Date posted: 06/10/2017 4 min read

Managing mental health and work

Arthur Kirk FCA on managing his mental health issues while helping others struggling with mental health.

In brief

  • If not addressed, mental health can put promising young careers at risk.
  • Emotional health issues can lead to mental health issues.
  • There is a solution to mental health, but you have to be prepared to participate.

The stigma of mental illness leads many people to try to cover up mental health issues.

But not Brisbane-based Arthur Kirk FCA. Kirk has been dealing with mental health issues for most of his life both personally and through volunteer work with several organisations including Beyond Blue. Currently he is a community ambassador for The Top Blokes Foundation.

Now in the later part of a lengthy career that commenced with KPMG in Sydney, Kirk runs Intuit Advisory, a consultancy business and works predominantly with other accountants.

In conversation with Acuity digital editor Justin Grey, Kirk discusses his personal experience with managing mental health.

Managing mental health is an ongoing matter

Looking after my mental health has been a big part of my life, and it is to this day. It’s part and parcel of who I am. I've had to learn a lot about my mental health, to understand it and establish practices and tools to manage my health, with a particular focus on the mental and emotional aspects.

Mental health issues can come to the fore early in life

Looking back, I have always been prone to anxiety, worry, a level of nervousness and being unsettled and uncomfortable. From childhood, I've tried to deal with that through over-achieving to please others and help me feel as though I fit in. But no matter what I did and achieved, in my eyes it wasn't good enough. I was very self-conscious and suffered from low self-esteem.

Self-medicating isn’t the answer to mental health problems

In my teens I discovered alcohol and came to depend on it. It was liquid gold and my anxieties and concerns disappeared. As time went on I became addicted to alcohol, which impacted all aspects of my life and the people close to me.

My first major experience with depression was when I was at university. I didn't really know why I was there, had no connection with what I was meant to be studying and felt like a fish out of water. It hit really hard and I didn’t seem to have the capacity to be able to articulate that to anyone. My abuse of alcohol really started to ramp up.

Mental health can put promising young careers at risk

I went to Sydney to work with Peat Marwick, which is now KPMG, and my depression and alcohol abuse just got worse and worse. I recall one of my managers being really frustrated, pointing out that I had been absent from work for over 20 days in that year. I was 24 and his comment was, “mate, this is not normal”.

My mental health impacted my progression [within Peat Marwick] and affected my career.
Arthur Kirk FCA Managing Director, Intuit Advisory

It took me a long time to complete [my CA qualification]. I kept failing because I was drinking so much, including being drunk at exams. My mental health impacted my progression [within Peat Marwick] and affected my career. I was able to catch up once I got some help, but it certainly had a big impact on my career at that time.

I was at a total loss as to what was happening and my seeming inability to control or change the way I was living. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed medication. Anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thinking, mixed with huge amounts of alcohol were part of day-to-day life. I also made a few attempts at taking my life during this period.

Understanding is key to overcoming

Things came to a head when I was 29. For the first time, I acknowledged that I was in trouble and that drinking was destroying my life. I sought help, took alcohol out of the equation and started addressing the causes of my mental and emotional health challenges.

It’s been an ongoing journey of working hard to have a life that makes sense to me. My aim is to have a healthy mix of activities in my life and not being overly dependent on anyone or anything (eg work). In the past six years I have chosen to make big life changes as I want to have as many different experiences as I reasonably can – got to make up for my wasted 20s.

If I’m on the front foot and positive with my emotional health, then my mental health, by default, is always better. I’m also conscious that I need to stay in decent physical health. If I don't look after myself, it's quite frightening how quickly my mental health deteriorates – it can change significantly from day to day.

Raising awareness of mental health in the accounting profession

Over the past 27 years I have been extremely fortunate to have received understanding and help from many people. I want to try to do what I can to help support the message and the education around mental health.

Also, I enjoy mentoring and have been doing that formally and informally for many years, including the CA mentoring program. My experience with my personal journey has been invaluable because I can pretty much talk to anyone about anything, which has helped in addressing my own issues.

Mental health in the pre-retirement years

I have regular contact with many CA ANZ members who are in their late 50s and well into their 60s. They are still working, not because they really want to, but because they don’t know what they would otherwise do. For those in this situation, I suspect there is probably a fair degree of anxiety, and possibly depression, as a consequence.

These are important issues for that part of the membership and support for retirement planning should focus on both the business and personal aspects to get both the “before and after” making sense.

Help is there, but you have to ask for it

I almost went to the grave rather than tell someone that I had no idea what was going on. For people who are struggling, please try to find someone you can tell, because help is there.  

There is a solution, but you’ve got to be prepared to participate.
Arthur Kirk FCA, Managing Director, Intuit Advisory

Once I got to the point of putting my hand up and asked for help – and it was my wife who pushed me – it was amazing how quickly my life started to improve. I went from a state where everything was hopeless and there was no future, to going, “shit, maybe there is a way forward”. The help came in all different forms – medical, psychologists, my GP, mentors, and support through friends and family.

There is a solution, but you’ve got to be prepared to participate and have the courage to put your hand up and say you are hurting and ask for help.

Mental health and clients

Arthur Kirk believes that professionals should have sufficient awareness of mental health to support prudent and appropriate conversations with clients.

“As a trusted adviser, many of us are the first port of call for our clients and while it is clearly not the role of an accountant to attempt to be on the frontline of a client’s mental health issues we should at least be able to competently respond to someone who might need support.” 

He cautions accountants not to ignore mental health telltale signs. “If you observe someone displaying extremes of behaviour and emotions on a regular basis, there is most likely a problem.” 

These behaviours may include inconsistent and rash decisionmaking, excessive spending and other out of character behaviour. The way you approach these conversations is critical, according to Kirk. 

You must continue to step carefully
Arthur Kirk FCA Managing Director, Intuit Advisor

“I would preface any discussions about mental health with something like: ‘I’m concerned about you and how your business is performing, are you OK?’

“It is in the client’s court to give feedback or not. You must continue to step carefully.’’ 

If the client is open to continuing the discussion, Kirk recommends asking: “Have you talked about this with your partner, and might it be helpful to go and see your GP?”

Unless you, your business and employees are open and active around all aspects of health, you will be less able to support your clients in this regard, he says.

Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand has developed a new resource for members called CA Wellbeing. It provides resources and information to support mental health and wellbeing for our members. Click here to find resources for Australia and here for resources for New Zealand.