'In a ball under her kitchen table': Employee assistance programs don't do enough to support mentally unwell and employers need to take notice

It was the middle of the day and Deb Reveley had been in a ball under her kitchen table for several hours overcome by the effects of agoraphobia and a long list of other anxiety disorders when she experienced her epiphany.

Later, people would suggest that attempting to kill herself was her defining moment but it was actually an interaction with a stranger under that kitchen table that moved her.

At the time Deb was writing resumes for people when a lady came to the house and crawled under the table with her and asked, "I need to have this application in on Friday, can you help me?".

"I remember thinking to myself, does she not recognise I am in my pajamas and I am under the table?" says Reveley, the ever humorous mental health advocate. "I thought if I ever get out I am going to do something to help people like her speak to people like me."

Brain Ambulance owner Deb Reveley is attempting to make mental health as important in the workplace as any physical ailment. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Brain Ambulance owner Deb Reveley is attempting to make mental health as important in the workplace as any physical ailment. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Although her business, Brain Ambulance did not come to fruition until many years later, that moment evoked her passion for "keeping people sane" in the workplace.

"What I had discovered in workplaces is many are just ticking the box by providing an employee assistance program (EAP) and do not do anything else," she said.

I thought if I ever get out I am going to do something to help people like her speak to people like me.

Brain Ambulance owner Deb Reveley

Changing views of mental health one laugh at a time

Reveley is now attempting to make mental health as important in the workplace as any physical ailment by "marrying it with comedy".

Mental health training and humour aren't often put together in the same sentence, but Reveley's comedic presence is undeniable on stage.

"There are six main types of anxiety disorders," she tells the captivated audience at Frederick Irwin Anglican School.

"I really had all six at the same time because I am an overachiever." This is met with rapturous laughter.

Mentally unhealthy workplaces prevalent

Although Reveley's training sessions have a lasting impact on people, many workplaces are still mentally unhealthy.

According to Beyond Blue one in five Australians have taken time off work in the past 12 months because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unwell.

This statistic is more than twice as high among those who consider their workplace mentally unhealthy.

Employees who believe this are also unlikely to disclose within their workplace if they are experiencing a mental health condition, seek support from management, or offer support to a colleague with a mental health condition.

With inefficient mental health resources in the workplace many employees decide to take time off work when feeling mentally unwell. Source: Beyond Blue.

With inefficient mental health resources in the workplace many employees decide to take time off work when feeling mentally unwell. Source: Beyond Blue.

Employee assistance program is just ticking the box

In Western Australia there is currently no mandatory requirement for mental health training and employers only determine what training they need based on the level of risk presented by psychological hazards.

If an appropriate mental health training program was implemented in every workplace it would "equip people with the tools to recognise and respond to mental health issues as they arise," Reveley said.

"Unfortunately, the standard response for nearly every government, non-profit and private workplace is that they provide an EAP for their staff," she said, her voice conveying frustration.

"This counselling service is not always effective as most employees are reluctant to use the EAP as they fear that their workplace will know about their visit, which is not actually true as the EAP do not send any names or identifying factors."

By talking about his own experiences Mandurah mental health first aid trainer Patrick Dudley is working to make mental health a priority in the workplace. Photo: Claire Sadler.

By talking about his own experiences Mandurah mental health first aid trainer Patrick Dudley is working to make mental health a priority in the workplace. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Talking from his own personal experience Mandurah mental health trainer Patrick Dudley said the EAP was "not the be all and end all".

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"The EAP is not enough as you can have two counselling appointments but any more than that you have to get approval from your employer," he said displeased.

"When I used it myself, the counsellor said if my employer says no I can't have any more sessions - that doesn't make a person feel good when they are already in mental distress."

A conversation could change a life

Openly telling me about his mental health struggles you would never know Dudley suppressed his chronic anxiety for many years before advocating for mental health training in workplaces.

"I grew up in a home that was full of physical and mental abuse so when I look back my mental illness began as a very young child - at 12 years old I was already abusing alcohol," he tells me shamelessly, during our chat at the bustling Mandurah foreshore.

"Having suppressed it my whole life and the stresses of work getting on top of me I felt like I was having a breakdown so I finally thought I have to talk to somebody."

The more people have the conversation around mental health the better it is going to get.

Mandurah mental health first aid trainer Patrick Dudley

"Talking to people when I'm having a bad day is what helped me and I found when having these conversations people would then come to me and say 'I'm really glad I heard your story I didn't realise it was okay to share my story'," he said, a relaxed smile now on his face.

Mental health first aid skills make a difference

By talking about their own experiences Reveley and Dudley are working to make mental health a priority in the workplace.

"My wish would be for everybody in a workplace to learn mental health first aid so people understand," Dudley said. It is obvious he is passionate.

"It doesn't train people to be clinicians, it's the same as St John's training, it's a type of first aid response."

"There has been plenty of people who come to my workshop who don't have a mental illness who come away going, now I understand," he reflects, gazing across the estuary.

"The more people have the conversation around mental health the better it is going to get."