Thursday, 21 March 2013

"Misunderstood"

I hate the world today
You're so good to me
I know but I can't change
Tried to tell you
But you look at me like maybe
I'm an angel underneath
Innocent and sweet
Yesterday I cried
Must have been relieved to see
The softer side
I can understand how you'd be so confused
I don't envy you
I'm a little bit of everything
All rolled into one
 
"Bitch" song lyrics ~ Meredith Brooks

Ever feel like you just can't win? Ever feel like whatever you say or do is the absolute wrong thing? OK, now add mental illness: depression and anxiety in particular. Makes for a roller coaster of emotion and turmoil.

The reality for many of us with these illnesses is that navigating life and the day to day responsibilities of work and relationships can be hard. No, make that beyond hard.

Eighteen months ago I returned to work after experiencing a major depressive episode, one of the darkest chapters of my life. I was on short term disability leave from my job for about five months. It was hard to go through that time when I was away from work and away from my "life". But coming back to work was hard, too. Just in a different way.

I never hid the fact that I had experienced depression. I was open about that with my employer and my coworkers. But once back at work it was often difficult to just be me, the real me. Even though I knew on one level that depression is a disease and a valid illness, the doubting, insecure side of me felt like I had to prove myself. I felt like I had to show everyone that depression didn't make me less intelligent or less capable than any of my other colleagues. I had something to prove.

Quite simply, I overcompensated. Many days I was flying high. Maybe a bit manic but not necessarily suffering from mania - just a feeling that I had to be "up" and happy and reassuring that everything was just fine with me. Some days things were just fine and some days they weren't. And yes, there were some days that I just didn't have the energy to put up that happy, outgoing facade. Those were the days that I was able to fight the illness enough to at least make it out of bed and out of my apartment but mustering the strength to appear happy was impossible.

Because I had chosen to be open about my illness, I felt a responsibility to explain when I wasn't able to pretend. Luckily, I have a manager who is incredible - she has helped me along the path of recovery and held my hand as I felt my way back at work. I have always been able to be honest with her. For that, I am so incredibly grateful (and did I mention, lucky?).

The reaction from colleagues, however, has been mixed. Some have told me that I don't need to apologize for what I may be experiencing (thank you!). While others have expressed that my explanations for what I am experiencing are an excuse for behaviour that they view as less than appropriate. Ouch. That one hurt.

Behaviour. Now there is a word with negative and positive connotations. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Stewing over it, really. And that's not good. I am really writing this post so that I can think about this, express it, and then let it go. So here's what I have come up with...

Behaviour in someone who has depression or anxiety or really any mental illness is actually better defined as symptoms - symptoms of illness or disease. If you have diabetes and your blood sugar is low you may faint or feel lightheaded. If you have cancer you may have pains or perhaps nausea from treatment.

When I am experiencing anxiety I feel hot, claustrophobic, irritable, and I may snap at you. If I am depressed, I may be quieter than normal and teary. This is not bad behaviour - I am experiencing symptoms of my illness.

So here's where I can't win. If I don't explain or apologize for how I acted during an anxiety attack, for example, people may just think I am exhibiting bad behaviour. If I do explain, then people may think (and, apparently, have thought) that I am providing an excuse and getting away with acting badly. Guess what? In a perfect world I am always healthy , I never have to fight the darkness of depression or the strangle-hold of anxiety, and I am always happy, shiny & bright. In a perfect world.

As I write this I am reminded of a vow that I made to myself. That vow was to be honest and to fight against stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness. Part of that is not backing away. So I won't. I will try to let go of what other people may think of me and stay true to who I know myself to be - someone who is just trying to end each day a little bit stronger than when it started. And, in the end, I am the only person to whom I need to prove anything.

KB xo

P.S. Want to learn more about how to talk about mental illness in the workplace? Check out Partners For Mental Health's upcoming campaign called Not Myself Today at Work: http://www.notmyselftodayatwork.ca/home












 


Monday, 18 March 2013

"Non-Believers"


“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, 'There now, hang on, you'll get over it.' Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.”   ~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees

In my last post I spoke about attending the Canadian Mental Health Association's Bottom Line Conference on Mental Health in the Workplace. It was for me, an inspiring event. To be surrounded by people committed to learning about mental health issues was pretty wonderful.

Yes, there were many kindred souls in attendance but here is the surprising thing - there were some who were not exactly on board with the whole idea of mental illness as "illness". And they weren't really buying into the concept of workplace accommodation.

Surprise! At a conference focused on raising awareness about mental health issues impacting Canadian society and the workplace today, there were "non-believers". Hmm. I guess our insular community was just reminded as to why we were there after all.

I spent day two of the conference in an all day session called Advanced Strategies led by Laura Allen. The session was about how to have conversations about mental illness in the workplace. It's an important topic and not an easy one to address.

If you see an employee show up at work with a cast on a broken arm, it's pretty easy to have a conversation about it. If you think that someone you work with is suffering from a mental illness, well, that's a whole other kettle of fish.

As the participants in the room began to discuss the topic, I was surprised by some of the things that I heard. A shop steward from a large union said that employees having performance issues as a result of mental illness deserved a "slap upside of the head."

When discussing possible workplace accommodation scenarios for those returning to work, another participant said that other employees would want to "get depression" so that they could have it easy at work, too. "Get depression." Oh, boy. One thing that I can say with 100% certainty is that there is nothing easy about depression.

I have also had some interesting conversations with colleagues at work lately - some very open, honest conversations about their perceptions of me and of depression. I have heard some things that I am less than overjoyed about but here's the thing that I am happy about: we are talking.

I made a commitment to myself that I would be open and with that comes the good and the bad. The less that I shy away from tough conversations and the misconceptions and alternate opinions that others may have, the better for the conversation. And the better the conversation, the sooner we raise awareness of mental illness as illness, because that is what it is.

Back to the classroom and the conversations that we were having as a group. The number one concern amongst the group was fear: fear of starting these conversations, fear of not knowing what to say, and fear of not having the answers. Yes, it is scary to talk about mental illness but we can't keep shying away from it.

Make no mistake about it, mental illness is a huge cost both from an economic standpoint but also from a human standpoint. People die from depression just like they die from cancer. We cannot accept that.

So start talking, ask questions, and keep talking. Put your judgements and preconceived notions aside and listen, just listen. I bet we will all learn something.

KB xo

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

"Sick Not Weak"

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recently attended the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Bottom Line conference on mental illness and the workplace. For someone passionate about this topic, the conference was what a trip to Disneyland is to a child. I was overjoyed to be there, ready to lap up every word uttered by each and every presenter. I was ready to change the world with my new gained knowledge!

My employer was a sponsor of the conference and a fellow Human Resources colleague and I were chosen to attend. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with many like-minded souls and discuss a topic that is really one of the last social taboos in society - mental illness. Throw the workplace into the mix and we are really onto a hot topic.

The keynote speaker was Michael Landsberg, sports broadcaster and host of TSN's Off the Record. He was, in a word, energizing. In 2008 he suffered a major depressive episode while covering the Grey Cup. It wasn't until an interview with Canadian hockey great, Stephane Richer, however, that he went public with his struggle. For those of you unaware of who Richer is, he is a Canadian hockey legend who won the Stanley Cup twice in his career. Within a week of one of these victories, he tried to kill himself. Yes, even the greats, our sports heroes who seem to have the world at their feet, are not immune to the devastating impact of severe depression.

But back to Landsberg for a minute. It wasn't a conscious decision for him to "come out" about his fight with depression, nor had he been hiding it. He was simply trying to create a connection and some interesting conversation with Richer. To do this, he was using a commonality between the two of them. Well, the result was instantaneous and impactful. Almost immediately after the interview was broadcast he was inundated with positive email from viewers, most of them male. And we know that males, statistically, are less likely to talk about mental illness and seek help. He had made a huge impact without even meaning to do so.

Landsberg's key message, the one thing that he asked us to take away with us, is this: "Sick Not Weak." Quite simply, being depressed or diagnosed with mental illness is not weakness - it's illness. We often feel weak when suffering but that does not mean that we are weak of character. Big difference.

He spoke about what depression feels like, for him. One of his analogies in particular really resonated for me. He said that when he is depressed he wakes up and instantly knows that, no matter what, he will not feel joy on that particular day. If he were to win the lottery, he would be able to recognize that it is a good thing but he would not feel any joy about it. If you have never suffered depression, can you even imagine how that is possible? Well, it's possible.

He also spoke about the worry that many of us with chronic depression face. When you are well you are worried that the darkness will come back. When you are sick, you worry that you will never be well again.

Now, the conference was really about mental health in the workplace and Landsberg spoke about that as well. He said that even companies that are encouraging the conversation about mental health, still have a long way to go. For example, he works for Bell Canada, the organization that promotes Let's Talk Day each year. When colleagues at work speak to him about their mental health issues, it's still in a whispered conversation with that question at the end, "Will you please keep this a secret?"

So how do we make headway? How do we address the elephant in the room? We know that 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime. We also know that each day in Canada 500,000 of us will call in sick due to mental illness. Why are companies still ignoring this health and safety issue? I think it's because they don't quite know how or where to start. And maybe they are a little afraid of the topic.

Here's my answer: start simply. How about having some conversations about it? How about a ten minute conversation in a team meeting about mental health? How about sharing some resources? There are lots of free resources out there if you just look.

The Canadian Mental Health Association in British Columbia has a great program called Bounce Back. It's free with a doctor's referral and includes a DVD, a workbook, and a community coach. Did I mention that it's free? And an organization very close to my heart, Partners For Mental Health, will be launching a spring campaign called Not Myself Today at Work. The campaign will run from May to June and I'll have lots more information about that in upcoming posts - stay tuned!

During his speech, Landsberg posed a question to the room. He asked us to put our hand up if we believed that he was to be commended for speaking openly about his mental illness. Of course, hands shot up around the room. He disagreed with all of us who put a hand up. He feels that it's a responsibility. It's not about being brave - it's about doing what is right and what needs to be done. I agree. But, until more people stand up, we need to commend those who do. And remember, "Sick Not Weak."

KB xo
www.notmyselftodayatwork.ca

www.bouncebackbc.ca






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