Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Charlotte Geoghegan is Event Manager for Safety & Health Expo and SHP at Informa Markets. She is responsible for content, strategy and sales of physical events and digital products. She is also an active member of the Women in Health and Safety committee.Before Charlotte went into this role she was Head of Content for the Safety & Health Expo, SHP, IFSEC, FIREX and the Facilities Show. She joined Informa (previously UBM) in 2015.Charlotte has spent 10 years in media & events and her academic background is in modern foreign languages. You can find her on LinkedIn here
September 10, 2022

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‘A lot more needs to be done to support families following the death of a relative due to poor mental health’- SHP speaks to Victoria Coates

SHP speaks to Victoria Coates, HSEQ Manager at DPS Group, about the lack of conversation surrounding mental health after tragically losing her brother to suicide. She discusses the struggles she had returning to work, and what employers and co-workers can do to support people going through a similar situation.

This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee our goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s our belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.

Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope is that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.

Read more from this Women in Health and Safety interview series.

Dealing with loss

In 2019, I lost my youngest brother. He took his own life.

For a long time, I couldn’t say his name. I couldn’t hear anybody else say his name, it was too raw.
He was 26 when he took his own life, just before the first coronavirus lockdown. When you lose someone to mental health, there’s no support, there’s no-one to point you in the direction of where to go. You’re in the middle of an ocean and you’re just trying to tread the water. There’s no signpost saying, ‘swim this way to land’ or ‘there’s a life ring over here’. You’re just in the middle of the ocean, and there’s just black. That’s the only way I can describe it.

Now, I can see there’s a lot more that needs to be done to support families. Following the death of someone due to poor mental health there’s a real lack of support. I see lots of campaigns for people who are currently dealing with poor mental health, not for after.

Before his death, my brother did seek medical support for his mental health struggles, he was given medication and that didn’t really do anything. My family tried to get him sectioned at one point because they were scared he was going to harm himself.

A lot of the times he spoke quite openly about it when he felt really low. But the time he did pass away, he didn’t tell anybody, there was just a switch, a calmness I suppose in his demeanor. He went from being very emotional to calm on the outside. It disillusioned us into thinking he might be feeling a bit better.

And that wasn’t the case.

I only told a couple of people at work. Only now am I ready to talk about it. I wasn’t ashamed, but people don’t know how to react. There’s an uncomfortableness, even from friends and family, asking how you are, and you don’t know how to answer that question. Of the cuff you say ‘Oh, I’m fine’, and you’re not. But they don’t want to hear that you’re not.

Triggering language

I became so aware of the language people use. People can make gestures, like you say, ‘how’s your day going’ and they make suicidal gestures or comments. That’s why my brother isn’t here anymore and that really vibrates through me.

For a long time, that sort of thing really triggered me.

When I wasn’t telling anyone about losing my brother, if I was sitting in a meeting and someone used language that triggered me, I would have to get up and walk out, I just couldn’t control my emotions at that point.

I came back to work too early – within two weeks.

Someone asked me how many siblings I had, and I didn’t know how to answer, I didn’t know if I should say I have four or five siblings. Did, currently do, did have – I just didn’t know.

The people who did know about it, didn’t really know how to deal with it. You have Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace, which helps you learn how to support people, but there’s not much about how to support someone who has lost someone to their poor mental health.

I’m more aware now of how I use language in general, not just in relation to mental health. I’m not saying we must always walk around on eggshells, but we’re all human and some people are struggling. So be careful. Think of others, think before you speak, take a minute. Training and support for those in the business is extremely important.

We’ve had campaigns about MHFA, we’ve run campaigns and chats, but that’s more for our HR team – they’ve had training, but other people in the business don’t necessarily know how to respond or where to signpost people to. It’s not just having one person in the business trained or qualified.

The first day I came back to work, I ended up going home within two hours because someone asked about my brother. They didn’t know anything, it wasn’t a deliberate thing, but it came up in conversation.

I felt this volcano of emotions ready to erupt as I panicked and didn’t know how to respond or control my emotions.

I left the building in floods of tears. I phoned my boss on the way home and they were really supportive and understanding. My timing in returning to work was a little too soon.

Supporting in the right way
For those who were aware my brother passed away, I appreciated them just being there. If someone wants to talk about grief or loss, they will reach out, if they don’t, they won’t. The important thing is not to push

Don’t say ‘how are you?’ That drove me crazy.

I know it comes from a good place, it’s just, at that time, I didn’t know how to answer, and I got to the point where I stopped answering it because I felt like I was lying, because everyone just wants you to say I’m fine. And I wasn’t fine.

If the person experiencing it is having a hard time, just sitting and listening, not judging and not giving an opinion, that’s enough support.

I didn’t need someone to fix the jigsaw in my head. I didn’t need them to fix anything. I just needed them to hear, listen and be non-judgmental and caring.

If I needed to take time off, I had time off, my work was great with that.

When you’re going through grief, whether it’s expected or unexpected, everyone kept telling me ‘time, time’, to an extent it is true. Time is the only thing that helps you see that life jacket that’s floating past you, or the island that you could stop at and rest your legs on. You learn to walk with the pain, the bricks in the backpack that you carry become part of you.

When you’re ready you talk, and it’s a good thing.

Time helps

When you reach out to someone, the weight of this backpack you’re carrying, that’s full of everything that’s heavy and confusing, maybe just lightens a little bit, even if only for a short period of time. When you talk, it’s like you put the backpack down for a wee bit, or someone can offer something that helps maybe take a little brick out of the backpack in a way.
This is the first time I’ve openly spoken about this, a lot of people around me don’t even know that he passed away.

As time goes on, you start to reflect on the happy memories. You’re not as consumed with the grief, guilt, and pain.

I realised there was happiness, and I shouldn’t feel guilt for smiling or laughing.

I talk to my sister sometimes about memories of us growing up, and little by little things come back, it just takes time.

I never knew anyone else who had been through this, I didn’t understand it at all, I was navigating this entirely on my own.

I would like to think that if anybody else was ever going through it, I would reach out. Hopefully, me speaking about it in this interview, will normalise talking about these things. I’d like individuals to see there are people are going through things that they don’t know about. I’d like them to think it’s alright to reach out and chat.

The direction of me thinking about my brother and his memory is slowly changing to something positive, rather than the absolute grief and the all-consuming, horrible feelings that you go through.

The harshest realisation is knowing that I can’t change what’s happened. I can’t change that I’ve lost him. All I can do is continue with my life and work through this.

Not long ago, I spoke to a random person, in a shop, who approached me whilst I was stood at a coffee machine. They were struggling with their own mental health, and I just took the time to stop and chat to them for five minutes.

If I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through, I don’t know if I that would have even been in my head to stop and chat to someone who was just feeling quite low.

You become more aware of yourself and those around you because of it.

For more information about the Women in Health and Safety network see our hub page here.

To learn more about the Women in Health & Safety Network workstreams and mailing list, click here.

Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.

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