Opinion:We need to talk about mental illness in our industry
I first found out that my daughter had depression and anxiety during a family vacation two years ago. There we were, thinking we had the parenting thing somewhat under control, without a clue about what was really going on in our oldest child’s head.
That’s the deal with mental illnesses. The signs can be hard to spot. In fact, nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness and the ratios may be even higher for the creatively minded. That’s us. That’s our industry. We need to do more to support one another. We need to become better coworkers and supervisors.
The struggle is hidden, but real
At the same time my family has been on this journey, I’ve learned about the personal struggles of many of my colleagues and how they cope at work and in life when their symptoms grab hold of them. Chances are, one or more people on your team lives with a lifelong mental illness. Because of the cultural stigma, embarrassment, guilt and shame associated with their condition, they might also be going to great lengths to hide it. So be compassionate.
As a communications industry, we need to communicate better
The No. 1 thing we can do is create environments that reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It begins at the leadership level. Direct employees to your benefits for psychotherapy, prescriptions, mental health days and anything else you offer. Build a culture of transparency by bringing in outside experts and facilitating conversations at the agency level. This will help create a safe zone for open dialogue and increase employee trust.
Speaking of communications, words matter
I’m as guilty as anyone of casually throwing around words like anxiety, depression, bipolar, psychotic, OCD and PTSD. Don’t stop expressing how you feel, but be careful of your use of clinical terms. You don’t want to minimize the severity of a coworker’s actual disorder or compound their guilt, shame or symptoms.
Start seeing the subtle signs
The symptoms of mental illness are unique to each individual. But if you know a coworker well, they may show subtle signs that they’re struggling, such as being more withdrawn, irritable, fatigued, having trouble focusing or acting out of character. This would be a good time for reaching out and asking them how you might help or simply letting them know you have their back.
Listening can be a powerful act
You can’t go around the office asking your peers if they’re suffering from a mental illness, but you can be available if someone opens up to you. If it happens, try not to jump into problem-solving mode. Rather, remain even-keeled and just listen. The simplest response, such as, “I hear ya and that sucks,” can be validating and surprisingly powerful. But if you feel things might be more serious, help them be safe. Offer to take them to the hospital or contact a loved one. In addition to HR, there are many resources available in a moment of crisis.
Appreciate, but don’t label
A person with a mood disorder doesn’t want to be defined by it. When you talk to them, don’t just ask about their illness. When you talk about them, don’t just describe someone with an illness. Engage with the whole person. It’s that simple.
A disorder is not a sign of weakness. It’s a show of strength
I can’t imagine coming to work every day with the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Those that do must tap into their coping skills and power through—without us knowing how much energy it takes to do so. If that isn’t brute strength, I don’t know what is.
You might also consider: ensuring that your health plans cover initial therapy visits; using Mental Health Month to spark a dialogue; creating a space where staff can decompress and recharge; teaching managers that employees with mood disorders can be high-performers; and granting last-minute paid time off, or working from home, when an employee needs it.
The more we talk about mental illnesses, the better we’ll understand our peers. And the better we understand our peers, the more likely they will feel accepted and be successful.