Griffith grad raising mental health awareness in world of work and study

Ingrid Ozols
Griffith graduate Ingrid Ozols

A passion for improving mental health in the workplace has been the fuel behind the successful career of Griffith University graduate Ingrid Ozols.

The founder and managing director of Melbourne-based mental health service mh@work, Ingrid’s passion is in providing essential workplace mental health and training services.

Now EPIC, a not-for-profit disability employment service, is commencing a wide roll-out of the mh@work program including face-to-face Managing Mental Health in the Workplace workshops, with content created by Ms Ozols.

Uni Mental Health and Awareness Week

The move comes as Griffith gets ready to host its annual Uni Mental Health and Awareness Week (March 27-31) with events across its five campuses.

Ms Ozols completed a Masters of Suicidology with Griffith’s Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention in 2015 and wants to support employers to “be brave” by  removing the fear of employing people with mental health challenges and disabilities.

“There’s still a lot of stigma around mental health, and that’s just making things worse,” she says.

“We need to enable all employers to have conversations that they may find uncomfortable.

“Our goal is to change the culture of workplaces; to create organisations where it’s safe, it’s supportive and it’s OK to not always be OK.”

Ozols founded mh@work 16 years ago after identifying a prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace, but found no resources available to help those that needed them most.

“I’ve always been someone that people came to with deeply personal information, and the further involved in HR I became, the more time I spent listening to people’s problems.”

Ozols also has lived experience of mental health.

“All my life I’ve been living, loving and working with many people touched by mental illness. My late mother lived her life, especially during my childhood, in and out of psych hospitals.

“I was her carer from a young age, but we never talked about it. All I knew was she had ‘bad nerves’ and we had to walk on eggshells around her,” Ms Ozols remembers.

“I was diagnosed with a mental illness which first showed up when I was seven or eight. I’ve had thoughts of suicide, and did in fact try to kill myself several times when I was 18 or 19.

“As I went through university, having Bipolar Disorder was really, really difficult. I didn’t know what I was dealing with; I just thought I was weird.

“As my working life started, I understood this was quite common and a lot of people experience all sorts of mental illness, but we never talked about it and never knew what to do with it.”

Ms Ozols, who has been on the board of Mental Health Council of Australia,  and held leadership positions with RANZCP Supported Decision Making Committee and Wild at Heart, wants to put her knowledge to beneficial use.

“I took a lot of what I learnt back to the workplace because I knew they needed the help because of what I’d experienced.”

Reluctance to disclose

There remains a widespread reluctance for employees to disclose mental health issues which is having a detrimental impact not only on individuals, but on organisations more broadly.

“People are afraid to say ‘look, I have this vulnerability or that one’ because they’re scared they might lose their job, or be managed out of their job, or ignored.

Ms Ozols says there is also a need within the university sector for increased mental health services.

“There is a big need among universities with the stats showing around 45% of Australians experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and that our youth, especially young males are at greatest risk of suicide.

“There has been a rise in awareness but there is still so much to be done.”

Note: Parts of this story have already been published at www.probonoaustralia.com.au

University Mental Health & Wellbeing Week will be hosted on all Griffith University campuses from March 27-31.  The event aims to raise awareness of the mental health and wellbeing needs of those who study and work in higher education settings, providing well-being activities for both our staff and students.  The campus event programs can be found at: griffith.edu.au/mental-health-wellbeing-week