Harpreet Chana tells Neil Trainis that a close brush with suicide four years ago prompted her to turn her life around and become a coach who specialises in mental health awareness...
About four years ago Harpreet Chana stood on a railway bridge and stared into the abyss.
“It was at that moment that I genuinely contemplated just ending it all and not having to hear the noise in my head. That was the point I realised how bad things were,” she says.
In the lounge of a hotel in Leicester Square, the pharmacist and certified professional coach who specialises in mental health awareness and has held a variety of senior national roles in pharmacy, recalls her struggle against depression and suicidal thoughts frankly and emotionally.
It was a dark period in her life yet it also marked a turning point for her. From somewhere, Harpreet found the strength to pull herself back from the brink of no return, confront her mental health problems and ask herself a pertinent question: why do many people working in the pharmacy industry who are wrestling with depression and the idea of taking their own lives not have access to support?
That realisation, coupled with her own encounter with mental illness, stirred her to do something about it. She wanted to use her experience to benefit others.
“The point is when you’re feeling like that, where do you go? A lot of organisations don’t have anywhere for you to go. Some people have employee system programmes but when you’re feeling very vulnerable, you’re not going to want to go to a complete stranger and say ‘oh by the way, I’m really struggling with depression.’
“There needs to be much more done around that signposting and having the right pathway internally and externally for referrals. I just don’t think that’s very good at the moment in our sector.
“I was handling it because I was going to a counsellor but sadly, it wasn’t enough and I did find myself stood on a local railway bridge near my house nearly four years ago.”
Working with coach was game-changer
Harpreet pauses momentarily, pondering what stopped her from jumping off that bridge.
“My family. My husband and my son stopped me. My son even more than my husband, not to say that he didn’t (stop me) but in my head...when people talk about why do people kill themselves, I can tell you what goes through your head.
“I can tell you from first-hand experience what you tell yourself and what I told myself was ‘oh, my husband can remarry. He’ll marry someone better. I’m no good.’
“And that’s the problem. It all came back to, generally, you are telling yourself you are no good in some way, whether it’s ‘I’m a failure,’ whether it’s ‘I can’t do this, I can’t cope, I’m not good enough,’ it always comes back to ‘I’m not good enough.’ That’s what it was for me.
“And then it was my son. I thought ‘my son can have a mum who’s better than me.’ And it was that thought of my son that pulled me back. But I genuinely considered it. I would’ve just climbed over. It’s a known suicide spot.
“Thankfully, I walked to the other side and called my husband who told me to ring my counsellor. At that point, I took (antidepressant) tablets and I started cognitive CBT therapy which was great and the real game-changer for me was when I started working with the coach.”
The coach, Harpreet reveals, was a mindset coach who gave her something she did not think counsellors and therapists could: the chance to move forward with her life.
“I went to an event in February 2017 and it was like somebody had slapped me awake and gone ‘you do realise that you’re in control here? That all this is in your head?’ I don’t think I’ve been the same person since that event. It was that wake-up call I needed.
“From then, I started to work with a mindset coach and I realised what things in my life were the cause of my pain, so I started to rectify them. By April 2017, I was off the tablets.
“That’s the thing about a coach. Therapists and counsellors are really good at making you understand what the cause is and why you are the way you are. But I knew why I was the way I was.
“I wanted to move, I didn’t want to do that any more, I didn’t want to think like that any more and the coach got me to move because effectively, they get you to where you want to go and they hold your hand the whole way.”
She insists her encounter with her mindset coach was “so powerful” that she decided to train to become a coach.
“I started my training in March 2018. Coaching is a discipline. It’s not a regulated profession. I could literally do an online course for an hour and say ‘yep, I’m a coach.’ And a lot of people call themselves a life coach.
“The discipline I did was a year-long, it was very rigorous and it covers three different disciplines. It covers psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and NLP, neuro-linguistic programming.
“So it kind of brings the three of them together and focuses on the client. There are different coaching disciplines that do different things.”
Coaching is keeping Harpreet busy. She insists she is “working with a number of different types of organisations within pharmacy,” although disappointingly reveals some organisations have not been interested in what she has to offer.
“I’m passionate about mental health within pharmacy because of my own background and my own experience,” she says.
“I’ve worked with people one-to-one where they have been managers or owners and pharmacists and on an organisational level and at LPC level as well.
“In addition to that, I’m working quite closely with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS). But I’ve met with varying responses from different organisations. Some are really proactive and are absolutely all about doing the best by their employees.
“Some organisations have said ‘we’re absolutely interested, maybe not right now, but we will definitely do something with you.’ I’ve also had organisations that have said to me ‘we can’t afford it, sorry. We don’t have money for training.’
“(There) are pharmacy organisations that aren’t interested. They’re either saying ‘Pharmacist Support is there, that’s what they do’ or ‘there’s no money for training.’”
Risk of burnout
Harpreet, who suggests Pharmacist Support “has done amazing work in the last four years in increasing their visibility and presence,” is concerned that many people working in pharmacy are at risk of burnout.
Some organisations, she says, are “washing their hands of it a little bit.” That could have repercussions for patients.
“Because mental health first aid (MHFA) is so prominent at the moment and a lot of people are doing MHFA, not that there’s a legal requirement to do that but they have to be seen to be doing something proactive and having a procedure in place, what a lot of companies are doing is sending a couple of employees on to these courses, ticking the box and ‘oh yeah, that’s mental health done.’
“But it’s not. It’s not enough. You only need to look at the two surveys last year, the RPS one and the Pharmacist Support one. This is massive.
“We’ve got 80 per cent of respondents at high or very high risk of burnout. We had 60 per cent of respondents who are struggling with stress at work or having a mental health impact at work and yet organisations are washing their hands of it a little bit and saying ‘it’s not our problem, what can we do about it? We’re looking to the NHS to provide something for the pharmacists.’
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be looking for a national mental health service but that’s just one part of it. There’s so much more that is feeding into and I call it a crisis because it is a crisis. And yet there’s very little action.”
A dysfunctional system
For Harpreet, pharmacists and other members of the pharmacy team in need of mental health support often get lost in a dysfunctional system.
“Most pharmacists, especially on the ground, are isolated, they work long hours, they’re on their own more often than not, they’re the ones who are the manager and the pharmacist so they have all the clinical and operational responsibility. Who are they going to talk to?
“They can talk to their regional manager if they want to. The first place I (worked) was owned by an independent group and it was owned by a chap who had five (pharmacies).
“He ran one of the stores, he was the superintendent for the whole group and he didn’t have time. Even if I had called him, what would he have done?
“What can the GP do? The GP has 10 minutes to see you. You can sit there and break down and they will say ‘right, here’s a prescription for some antidepressants and we’ll stick you on a waiting list for therapy but it’s going to take so long because it’s an epidemic out there, so you’re better off just finding your own.’ That’s the reality, that’s what people get told.”
Something burned away within Harpreet to do more. In January last year, she established the Mental Wealth Academy that gives, not only the pharmacy workforce but professionals in other industries, leadership skills and the confidence to take control of their thoughts and emotions to prevent mental health problems.
She has gone on record as saying that, through the Academy, the desire is “to create more mentally positive and stimulating work environments that encourage openness and honesty around mental health.”
Difficult for men to open up
“I know that for every person who speaks to me, there’s probably three or four who don’t. And I have to say, a lot of men don’t. Suicide is the biggest killer of men from the age of 20 to 49 in this country.
“I think it’s really difficult for men to come forward in this day and age and say ‘I’m struggling with my mental health.’”
Harpreet says the Academy offers face-to-face and online support depending on what the client wants and she is also in the process of launching an online leadership development programme - “it’s like group coaching and learning, it’s like an online virtual classroom where I’m teaching, training, coaching,” she says enthusiastically.
“A lot of (the Academy’s support) is online and the reason is so I can record it and you can have it afterwards. The way we interact is changing and everything doesn’t have to be face-to-face.
“And I find that with some of the stuff we talk about, it’s quite difficult for the other person to open up and really be vulnerable with somebody you don’t necessarily know very well.
“That’s not to say that therapy doesn’t work, it has its place. Coaching is different. The reason I became a coach is because, having gone through my own personal struggles with depression... at the time, I went to the GP, the GP offered me antidepressants and I said no, knowing exactly how they work.
“He said ‘ok, we can put you on a waiting list for therapy.’ So I did that. It took me nine months to get the right assessment. They referred me to the wrong team, so I waited again, saw the other team and had a telephone interview.
“And by the time I’d come through the whole process, nine months had passed and then they said ‘the type of counselling you need, there’s a three-year waiting list, so you’re better off just paying for it.’
“The whole point of going through this assessment is so they have an idea what the problem is and what kind if counselling you need and they match you to the relevant counsellor.
“When I was going out and paying for it, I didn’t know what I was looking for. They’d given me a couple of numbers and I went with one of the numbers.
“I saw for some time that she wasn’t great and looking back, I probably should’ve cancelled it a lot sooner but I didn’t know any better at the time. And this is the problem. How many other people are getting caught like this?
“Then I started with somebody else but sadly, once you start on that negative spiral, it’s very, very difficult to pull yourself out of it, particularly if that trigger or cause is still prominent in your life. It’s very difficult to just switch it off even with counselling, even with therapy.”
Harpreet is asked if practising pharmacists who contact the Academy are suicidal.
“Yes. Not many. The problem is, they’ve got to have access to you, they’ve got to know what you do. I’m very much at the start of my journey in this.
“Some people know who I am and what I’m about but for the majority of pharmacists on the ground, they probably haven’t got a clue that I even exist. I bet you if I suddenly went out there and people knew who I was, I’d get more calls.”
She agrees there is a public perception that pharmacists, as healthcare professionals, are almost immune from mental health problems.
“They are so busy dispensing the tablets for everybody else’s sickness, who dispenses the tablets that we need to be well at work every single day?
“Pharmacists are a strange breed of people. There are certain personality characteristics that we have as a collective. I’m not saying everybody but we generally tend to be perfectionists because we have to be by our very nature.
“We generally tend to like things a certain way. We struggle to let go of that control because it’s our licence, because it’s our name and we want to make sure we have a handle on everything that’s going on in the dispensary.
“But the reality is as the workload and pressures increase, you can’t possibly have a finger on everything that’s going on in the dispensary. You’ve got to let go at some stage.”