I’ve never felt it necessary to shy away from sharing my experiences with clinical depression, but it’s also not something I generally bring up when making an introduction. Perhaps that’s because my bouts with depression were cast against a backdrop of what otherwise might seem like a pretty gosh darn good life – blessed with ample love and support of many family and friends, three healthy and well-adjusted children, a quality education, and ample financial resources to enjoy a comfortable life. By any measure, you’d think I have it pretty good.
And that’s part of the challenge.
When everything on the outside appears nearly perfect, and yet inside you’re feeling and experiencing extreme emotional and physical lows, depression and anxiety get compounded by the additional weight of guilt and confusion.
You think, ‘Why do I worry when I have less than nothing to be worried about? Why won’t my brain slow down so I can rest? Why can’t I physically do what’s expected of me – at work and at home? Why won’t these irrational and debilitating thoughts swirling in my head just stop? Why can’t I flip this thought pattern, and instead focus on all that is good and right in my life?’
When you’re in the midst of depression, all forms of rational thought get replaced by a made-up version that becomes a new reality: dread, fear, worry, and failure.
When depression has a hold on you, these are the emotions that you come to believe are your true self. In my experiences with depression, it was unexplainable, confusing, and impossible for me to make any sense of it.
The statistics around anxiety and depression in our society are staggering:
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older.
- An estimated 7.1% of adults in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Almost 75% of people with mental disorders remain untreated in developing countries with almost 1 million people taking their lives each year.
- According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 13 globally suffers from anxiety.
- Anxiety and depression are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
- People with an anxiety disorder are 3-5x more likely to go to the doctor and 6x more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
As I reflect on my life journey, I see the seeds of my depression were planted through my genetics, my highly motivated personality, and a series of unfortunate life events. Throughout my adolescence and early 20s, I vividly recall moments where coping with the daily ups and downs of life were challenging. As my career progressed, I recall how different stressors led to unusual and irrational reactions. But one certain experience brought it all to light for me, and it came in the form of a particularly difficult leader.
Being an HR professional, I’ve had the pleasure and pain of witnessing all sorts of leadership styles. This one individual I worked with had a style uniquely her own. Let’s just say she was a bad boss. She was everything you would not want in a leader: hypocritical, demanding beyond reason, uncompromising, and mean. The things I was expected to do and say, all on her behalf, went against everything I believed in.
I entered into this line of work to lift people up, to enable them to do their best work, and to help them find joy and meaning in their work.
Under this leader, I was expected to perform in ways that went against these values, and eventually, I buckled under the pressure and stress.
At first, I thought a week-long vacation would cure me. But when that vacation came and went, and the dread of returning to work re-emerged, I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t sleep as my mind raced – thinking of how I might escape my situation. Eventually, it became physical for me, with drastic and fast weight loss. I would just sit in my car preparing to drive to the office, but unable to bring myself to put it into gear. I couldn’t do it. Worry, guilt, and dread over how I would support my family came over me in waves, compounding the problem until it all became unbearable.
I needed to take a leave of absence to figure out what was happening to me, and how I could get it all under control. With the help of a doctor, I went on short-term disability. Eventually, we came to a mutual agreement that the role and the company was not a good fit for me. I was fortunate to have the resources and support of family and friends to take some time and figure things out.
Unfortunately, my relief from depression symptoms was temporary. Depression is sneaky.
Sometimes when you think you have things under control, and you’re back to feeling like yourself, you can be blindsided if you don’t stick to the plan.
Although I was relieved from the pressures and stress of corporate work, a few more curveballs were thrown my way and I started to see a reoccurrence of those symptoms all over again – the sleepless nights, the worrisome thoughts, the physical fatigue, the inability to think rationally. This bout was deeper and scarier. Despite all that was good and right in my life, I could not gain control over my irrational brain. The one common sense thought I could muster was that I needed to get help. Family, friends, and some extra focus on divine intervention once again were my saving graces.
I will always be grateful for access to medical insurance and care provided through the Affordable Care Act when I took a two-year break from corporate work to focus on a different professional passion. My treatment plan involved a carefully crafted recipe of out-patient hospitalization, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a monthly trip to the pharmacy. Eventually, and perhaps drastically, a family move to a new state for a job provided a fresh start and a healthier environment on which to build on.
Everyone has a story. You never know the personal battles being waged by that person you see across the way. Mental illness is real, and sadly, it’s prevalent.
And worst of all, it’s invisible. I’ve come to view my personal experience with mental illness as a gift that has taught to me to look at the world through a different lens. It’s helped me frame my priorities better. It’s taught me how to go through life looking for the good and leaving behind all the rest.
I’ve come to learn that we all can be teachers and influencers. One conversation, one interaction, or one decision can have huge ramifications and lasting impact. As I enter the second half of my life, I’m choosing to be a force for good. As a parent, a coach, and a consultant for Workhuman, I thrive when I’m able to embrace positivity, clarity, and connection. Making work more human isn’t just a saying for me, it’s part of my being.
World Mental Health Day provides us with a day of awareness and reflection on how we all carry a story of struggle. Compassion is one of those superpowers that is often in short supply. Let’s change that. You never know the impact that a simple act of kindness can have unless you try.
For more resources on how to support mental health in the workplace, visit: http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/
About the AuthorMore Content by David Stott, SHRM-SCP