Breaking the Silence: Mental Health in the Workplace
Talking about mental health in our places of work is long overdue. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18 percent of Americans will experience anxiety or depression every year as a result of workplace stress. Of those, women are two-and-a-half times more likely than their male colleagues to experience these mental illnesses, meaning that there are at least 43.8 million people who suffer from mental illness in the United States alone, and a huge number of them are women. So, why don’t we talk about it?
I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder this year. Bipolar II disorder is a mental illness marked by cycling moods that alternate between highs (hypomania) and lows (depression). While I experienced both manic and depressive episodes throughout my postgraduate studies, I never would have thought I may have bipolar disorder. I had only ever heard the stigmas about what bipolar disorder meant—no real facts or information about bipolar disorders. I went undiagnosed for years, all because of the cultural stigmas we have around mental illness and the societal silence it creates.
I wasn’t alone in my misinformation about mental illness. No one in my community would have guessed I struggled with my emotional health, even if they saw my high anxiety, panic attacks, sleep deprivation, over-functioning and depression. For years, I kept pushing through storms of emotions and instability. Despite rolling waves of hopelessness, I refused to seek medical help or talk to my friends and family about what I was experiencing. I continued to go to work, spend time with friends and attend classes, all while hiding my feelings of extreme sadness. When depression mixed with anxiety, I started having crippling panic attacks, feeling like I wouldn’t ever be happy again. It took me experiencing five panic attacks (followed by suicidal fantasies) before I finally asked someone to refer me to a psychiatry office.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve become passionate about normalizing conversations about mental health. It took years to get my diagnosis. I can’t help but wonder: If we were more open about mental illness, how much sooner would I have found out? How many years would I have been spared? How much more time would I have had to invest in my work?
Emotional health impacts us all, and it’s something every working babe should be aware of. Here are seven ways you can prioritize mental health (yours and others’) every day.
1. Offer emotional support
Be there for those around you. Offer encouragement when you notice someone struggling with a project or deadline. Check in with people in your office who look like they might be stressed. Congratulate one another on the small victories as well as the big ones. Offer more positive feedback than critiques. I can’t tell you how important it was to me when my friends would offer appreciation for work I’d done, especially when I was struggling with depression and negative self-talk. I needed to hear someone say my vision worked, my photos were great or that they liked the piece I wrote. It’s up to us to help each other prioritize mental health, and that can start with affirmation and building one another up.
2. Communicate clearly and effectively
One of the biggest workplace stressors is failed communication between colleagues, supervisors and clients. I’ve had supervisors who didn’t engage with me at all, colleagues who would only talk when forced into a group setting and clients who wouldn’t share what they wanted but then got upset with the final product. I know how stressful it is for me—especially on a dark day—to try and bridge those gaps. As we focus on creating environments that allow for better mental health, we have to be proactive about the ways we communicate. Effective communication means establishing realistic standards for employees and voicing clear expectations for each other. Be direct and straightforward, encourage feedback and consider an open-door policy.
3. Lead with compassion
Many people experiencing mental illness can find it challenging to seek help or ask for the support they need. If someone is struggling to keep up, it’s OK to ask them if you can help. Even when a team member disappoints you, talk to them before judging them. Mental illness can be debilitating; you never know what someone might be experiencing.
4. Create a relaxing environment
If you have the resources and space, consider revamping your break room or home office. Make a calming space perfect for a 15 minute break. Include a yoga mat or a couch; design the dreamiest and coziest place anyone could feel at home in, whether that includes Anthropologie candles, floor pillows or obscene amounts of caffeine.
5. Leave the stress at work
When the workday ends, our minds keep going back and replaying negative interactions, projects that need to be completed or deadlines that are rapidly approaching. Work on establishing boundaries for yourself. When you leave the office, focus on enjoying your time outside, and not bringing anything else with you. Work should never get in the way of healthy habits, family time and self-care.
If you find yourself struggling with feeling anxious or upset at the end of the day, it might be time to evaluate whether you need to make some changes. A job that takes its toll on your mental wellbeing may not be worth the cost. If you can’t stop fixating on the stress of the day, question whether an investment in your happiness would be worth the burden of change.
6. Know emotions are OK
Culturally, we’re uncomfortable with anyone who isn’t peppy and happy-go-lucky all the time. Since we were children, we’ve been taught to expect happiness, which causes us to feel dissatisfied with anything but happiness. We’re uncomfortable with people who are experiencing sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, depression—and yet work is often the place that creates these feelings. Emotions exist on a spectrum, and we can’t expect positivity all the time from ourselves or others. Next time a coworker comes to you frazzled or upset, try to sit with them as they experience their authentic selves.
7. Normalize the conversation
Mental illness is normal: treat it as such. If you feel comfortable disclosing your experiences with mental illness, do it. If you haven’t experienced mental illness, don’t make individuals who have educate you on their diagnoses—that’s what Google is for. Listen without judgment and ask how you can support them. If you’re a supervisor or boss, make sure your office is stocked with posters and flyers about local psychiatry, counseling, psychotherapy offices and support groups. The more we acknowledge mental illness, both inside and outside of the workplace, the easier it becomes to reclaim the narrative and dissolve the stigmas.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are seeking support groups, use NAMI’s website to find a location, or call their hotline at 1-800-950-6264.
If you are thinking about suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Leslie Cox is a recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, where she studied the intersection of religion, justice, and sexuality. When she’s not advocating for mental health or pleasure-reading with a Lavender Latte in hand, you can find her orchestrating photo shoots, curating her LBGTQ blog, Love Les, or exploring Chattanooga with her girlfriend and rescue pup.