Colin Minto

Founding partner of Mental Health in Business and Big Idea Talent. Spent six years as group head of resourcing strategy and HR systems at G4S, the world’s second largest private employer!

Most people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are good at hiding it. For most of my career, nobody at work knew, nor did a lot of my friends. I’ve never taken a day off sick with a ‘mental health issue’. The symptoms and the suffering are bad enough, but to potentially be judged, labelled and treated differently could be what tips you over the edge.

I’ve had OCD since the age of 12, but it wasn’t diagnosed properly. At first, I was told I had general anxiety disorder. I went through drug therapy and psychotherapy, but both were wrong for me. I was 26 when I found a therapist who correctly diagnosed me, but it probably took until 33 to hit rock bottom. I was desperate and just didn’t feel I could carry on. From that point, there were only two ways I could have gone, and thankfully I decided I needed to fight it.

The first manifestation of my condition was a cleanliness issue. I had a fear of germs, particularly touching things – maybe touching a handle and then someone else getting the germs and dying and me being sent to prison. To a rational brain, that’s hard to understand, but from my perspective it’s very real.

Throughout my college years, I had all sorts of problems. I dropped biology because I couldn’t be in a lab. I opened doors with my elbow. I wouldn’t want to touch my file in case it had been near chemicals.

The fight or flight part of your brain – the bit that would kick in if someone pulled a knife on you – triggers in someone with OCD frequently as a reaction to mundane, everyday events. Some of the things I have obsessed about sound ludicrous to a rational brain, but to my OCD brain they are the end of the world. I’d be consumed for weeks and months at a time. Once the panic starts, it can escalate uncontrollably if it’s not checked.

My brain tells me to panic in the same way it tells me to breathe. For example, if I saw a knife I might worry I would stab someone and I’d perform all sorts of rituals to prove to myself I wasn’t capable of that. These compulsive activities compound the issue, because they make you believe there was something to worry about in the first place.

I have had to adjust my life to my illness. And it is an illness – the panic, the ruminations and the obsessions were all symptoms and I had to find strategies to tackle them. A coping strategy is to say to myself ‘move on’ and immerse myself in other things. Although I might be in deep panic, I have to try not to rise to it; I have had to retrain my brain. So the issue of not touching a handle because it might have catastrophic consequences can only be solved by doing it. It took a lot of intense work, and when I was 34 I believed I had it under control. But it isn’t curable, and controlling OCD is, quite simply, the hardest thing I have ever done.

I see benefits to my OCD. I can see on a page of writing, a half point-size difference between two letters. Typos jump off the page at me. I can analyse things and spot a risk a mile off. I’ve been told I think differently at work – I bring a different perspective to other people. In some ways, OCD helps me do my job better.

But then an old school friend took his own life because of what his mum described as his ‘demons inside’. That sent a shockwave through me. It made me think if that was to do with mental health and he could have surfaced it and got support, it could have been different.

In the last six months, I’ve begun to mention my OCD to people. I never want to be the victim or try to get sympathy or attention. But if I believe it’s appropriate to discuss it, I feel I can now. I’ve achieved a lot in life and business; I want to support bringing this subject out into the open. It’s one of the final unspoken areas of diversity and inclusivity.

Many people don’t understand OCD. I had to switch off the programme Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners. It portrayed OCD as comedic; ridiculing and finding humour in illnesses that cause some people to take their own lives. I hear people saying ‘that’s the OCD in me’ but they have no idea how challenging it is.

It was a problem for me not being open about my illness. I was exerting brainpower keeping it hidden that could have been used more productively. To be open and know people accept you for who you are – you build better relationships at work that way. Imagine if everyone was comfortable with everyone else’s challenges. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

It’s in my nature to worry about things and I am concerned that people might treat me differently or might not want to engage with me or hire me. But if that’s the case, that’s not the type of organisation or person I want to work with. I’ve accepted my condition and it’s part of who I am. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to start celebrating the fact they’ve got mental health challenges. But we could be more open and accepting that there are mental illnesses and help people adjust and cope with these – just as we do for physical challenges.

I want businesses to realise it doesn’t need to affect productivity and performance – on the contrary, if you support people, it could actually increase them. Difference is good and different ways of thinking are good. People who are different come up with different, sometimes better, solutions, and form better teams.

It would be great if, rather than assessing people against skill and experience sets alone, we could look at them as individuals. What makes you different? What a great question to ask and explore in detail in a recruitment process.

We need to show how people with mental health challenges can bring difference to bear on real world challenges. If not, we will leave the generations that follow to apologise after the fact for our behaviour.