Psychological Health at Work

by Dr Christopher C Ridgeway

Types of psychological illnesses

There are around six million people in Britain who have experienced or are experiencing psychological distress. Most of those experiencing distress can be roughly categorised as suffering symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Around 250,000, mainly older people, will be experiencing symptoms of dementia. Many managers will therefore have some staff who are suffering from the common conditions of psychological distress.

Managers should not be concerned if they cannot themselves categorise the symptoms they observe or that are reported to them. Even most mental health professionals find this difficult. However, managers may well find themselves receiving reports from, and having discussions with, mental health professionals who use standard classifications of psychological distress. They therefore need to know what the classifications are in order to

  • Understand psychological reports
  • Have more effective discussions about these classifications
  • Make the best decisions for the staff members and the company.

Psychological illnesses

Having undertaken a macro categorisation of psychological distress, most psychological health professionals will seek to be more specific about the type. It is advised that you leave this strictly to the professionals, as you would with a physical illness, but it does help to know the main categories.

  1. Anxiety
  • General – what most people feel at some times of the day
  • Panic attacks, when a rapid build-up of anxiety leads to physical symptoms, such as stomach cramps, a pounding heart and so on, and a psychological experience of going out of control
  • Phobia – extreme fear of some specific thing or situation, such as being in a confined space
  • Occasionally and obsessive-compulsively experiencing the need to undertake some action to avoid an imagined, unwanted consequence
  1. Depression
  • Endogamous – caused by some chemical change in the neurological system
  • Exogamous – caused by an external stressor
  • Post-natal illness, characterised by
  • An overwhelming feeling of inadequacy
  • Depression
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in leisure activities, self and baby
  • Possible suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming the baby
  1. Eating disorders, which are generally categorised into
  • Anorexia – where the sufferer eats little and may undertake excessive exercise to reduce weight and achieve their ‘ideal’ thin body shape
  • Bulimia – binge eating and then guilt feelings, followed by sensational weight loss, via use of self-induced vomiting and/or laxatives.
  1. Schizophrenia, characterised by
  • Disordered thinking and jumbled verbal conversations
  • Delusions, usually including a belief of being persecuted
  • Hallucinations; hearing voices
  • Distorted beliefs, mainly that the sufferer is controlled by outside/other influences
  • Disturbed feelings, such as laughing very inappropriately.
  1. Bipolar disorder
  • Experiencing excessive mood swings, from mania (extreme elevation with rapid speech – usually about ‘impossible’ possibilities) to depression, with its associated hopelessness and despair and guilt, to apathy and potential suicide
  • In the manic phase, the person may vastly overspend and come up with highly impractical plans and schemes, which could, of course, have disastrous work implications.
  1. Psychopathic disorder
  • Usually defined as persistently abnormally aggressive and/or ‘seriously irresponsible’ behaviour; others can define it as ‘anti-social’
  • Usually it is perceived to be extremely difficult to treat.
  1. Mental health disorders with an organic cause
  • Medical science has identified a number of substances which cause mental illness and a range of brain chemistry changes that result in negatively changed behaviour.
  • Alzheimer’s is in some cases a result of changes in proteins in the brain, and in others a result of vascular changes.
  • Brain tumours can result in major behavioural change.
  • Strokes can impair brain functions and result in significant behaviour changes.
  • Creuzfeld–Jacob disease leads to memory loss, a negative change in drive and hallucinations.
  • Crushing’s Syndrome may result in depression.
  • Epilepsy may result in schizoid-like symptoms, which can cause depression and significant behavioural changes.
  • Pick’s Disease is hereditary and can produce symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s.
  • Parkinson’s disease may result in dementia and depression.
  • Multiple Sclerosis can cause depression, mania-type symptoms and, in the later stages, symptoms similar to depression.
  • Huntingdon’s Chorea can cause changes in behaviour.

All these possible physical causes of changed psychological health emphasise how important it is to seek professional advice when you suspect mental health issues, particularly as a large number of psychological problems can be the result of

  • The misuse of alcohol
  • The use of non-prescribed drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or amphetamines.