According to the National Institute of Mental Health 16.2 million adults in the US experienced a major depressive episode in 2016, meaning 6.7% of the population. 46.2 million or 19.1% of adults in the US have experienced an anxiety disorder in the last year. As a result, somewhere between 46.2 and 62.4 million adults in the US experience mental illness in any given year. And that number doesn’t include other mental illnesses like personality disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia. For some people, the symptoms of their mental illness are present for a period of time and then pass. Other people’s symptoms are persistent and last a lifetime.
What’s obvious from these statistics is that mental illness is very common. Do you talk about problems with your mental health at work? Do your colleagues tell you they are in a serious depression, or having a hard time managing PTSD? The likely answer to both questions is no, yet it’s common to tell a coworker about a cold, or flu.
My Mental Health At Work
I’d always been puzzled by my performance at work. At times creativity flowed and I was able to stay focused for long periods of time and be extremely productive. Other days, I was able to get very little done, focus was hard and simple tasks took superhuman effort. I thought of myself as a mercurial talent, a little unpredictable and prone to flashes of genius and brilliance. I wished I could perform in the consistent way I’d observed in my friends and coworkers. But what I thought of as patchy performance didn’t hold my career back so I went with it.
In 2012 things started to change. I was working in a high pressure environment with a lot of responsibility. Work required making frequent long distance international trips and working often working into the night. While night work isn’t unusual for me, it had become the norm, not the exception. My behavior was becoming more unpredictable, increasingly irascible and my self-destructive tendencies were becoming more extreme. My mental health at work was suffering. One day I woke up in a hospital bed and realized something wasn’t right. So after shedding a lifetime’s worth of tears I put my attention on figuring out what was going on.
Getting On The Right Path
I connected with a counsellor. She helped me explore what was going on in my “highly capable and logical brain”. At least, that’s what I thought it was. We started in childhood and she connected me with some resources that helped me start to put my life into context. Things started getting better, I started training my mind to think of myself more positively, meditation helped and I started connecting with people in a different way.
Around Fall 2014 I reached peak “functional” and life was going well, but old thought patterns started to creep back in and as Fall turned to Winter things inside my head started to get very bleak. During a counselling session in which I refused to believe that my wife and partner of 17 years had ever loved me, the counsellor skillfully and with care suggested that there might be something else going on, suggesting I might have Dysthymia – a constant low level depression.
Yet again I was fortunate. Several of the psychiatrists he knew were retiring and it was getting hard to find a psychiatrist willing to take on patients, but he persisted and connected me with a psychiatrist who practices a balanced approach to managing mental health, including mental health at work.
A Diagnosis Changes Everything
It was a great relief when in December 2014 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2 Disorder. It explained why I’d always felt that I was “mercurial” at work and unable to perform in a consistent way that I’d observed in friends and coworkers. This also explained my periodic irascible moods and self-destructive behaviors.
For the last 4 years, I’ve lead a dual life. There is an outer person who is a very similar James to the one who has always shown up. When I’ve talked to friends and colleagues about my Bipolar Disorder, they’ve expressed surprise that I “seem so normal” and they’re shocked (and very supportive) to learn about the dark times and struggle I’ve been through. Then there is the inner person, who has been building a plan with tools and techniques to manage the swings from high to low, and their mental health at work.
Depression – and I’m told anxiety – are very isolating conditions. You’re trying to manage troubling thought patterns from within the same head that’s generating the patterns in the first place. Slowly, you become convinced that you’re on your own and no-one cares. When I started my team People Operations team at Socrata 2 years ago, I made a conscious choice to be “out” about my bipolar disorder. I didn’t want to phone in sick with a “headache” anymore. I wanted them to understand my occasionally unpredictable performance wasn’t about them.
I’m very grateful to Ashlee and Richard for their constant support over those two years, they’re both really terrific human beings. That said, I wasn’t ready to be out about my mental health at work to the company more broadly.
And A Memorial Service Convinced Me To Act
Then at the start of this year I attended the memorial service for a dear friend who we’ll call K. K lost her long battle with mental illness. What struck me about the memorial was the lopsided conversation we were having. We talked about the outgoing, vibrant and energetic young woman we’d lost. We didn’t talk about her struggle against mental illness that ultimately robbed her of her life. I respect K’s families decision not to bring mental illness into the service, but because of that we were missing the opportunity to tell 200 young people that it is OK to struggle, and that it is OK to ask for help.
Living with depression, anxiety or any other mental illness doesn’t and shouldn’t mean living on the fringes of society, or trapped inside your head. The sheer number of people diagnosed with a mental illness tells you that people on your street, in your grocery store and at your place of work are managing a mental illness, and that’s a conversation we need to start having, which brings us to Silent Superheroes.
What Is Silent Superheroes?
Silent Superheroes is a series of conversations about mental health at work with the people you work with everyday. A Silent Superhero has a mental illness that, like mine, is part of a secret identity. Silent Superheroes carefully manage an outward appearance that allows them to blend in, and when their mental illness manifests, they use their superhuman strength and focus to overcome great obstacles.
Through the Silent Superheroes podcast, you’ll meet your Silent Superhero colleagues for the first time, unmasked and unafraid to shine a light on their experience managing mental health at work. You’ll hear about a wide variety of mental illnesses, how they’re diagnosed, how they’re managed and treated, and what it feels like to be on the inside of the illness. You’ll also be learning about the superpowers bestowed on our Silent Superheroes by their illness. I hope that by having this conversation will help people like K feel less like a misunderstood outsider.