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Talk to someone you can trust

You can’t care for others if you don’t look after yourself. Mental health matters acutely for funeral professionals, says Catherine Betley

Those who attended the spellbinding talk by Clarke Carlisle and his wife Carrie at the recent SAIF AGM weekend will have been left in no doubt whatsoever why mental health matters.

Carlisle recounted his story, from a boy growing up on a Preston council estate to a successful football career, playing for Queens Park Rangers, Leeds United, and Watford and collecting three under-21 England caps. After his career was cut short by injury, Carlisle went on to become chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and launched himself into a developing media career.

Yet also tried to end his own life several times, on one occasion stepping out in front of a lorry on the A64 near York and suffering major injuries. The lorry driver who swerved to miss him (he was hit by a subsequent vehicle) spoke publicly about how traumatic he found the experience and later took his own life aged 24.

Both Clarke and Carrie were at pains to reinforce a message that is not often easily received in this profession – that no matter how resilient we are and no matter what support we have around us, we are still vulnerable to mental health issues. In our work in the funeral world, maybe especially so.

I was deeply touched by their words. Looking around the room, there were many well-established people from the funeral profession listening with tears in their eyes – people who have seen the very worst things happen to the very best of people and know only too well of the devastation that suicide wreaks for individuals, families and communities.

We are as vulnerable, if not more so, to post-traumatic stress, mental health issues, mental illness and substance abuse problems and we are not helping ourselves or each other by denying this and by ignoring the support that there is out there to help us.

I run mental health services for funeral professionals. I know from first-hand experience that we suffer the same mental health issues as the rest of the population and that it is usually only when a toxic combination of work and other stresses occur that people realise they really need help. The counselling services that we offer (and SAIFSupport is one of these) are usually only sought out when people are in crisis and realise that they cannot carry their burdens alone. We are normally a last resort – and this needs to change.

The statistics shared by the World Health Organisation can feel alarming – one in four of us has, or will at some time in the future suffer from a mental health issue. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

So what does 'good mental health' actually look like? Good mental health means that we can make the most of our potential, cope with the everyday stresses that life brings and play a full part in our families, workplaces, communities and among friends. Good mental health means that we are more likely to be able to manage the more challenging issues that we might face in the profession, whether these are baby or child funerals, people who have died by suicide or those deaths that closely resonate with us, the memories of which stay with us for a long time after we have arranged the funeral.

We all feel stressed or 'down' from time to time, especially when life gets tough, but if we find we are regularly unable to get up, get out to our daily activities and face the world with a reasonable amount of resilience, confidence and positivity, we may find ourselves facing a problem.

I’m often asked for my ‘top tips’ for improving mental health. The single most important thing you can do if you think that you might be suffering from a mental health issue is to talk to someone.

  • Find someone you trust – a friend, family member, colleague, or a professional
  • Don’t leave ‘not feeling yourself’ until you have lost yourself completely
  • Don’t wait until crisis point

You deserve the same great care that you offer to the families who use your services – and taking care of your mental health is vital to be able to do so.

Catherine Betley is Managing Director of Professional Help, which provides staff care and counselling services and GriefChat, which offers bereaved people the opportunity to chat directly online to a bereavement counsellor free of charge. Follow her on twitter @CathBetley.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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