Daniel O'Mahony and Michal Sikora are the co-founders of Da Silly Heads, an advocacy-based social enterprise that wants to put a human face on mental health, especially in the workplace.
Both men have been through experiences that challenged their mental health in different ways and felt strongly that the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be replaced with a caring attitude that combines understanding with a sense of fun.
The Cork-based founders met while studying for business degrees as mature students at Munster Technological University. What started out as a project in 2018 subsequently grew legs and was launched as a small business in 2020.
A key component of their business is workshops for corporates which are designed to inform, educate and bring mental health out of the closet at work.
Da Silly Heads refers to the company’s family of cartoon characters, each of which represents a specific mental health condition, such as anxiety and depression. The idea behind using the characters is to externalise the conditions to make them easier to understand and deal with while adding a touch of humour.
“I had been through the Irish public mental health system over a long period of time and I felt it was doing very little to help me overcome my particular ‘silly heads’. This motivated me to come up with a concept that would engage everybody who supports the fight against mental health stigma,” O’Mahony says.
Stigma, negative attitudes, stereotyping and discrimination – by employers, family members and society at large – can all exacerbate mental health difficulties and make it harder for those affected to recover.
Additionally, those with long-term mental health problems are the least likely of any group with an ongoing health condition to find work.
At the last official count (2016), 18.5 per cent of the Irish population was recorded as having a mental health problem ranging from depression and anxiety to bipolar and substance use disorders. Research from Mental Health Ireland in 2018 showed that women generally have a lower wellbeing score than men and younger people are more affected than those who are older.
More recent research (November 2020) by Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, found that as a result of the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions, approximately one person in every five in the general Irish population has significantly increased levels of psychological distress. Particular risk factors include being female and living alone.
Prof Kelly’s study also draws attention to the potential mental health consequences for those who have been ill with Covid.
“Infection with Covid-19 affects both physical and mental health,” he says.
“Past experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) backs this up. Among patients hospitalised with SARS in Hong Kong in 2003, 59 per cent fulfilled criteria for mental illness 30 months later – mostly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Emerging evidence across several studies suggests increased levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms among people who test positive for Covid-19.”
O’Mahony believes that most employers do not realise or recognise the scale of the mental health problem within their workforces. “We are only seeing the ‘official’ figures as in those who are counted because they come for help. We believe the real figure is much higher,” he says.
“Secondly, the figures we have are for pre-Covid. Given the known impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health, especially for younger age groups, it would not be unreasonable to assume that those numbers have increased significantly.
“If mental illness is having an impact on your daily life then it is having an impact on your working life,” O’Mahony adds. “Despite this, a lot people find it difficult to start a conversation around mental health, especially in the workplace because they don’t know what the reaction or response may be.
“Our workshops are based on our lived experience, interlinked with animation and storytelling. The aim is to make those attending more aware of those around them who may be having mental health issues and to make those who are experiencing problems more confident about advocating on their own behalf or on behalf of a loved one.”
O’Mahony says companies often start by running a session for managers before rolling it out to other employees. For some companies, the workshops fall under their employee wellness programmes. For others, it’s part of their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Mindful of people’s busy schedules, the Da Silly Heads workshops only last an hour, with the possibility of a Q&A session afterwards if people have time. The company follows up with an advocacy booklet and gently encourages employees to exercise mental health self-care and to implement subtle changes in the workplace that can make a huge difference to those experiencing distress.
To drum home the message that mental health needs to be out in the open, Da Silly Heads has designed a range of “advocacy apparel” – things people can wear to express their solidarity in an obvious way.
The big seller is the company’s bobble hat with its distinctive logo. “The products are vital in our our quest to promote visual mental health advocacy across communities,” O’Mahony says. “If someone wears one of our hats, for example, they are expressing their support for mental health advocacy as a whole, but it’s also a way of expressing their personal empathy with a friend, colleague or family member.”