Senior civil servants open up about mental health struggles in awareness campaign

Civil service is pushing for a “cultural change towards openness and honesty about mental health”, says HR chief Rupert McNeil

Chief people officer Rupert McNeil. Photo: Civil Service Leadership Academy

Civil service leaders including chief people officer Rupert McNeil have opened up about overcoming struggles with mental ill health, as part of a series of films sponsored by the Civil Service Leadership Academy.

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the academy has published a series of videos in which civil servants reflect on how their personal and professional lives have been affected by mental ill health. The videos are part of the business-led campaign This is Me, which aims to destigmatise mental illness and support organisations and their employees to talk about mental health.

Rupert McNeil, chief people officer, said as a young adult before entering university he had “a combination of depression and anxiety, but never really named it as such”, and later “a sort of black period” in his late 20s, when he was diagnosed with depression.


He was later forced to take three months off work after his anxiety “had got to quite critical levels”, McNeil said. “I did very demanding jobs, I’d never taken a moment’s time off work [up to that point] for anything related to mental health,” he said.

He talked about how a combination of medication, psychotherapy and other coping mechanisms had helped him to recover.

In a blog post written to accompany the videos, McNeil said they were part of a drive in the civil service towards a “cultural change towards openness and honesty about mental health”.

“I hope that in watching the films, we can spread the message that being open about our mental health is not a barrier to success,” he said.

“In fact, being open with those around you can help you get the support you need.”

This message was echoed in another of the videos, in which Emil Levendoglu, a deputy director at the Treasury, talked about his experience since being diagnosed with severe clinical depression shortly after joining the civil service in 2003. He said he had adopted a more flexible working pattern and that his team had worked to create a more open environment where people felt able to talk about their mental health.

“I know that people have concerns that if they’re open about their mental health condition, that might limit their ability to work on certain sensitive issues – or just more generally, it might count as a black mark against them, so that as they’re looking to advance their career people might think twice,” he said in the video.

“Certainly that hasn’t been my experience, and I know that in the Treasury we have looked quite carefully at how we can make sure that it doesn’t become a stigma.”

Debbie Alder, director general for people and capability at the Department for Work and Pensions, spoke about some of the challenges involved in speaking about mental health at work, which she encountered when she first told senior colleagues about own mental health challenges at work – which had led to exhaustion and time off work.

“I just literally went from somebody who did a big job, who could cope with all sorts of things, to losing all of my coping mechanisms, and that’s hugely, hugely disorientating. But when I first shared this in the department, it was met with silence.

“I don’t judge the silence of my senior colleagues. I just don’t think they know how to even engage in conversation.”

Alder said she her department now has 965 mental health first aiders across 330 sites, and is on track to have 1,600 by next March, giving it parity with physical first aiders.

“Equipping ourselves to be confident to talk about mental health means, I think, we are better positioned to interact with citizens with complex needs or mental health needs when they come and see us,” she said.

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