Anxiety, depression, substance misuse and suicidal ideation are all on the rise in the U.S. Workplace leaders are in a unique position to stem the tide and reverse this killer trend.
Generally, anxiety is often thought of as excessive worry and fear about the future while depression is usually connected to hopelessness and excessive rumination about the past. On their own, either mental health condition is mentally debilitating and has severe negative impacts on your ‘present-day’ thoughts, feelings, actions and emotions.
But, anxiety and depression often come as a package-deal, doubling the weight of two already-crushing mental health conditions. That’s where I was in 2016, and I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if one conversation with my leader hadn’t happened when it did. This is that story.
WHAT MADE MY LEADER HOP ON A PLANE JUST TO CHECK ON ME AND MY MENTAL HEALTH
In 2016, I was 7 years sober but sobriety hadn’t made my life better or easier. In fact, it made it so much harder. Anxiety and depression were now in complete control of my every thought, feeling, action and emotion.
Despite this, I powered through at work and stayed on top of my game like the “true professional” I thought myself to be. But one day, a particularly observant and caring leader noticed subtle signs I was displaying in the workplace that caused her concern.
I had started to withdraw from conversations I would normally have been a huge part of. My ideas were still great, but just not as “out-of-the-box” as my leader had seen before.
Now, I was still meeting goals and even over-delivering at my job, but something was just … different. This leader noticed.
One day, she flew from NJ to Boston to spend the day with me, to check in. We found a quiet, private space and she asked me to be honest about how I was feeling. She asked me what was really going on “behind my mask of high performance.”
I shared everything with her that day.
She leaned forward, looked me in the eyes and said, “Kim – how have you been functioning at such high levels while dealing with so many mental health issues?”
We talked, we cried, we hugged and we laughed. At the end of the conversation, she told me to take some time off. I had been over-delivering on goals and she wanted to recognize that. She gave me permission to take time for me.
My leader held a safe space for me that day, creating a container of safety that allowed me to feel comfortable opening up.
For the first time since I could remember, I didn’t think about this conversation or my personal struggle costing me my job. I didn’t think about losing respect or status. I just thought about how safe it felt to finally let this out.
WHAT MY OWN EXPERIENCE WITH MENTAL WELLNESS HAS TAUGHT ME
I used the time off my leader offered me to figure out my next steps with more clarity and calm than I had experienced in years. Because of her, I now realized it was ok that I wasn’t ok. My life would not fall apart if I got help for how I was feeling. In fact, it became clear my life would very likely fall apart if I didn’t take steps towards mental wellness. The way I was living was fast-becoming unsustainable.
Today, I speak from a personal perspective because of my lived experience. But my experience is not unique. Surrounded by people – colleagues, friends, family – I ultimately felt totally alone during my darkest years. Now I know that feeling is not unique, either.
According to Mental Health America, more than half of adults with a mental illness don’t receive treatment. That number equates to 27 million adults in the U.S. who are going untreated.
There are so many reasons not to seek medical treatment for mental health disorders, many of which are connected to stigma. However, that doesn’t mean that people don’t seek other ways to “manage” their mental health. Many turn to substance misuse, just like I did before I became sober.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost one third of American adults living with mental health disorders also experience substance misuse as of 2020.
In hard numbers, that’s 17 million people who are struggling with both mental wellness and substance misuse… Seventeen million people who feel like they are alone in their struggle and tried to manage it on their own, just like I did.
COVID-19: PILING ON THE MENTAL HEALTH STRESSORS
We can’t talk about mental health today without talking about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health struggles and kick-started new ones in people who had never previously experienced mental health challenges.
But even before the pandemic, the State of Mental Health In America report highlighted some unsettling trends:
- The percentage of adults with a mental illness who report unmet need for treatment has increased every year since 2011.
- Rates of substance use are increasing for youth and adults, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The national rate of suicidal ideation continues to increase among adults in the U.S., with rates increasing every year since 2011-2012.
- Mood disorders are the most common cause of hospitalization for all people in the U.S. under age 45 (after excluding hospitalization relating to pregnancy and birth)
Reported symptoms of anxiety disorder were about three times higher in June 2020 than those reported in the second quarter of 2019. Symptoms of depressive disorder were about four times higher for the same comparative period (you can find the full CDC report here).
Once you include the effects of the pandemic on mental health in America, you have even more reason to reach out and check in with your colleagues and employees with care, empathy and support, just like my brave leader did.
A WORKPLACE THAT SUPPORTS MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS MUST BE THE NORM, NOT THE EXCEPTION
So, if you take one thing away from this story, let it be this: Instead of shaming, let’s praise people and celebrate their decision to seek treatment (that works for them) to address their mental health.
I also praise my brave leader who saw the signs, took action, opened a safe conversation, and allowed me to speak openly about my mental health.
She saved my life.
We spend a lot of our time in the workplace–most of our waking weekday hours, in fact. Do you or your workplace leaders feel prepared to see the signs and open a safe conversation about mental health in the workplace?
Are you fostering positive language around mental health and creating safe spaces for people to work and converse? It’s ok if you’re not sure… it’s not ok to not be sure and do nothing to change it.
Reach out for more information about how to bring The 4 Pillars of Creating and Maintaining A Mentally Healthy Workplace Culture to your team.
You are invited to schedule a consult to learn how to shift the dialog about mental health and create a mentally healthy workplace culture where everyone feels safe asking for help.