14 Sep 2021
by Dr Jonathan Downie

The elephant in the room

Written by Jonathan Downie 
It’s time  we stopped ignoring mental health issues, says Jonathan Downie.  Because whether or not we acknowledge the elephant, it’s definitely with  us

It was about 8pm. I had just finished a long interpreting day. I was tired, but no more than 

after a usual day of interpreting: the extended breaks had helped with that. Nothing in the day had been too technically demanding, except for jumping in and out of three interpreting modes. Yet despite the breaks, despite working with a good boothmate, despite working in a subject I knew inside out, at that very moment I was numb – sitting staring at a computer screen with almost no real thinking going on at all.

Perhaps you might recognise the feeling. Maybe you’ve done several traumatic medical assignments back to back, and now you hardly even have the mental strength to get dinner. Or you might be sitting in your pyjamas desperately needing a break from endless, fruitless attempts to win new clients and keep your current ones. You have bills to pay and requirements to meet, but right now, you just can’t handle any of that. You struggle with sleep or with enjoying anything, since everything seems too hard.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our professions have a problem with mental health, and this isn’t going to get better on its own.

A threat to so many of us

The saddest thing about mental health issues is that people with them can often feel alone. But over just the last few months, I have read about colleagues struggling to deal with the mental health effects of having to leave the country because of 

immigration rules or economic changes, colleagues trying to work out how to keep translating while dealing with personal or family health issues, and a colleague suffering social media bullying. In fact mental health issues pose at least as much of a problem as the march of machine translation – and are a much more immediate risk.

We need to talk and change

My only qualifications for writing about this are a vague familiarity with the research, an excellent Troublesome Terps episode where we interviewed mental health nursing lecturer Justine Mason, and the experience of three episodes of work- related poor mental health. What I do know, however, is how hard it can be to talk about these problems, yet how necessary it can be to get help. The story I told at the start of this article really happened to me on a recent interpreting assignment after a full day working in three different interpreting modes, interpreting policy discussions and stories of the real-life impact of migration. One particular story that I had interpreted had triggered it, but knowing the trigger didn’t help that much.

The only thing that did help was that I managed to remember what had worked the previous time I had interpreted traumatic content and how I had managed to recover from the psychological trauma of being involved in a serious car accident. I knew that, while my brain was telling me to just sit staring into space, finding someone to talk to was what I needed to help me heal.

That time, I was very glad to be able to call my wife and kids and to have a written conversation with a mental health expert that I knew. Just being able to hear their voices and to be reassured by an expert that what I was feeling was normal went a long way towards my getting to the point where, eventually, I could muster the strength to get changed and drop into bed.

Honestly, compared with the issues some interpreters face, that was pretty minor. But it did teach me a lesson. We need to normalise the process of speaking to each other and to experts about mental health issues. We need to openly say that no one will be stigmatised or victimised for reaching out to get help. We need to not be too busy to respond to cries for help.

We certainly need to ditch the attitude I once encountered from one interpreter, who responded to my confession that I’d struggled with the content of one speech by telling me to ‘man up’. If being professional means treating clients with respect, it has to mean treating each other with respect too. If it means being careful with client information, it also has to mean being careful and caring towards each other.

We need an attitude shift that leads to each of us publicly becoming more aware of what we lay people can do to help each other. We need a shift that opens people up to sharing their stories, without fear of reprisals or being shunned. We need to quench bravado and diva culture and replace them with a culture that makes it normal and expected for us to look out for each other.

Support before a crisis

As well as making sure that we have the right attitude to mental health, we also need to look at what we can do about ongoing support. It’s one thing to make sure that people can get help after they have suffered a traumatic situation; it’s quite another to provide the support so they are ready for one coming.

I recently had the pleasure of working on a research and work project alongside trained professional supervisor Dr Jules Dickinson. Jules decided to get trained in the type of  supervision regularly used among medical professionals. Applied to interpreters, it helps us to work on our emotional resilience, ethical decision-making and self-awareness. Having seen the impact it can have, I am now a huge fan.

Often, we wait until a crisis hits and then suddenly put together a strategy. What if we turned things round and realised that mental health issues are already a pressing issue in interpreting, in the same way as acoustic shock, the need for physical exercise, and Brexit? How many of us are happy to talk about what we are doing to keep our mental health on the right lines or what strategies we have for building emotional resilience?

It’s up to all of us to act

Often, the solutions to the problems we see are most effective if carried out locally. I would love to see regional groups respond to this by inviting a professional supervisor or 

mental health nurse or therapist to their events to talk about mental health. Sure, it’s great to get a group member who is into yoga or mindfulness, but it’s even better to ask someone who has made their career in mental health.

Perhaps a few of us might want to start a network for people to discuss mental health and to access peer support. Perhaps some people might want to blog about their experiences and what helped them. Perhaps there might even be people reading this who want to go as far as getting formal training themselves, so they can help others.

One thing is for sure, we won’t tackle this issue on our own or by waiting for someone else to do something. Perhaps you can share your story, or work on your active listening  skills or even just offer some time to support interpreters and translators who are struggling. Mental health affects us all, so we all need to work together.

This article first appeared in the January/February edition of ITI Bulletin

Authors

Dr Jonathan Downie

Dr Jonathan Downie

Dr Jonathan Downie is a conference intepreter (FR>EN), writer, speaker and researcher. His first book, Being a Successful Interprter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, was published by Routledge in 2016, and his second, Interpreters vs Machines: can interpreters survive in an AI-dominated world? is out now. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and five children.