Three panellists are on stage wearing head mics. Laurent and Lee are either side of Nicole, looking at her as she speaks.
From left: Laurent de Saint Sernin, Nicole Owens and Dr Lee Motherway at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘Our mental health is something that needs constant nurturing, like a garden’

30 May 2019

With a garden display at Bloom 2019 set to ‘grow conversations’ about mental health, I spoke to a panel at Inspirefest about how we treat these illnesses at work.

Today (30 May) and all weekend at Bloom in Phoenix Park, you will find a garden growing conversations about mental health.

Grounded’, sponsored by Janssen, was developed in association with mental health charities Aware and See Change, and designed by landscape architect Maeve O’Neill.

O’Neill worked with people living with, affected by or working with mental illness in order to build the garden. A series of workshops in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens gathered people touched by a wide range of mental illnesses to contribute to a space that could reflect both the dark and light side of their experience.

“I did a wicker weaving class, so we were building baskets,” said Nicole Owens when we discussed her involvement with Grounded on a panel at Inspirefest 2019. Owens is a senior intelligence strategist at Storyful, and she spoke at Inspirefest about her personal experience with mental illness.

“Through most of my teenage years, I probably would have had very poor mental health. It would have been something that I wasn’t necessarily on top of but I could kind of continue to function,” she explained.

“Part of it was probably an element of stigma but also the lack of awareness of what it was and the ability to verbalise what I was feeling.”

At one point, a severe panic attack led to Owens being hospitalised and she realised she had to let her employer at the time know what was going on. “We were a small digital agency. There were 10 of us that were quite close and it was quite open and young, so there was an environment where I could speak about it,” she said.

Owens emailed her boss explaining how she was feeling and how it was affecting her ability to work. The response, she said, was “brilliant”.

“They were so supportive. There was no rush for me to come back to work. I had time. They did things like send me flowers and let me know that they were thinking of me, but there was no pressure.”

‘It’s always something I notice in the hospital that I work in. It’s a psychiatric hospital and there are no ‘Get Well’ cards anywhere’

The mere act of sending flowers and messages of support to a co-worker who is absent due to mental illness can mean a lot. It was a stark realisation then to hear Dr Lee Motherway, consultant psychiatrist at St Vincent’s Hospital Fairview, explain that this is not the norm for her patients.

“It’s always something I notice in the hospital that I work in. It’s a psychiatric hospital and there are no ‘Get Well’ cards anywhere,” said Motherway. “If you go into the Mater or Beaumont or whatever general hospital, you’ll see cards, you’ll see flowers. Whereas people in mental health institutions either don’t have support, don’t have people who will send those cards or else haven’t told anybody that they’re there. They’re hiding the fact that they’ve needed to seek help.”

This is why Grounded is part of the national launch of the campaign, ‘Growing Conversations’, aiming to better inform the public of mental illness and alleviate the stigma that still clings to it. The idea stems from a conversation being the first step on the journey to recovery, while also highlighting the benefits of connecting with nature.

For Owens, though, the garden she helped create is an even deeper metaphor. “I love the idea of a garden,” she said. “Our mental health is something that does need to be constantly nurtured, similar to a garden.”

Explaining why Janssen has thrown its backing behind Grounded and Growing Conversations, Laurent de Saint Sernin, general manager of commercial operations at Janssen Sciences Ireland, told us how tackling mental illness is “in the DNA of the company”.

“Mental health is indeed a major public health issue and things like depression or dementia are where we are trying hard to focus,” he said.

Speaking as an employer, De Saint Sernin explained some of the initiatives taken at Janssen and parent company Johnson & Johnson to assist employees with their mental health. He spoke about cultural aspects such as encouraging work-life balance, enabling charity and outreach work, establishing employee wellness programmes, and offering eight weeks’ paternity leave (which received applause). Speaking in practical terms, De Saint Sernin emphasised the benefits of training managers to spot and deal with mental health issues that may arise.

This year, Janssen has partnered with See Change to deliver training to managers so they can identify early signs of mental health concern and be equipped with the right language to start those all-important conversations. “We have training specifically for our people managers. They are in a unique place in the organisation to help the broader team,” said De Saint Sernin.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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