and depression. This was to make sure that when I need to take a day off from work because my anxiety would not let me leave my house, there would be some understanding.

In the beginning everything went smoothly but as time progressed, the toxicity of my environment started to play its role on me. In that environment, I noticed that when being corrected or reprimanded, my former colleagues made it a point to usually do it very loudly and in front of the other workers, in what I believe as humiliation.

I understand that in some work places, this humiliation makes for “stronger” and “more confident” employees, but in the case of someone with anxiety and depression, all that humiliation did was swallow me in, consume me for the rest of the day and at times cause so much physical discomfort.

As I prepared myself another cup of coffee, I kept replaying the words and wondering whether the other colleagues felt the same way about me or if they agreed with what I was told, which then turned into me worrying about if they gossiped about me and my performance when they were on their lunch breaks and whether I would be fired by the end of this week or the next.

This worrying would result in me not being able to focus on anything. I would feel so much pain and discomfort in my stomach and on one occasion, I ended up having an anxiety attack at work.

Waking up to go to work through the course of the week became so terrifying because I was constantly scared about whether my boss felt the same away about me as they did a few days ago. Seeing them go in for meetings (which I knew were just to discuss the weeks work) would make me physically sick because I was scared that they would discuss terminating my employment all because of the scolding I received a few days prior.

The place where I completed my next internship seemed very progressive in the beginning because there were constant mental health workshops and posters, and I remember mentioning the mental illnesses that I have early-on so that I wouldn’t end up dreading to come into this job.

Everything was fine up until I was scolded for taking a day off work because my anxiety was so overwhelming the night before that I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave my house the next morning without having another anxiety attack before lunch.

I was informed that although people have their illnesses and problems, we cannot let that inconvenience our employers because frankly, they do not care. I was told that everybody has some kind of problem in their life, but because this is the “real world”, we cannot stay off work because our minds are a “little” overwhelmed.

I don’t say all this to bash these places that employed me because I am still grateful for the opportunities and learning experience, but I say it to point out that mental illness and mental health does not matter as much as we think it does.

We host seminars, plan mental health awareness marches and put posters about mental health all over the office but in the same space do not take mental health days off seriously because it does not sound as serious as calling out sick from work because you have explosive diarrhoea.

If we are going to speak on the importance on mental health in meetings and through online emails, we should take mental illness issues seriously in the workplace too.