Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"Fight or Flight"

"A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety." ~ Aesop
I have experienced something new. Or, perhaps, I just recognize it now for what it is: anxiety.
I am well acquainted with my old nemesis, depression. After many years of battle I understand it to be the enemy that it is. I am quick to recognize the clothes it wears and I can see it out of the corner of my eye, as it begins to sneak back to lay it's claim on my life. As for it's partner in crime, anxiety? Well, that's been trickier to spot.
I am currently recovering from what I now understand to be a combination of these two illnesses. At first I thought it was just (I can't believe that I am saying "just") depression. But I knew that this time around the block was a bit different.

But what is anxiety? And what is the difference between everyday stress & anxiety and illness? Good question (!) - I wanted to know so I did a little research...

Anxiety is the natural evolution of our fight or flight response. When we were all cave people and Pterodactyls were a real threat, the fight or flight instinct probably saved a few of us. Simply put, a little anxiety can keep us safe from danger. It's when the symptoms of anxiety are prolonged, severe, and disruptive to your life that it could be considered an anxiety disorder.

There are a few different types of anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive compulsive disorder, to name a few. Some of the symptoms of anxiety, depending on the type of disorder, are as follows:
  • Racing pulse, heart palpitations, possibly even chest pain
  • Shortness of breath, panting, dry mouth
  • Blushing
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Trembling, shaking, muscle tension
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes and sweating, or chills
  • Difficulties with sleep
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Restlessness/edginess/irritability
I have to admit that when I first read through this list I was surprised - I had been experiencing almost all of them for about the last six months. The last two months is when they became considerably disruptive to my life.

It is very common for depression and anxiety to work in tandem to make a person's life super unpleasant, to say the least. After overcoming my initial shock over the extent that anxiety was impacting my life, I took some time to reflect. I realized that anxiety has been there all along, just letting depression get all the glory.

Well guess what anxiety? I see you now and I recognize you for what you are. If depression couldn't take me down and out for the count then neither can you. And do you know why? Because I understand. Education is one of the most powerful tools in my mental health tool kit and I refuse to be uneducated and unempowered in this fight.

Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten
~ Natasha Bedingfield

Today things took a turn for me. Well, really, they have been turning ever so slowly for a few days now. But today was the day when I could literally and figuratively see the sunshine and the blue sky before me. That is thanks to my doctor, new medication, my support network, a new wellness plan, and time.

The road of life is never smooth - I have certainly learnt that lesson more than once. But every time that I have come to a crossroad or a bump (or serious road work!), I seem to have come out a bit stronger and with my positivity intact.

Anxiety is simply another crossroad in my life. The rest is still unwritten...

KB xo

P.S. To learn more about anxiety disorders please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association's website.

P.P.S. For a little inspiration, here is Natasha Bedingfield and her song "Unwritten"

Monday, 22 April 2013


“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
    Stephen Fry
Why do people undervalue and underestimate the power of a small gesture of kindness? How come we can't seem to find a moment or two in our busy lives to let someone that we care about know just that - that we care?
One of the wonderful benefits of being open about my diagnosis of depression and building strong social networks is that I get support from some really wonderful people.: family, friends, work colleagues, and my Partners For Mental Health community. 
By its very nature, depression is isolating. It pulls you away from "life" - your hobbies, your work, your friends & family. Depression wants you all to himself, just the two of you, suffering in painful darkness, all alone. Social connection can literally be a lifeline.
If you build a strong social network in your well days, it'll be there for you in your days of illness. And if you ask for help from that network, you'll get it. Right? Well, that's mostly true...
Here's the reality. Some people won't reach out to you. I am not quite sure why. Stigma and misunderstanding play a part, certainly. But I do have some theories:
* They don't know what to say. Or, they are afraid they'll say the wrong thing. Instead, they say nothing at all. Ouch.
* They don't make the time to connect because life gets busy. So they tell themselves that you won't notice if they don't call or email. Ouch again.
* They don't believe that what you are feeling and experiencing is real. These are the "non-believers", the it's-all-in-your-head people (Let's be honest, it's probably best that these people aren't around in your time of need!). Double ouch.
I am writing from experience. This has happened to me before and it's happening now, as I ride out another depressive episode. I am actually kind of low maintenance in terms of what I need from my friends and family right now. I am not asking for much - just an email to say "I'm thinking of you." That's it.
Maybe I am being greedy. I have already received a lot of that and it is appreciated more than I can possibly express. The disappointing part is when you don't get that small, simple gesture from people whom you consider friends.
If you are one of those people who just don't know what to say, how about starting there? I truly don't expect anyone to really understand what I am experiencing, not even those who also suffer depression and anxiety, because everyone is different. The need for comfort and a sense of belonging, however, is universal. So how about saying, "I don't know what you are feeling but I am here for you and I care."
Social support is a critical tool in the recovery process. As Stephen Fry said, "It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” 
So now I will focus on the love and support surrounding me and the angels in my life who show themselves to me in times of good health and in the dark times, too. You are truly noble and kind!

KB xo

P.S. Dedicated to all of you who have my back - you know who you are and more importantly, so do I!

For more information about the power of social connection, check out the PsychCentral site.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

"Deja Vu (Here I Go Again)"

Déjà vu, literally "already seen", is the phenomenon of having the strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced had been experienced in the past.

It all seems so familiar. The fatigue and lethargy, the aches and pains, the trails of tears and the sadness. It's almost like I have been here before.

Well, I have been here before - many times. Where is here? Here is depression - a sad, dark place. But this time is a little different. Hmm. Interesting twist on things.

“That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.”
― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

You know the old visual of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other shoulder? That's how I can best describe depression in my life. For the better part of 20 years, the devil has been there. Sometimes he rests in the background. Sometime he inches closer. And sometimes he grips me tight, lowering a heavy cloak of sadness over me.

While I have been busy blogging about mental illness in the workplace and the impact on others and attempting to balance demands at work, I have been quietly fighting the progression of mild depression and anxiety.

So how common is recurrence in depression? Isn't it just a one time thing that happens, you get treatment, you are all better, and then you live happily ever after? The University of Michigan Depression Center states, "Studies indicate that patients who are diagnosed with depression face a significant risk that their depression will recur over time." Awesome.

Some of the reasons why depression can recur:
* You may have stopped your treatment plan because you thought you were "all better". Usually you feel "all better" because your treatment plan is working - stopping it can end the feel better part. (NOTE: never stop medication without consulting your doctor - it can be very dangerous)
* You may have a history of mental illness in your family in which case you may be predisposed to it.
* Perhaps you thought it was just a one time thing, like a bad flu. Once it was over you just went back to your old habits.

In my case, I have a family history and I have already experienced a number of depressive episodes, which can also impact whether or not the illness recurs. Long ago I accepted that this is a chronic illness for me - just like my mom and her diagnosis of diabetes.

I may be accepting but make no mistake, I will fight, kicking and screaming, before I end up in another major depressive episode. So what am I doing to catch this so that it doesn't become something much worse? Well, step one was to hightail it back to my doctor's office. We decided together to change my medication and I will resume cognitive behavioural therapy again. I am also going to focus much more on the physical well being - exercise, meditation, and massage therapy. And, thankfully, I have a strong community surrounding me whom I can lean on: family, friends, colleagues, and my Partners For Mental Health family.

So what is different this time? I feel all those things that I wrote about above - the classic hallmarks of depression and anxiety. The tears are often at the ready to spill forward. The sadness I can't shake. I am so tired that I am sleeping about six hours during the day. I can't concentrate (it's taken me four days to write this post and it usually takes two hours). And I am on the tail end of a back spasm resulting from stress and anxiety. Oh, right - the difference.

"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tunes without words and never stops at all." ~ Emily Dickinson

I feel hopeful. As my Dad said to me this week, "You have been through this before and you know you can do it." He's right. Today is a new day.

KB xo

This post is dedicated to my Dad who came into the city to sleep on my couch so that I wouldn't be alone. I love you, Dad.

P.S. The University of Michigan Depression Center has a great website full of resources and information about depression:

Friday, 12 April 2013

"You're Fired!"

"You're fired!" ~ Donald Trump
Week after week we can tune into The Apprentice and watch business and real estate tycoon Donald Trump fire his apprentices, one by one with dramatic flair. Entertaining? I'll let you be the judge of that.
The reality is that it's much harder to get fired in the real world. It is, isn't it? Um, yes and no. Legally, the correct answer to that is yes. We have federal and provincial laws and a Human Rights Code to protect employee rights. The fact of the matter is that either many employers are ignorant of these or they choose to ignore them. Subsequently, many people lose their jobs without sufficient cause every day in Canada.
So why am I talking about termination of employment and labour law? This is a blog about mental health, right? You bet - I am getting to that.
A friend of mine, Melanie, was fired from her job two days ago. This friend of mine is also a mental health advocate who fights her own battles against mental illness: she suffers from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) and social phobia.
Recently relocated to a brand new city, she was excited to quickly find a new job. Two months into that new job she awoke one day with a sudden anxiety attack. Unable to function and leave her home, she called in to work and left a message an hour before her scheduled start time. Later in the day Melanie received a call from the Director of Operations asking her why she wasn't at work. And here's where the story takes a turn.
Melanie was faced with the same question that all of us who suffer from mental illness will ask ourselves: If I call in sick to work and they ask what is wrong with me, do I tell them truth?
She chose the truth. The result? She was called in for a meeting the next day with the Director of Operations and the HR Manager. First sick day in two months, she discloses that she has a disability, and she is fired. Employment terminated. End of job. The Director's final parting shot? He said that she should have disclosed her illness when she applied for the job because he never would have hired her in the first place. He just couldn't "live with himself if something happened to her on the job."
I am going to give you a moment to process this. OK, here we go...
Under the Canadian Human Rights Code mental illness is considered a disability. That means that it is a protected ground - Canadian employers cannot discriminate against anyone who has a disability. The one exception to this rule is in the case of a Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR). For example, if you need to hire a delivery driver then you can discriminate against any applicants who are legally blind.
If you have a disability and disclose it during the recruitment/interview process for a job, as long as you can do the job, you cannot be discriminated against. If, as an employer, you are faced with two excellent candidates but one is more qualified, who do you hire? Now consider that that person, the one more qualified, has a disability that will NOT impact the work or that you CAN accommodate. Now who do you hire? Better be the same choice otherwise you have just made a wrong turn legally.
If you become disabled during the course of employment or you disclose that you have a disability after you have been hired there is a duty upon your employer to accommodate your disability up to the point of undue hardship. Undue hardship varies depending on the business. A multinational organization has a lot farther to go than a mom and pop corner grocery in terms of proving undue hardship.
And that is just the human rights side of the argument. I won't go into the employment standards acts, et al because this is supposed to be a blog and a not a novel.
I recently attended a conference hosted by the British Columbia Centre for Ability. The keynote speaker on day two was a businessman named Mark Wafer. Mr Wafer runs a chain of successful Tim Horton's franchises in Ontario and has chosen, since day one, to employ people with disabilities. This is what he knows as fact:
* 60% of people with disabilities require accommodation (only 4% require an accommodation that costs more than $500)
* Turnover is lower with people with disabilities
* Turnover is lower with able employees because they like that they are part of something good
* Lower turnover means more $$$ for business owners (that's the "business case" for doing the right thing, if you needed one)
My friend Melanie was unfairly discriminated against and illegally terminated from her job. Job loss impacts a person's self esteem, their earning capacity, their mental well being, as well as the Canadian economy. I wonder if Mr. Director of Operations can live with that? Can any of us live with that?
KB xo
Dedicated to Melanie and my Partners for Mental Health (PFMH) community and family! For more information about PMFH and their upcoming workplace campaign please visit this website:

Thursday, 11 April 2013

"How Do You Know?"

“When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone.”  ~ Fiona Apple
The person who sits at the desk next to you might be one. Your boss might be one. The colleague with whom you worked on that six month project could be one, too. Or maybe you are.

One what? The one in five Canadians who will experience mental illness in their lifetime.
That's a pretty big number - one in five. That means that out of the 60 people that I work with, 12 of them will go through this. At my office, I am the only one who is "out" - the only one who talks openly about my experiences with depression. But I know who those other 11 people are. I know because they confided in me. One by one, they shared their story with me.
I am grateful for that for a few reasons. First of all, it has made me feel less alone. I know that I have a built in support group at work when I need it. It's not just my work friends who are there for me but also this community of people who actually know what depression, anxiety, and mental illness are like. I am also grateful that I can perhaps provide some comfort to others who are experiencing depression or anxiety for the first time. There really is comfort in numbers.
But here's the thing. This community is a secret one.I am pretty sure that I am the only one who knows who the members are. And even at that, there are probably a few members who haven't "joined" yet - they are still keeping this to themselves.

So how do we create an environment in the workplace that makes people feel safe about disclosing their illness?

First things first - let's create psychologically healthy work environments. Most of us are familiar with the idea of occupational health and safety, right? We know how to exit the building in case of fire. We know where the first aid kit is kept and who to call in case of an emergency. We know not to stack boxes in front of an emergency exit. What we don't know is how to create a workplace that is healthy for our minds.

In early 2013 the Canadian government issued the Standard on Psychologically Healthy Workplaces. The first country to do so. It's a voluntary standard and as it is early days it remains to be seen how many organizations get on board with this revolutionary concept. And yes, it really is revolutionary.

I recently attended the Canadian Mental Health Association's Bottom Line Conference on workplace mental health. Something that really stuck with me were the words of one of the speakers, Mary Ann Baynton. I will paraphrase,"The new Standard on psychologically healthy workplaces is to depression what the occupational health and safety standards are to arthritis." In short, the standard isn't about preventing disease - it's about creating healthy, safe work environments overall.

The reason why that resonated with me so strongly is because employers seem to immediately go to the extreme when contemplating the impact of mental illness in the workplace. "Oh, accommodation is expensive - it will impact our bottom line.""It's too expensive to implement mental health programs." And on, and on. So many excuses why we can't do this.

I say, let's take a step back. Start small and take a preventative approach. Creating a positive work environment is actually really simple - it's about building good leaders. If you are a manager, ask yourself these questions:
* Do I say good morning to my employees?
* Do I thank them at the end of the day for the contributions that they made?
* Do I make time to meet with each employee on a one on one basis to discuss career goals?
* Do I support my people to do their best work?
* Do I listen (really listen) to my employee's concerns and suggestions?
* Do I consciously work to create a trusting, collaborative environment amongst my team?

Starting in May and running through June, Partners For Mental Health will be running a mental health in the workplace campaign called Not Myself Today - At Work. We will have many tools and resources (free!). There will also be a fundraising element in which the money raised will benefit both PFMH and the Canadian Mental Health Association. If you would like to get your company involved, please visit the website here:

It's not rocket science. It really isn't. And until we create psychologically healthy work environments, that club that I belong to, the top secret one that is in every single Canadian company, will remain silent and secretive. The cost of that silence? Try $51 billion dollars to the Canadian economy. And the human cost? Impossible to express.

KB xo

P.S. One of my favourite resources on mental health issues is the Canadian Mental Health Association: In addition to fabulous online resources they also have local chapters throughout Canada. You can visit them in person or follow them on facebook and Twitter. There is no need to be alone - there is a community out there to support you!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

"Not Myself Today - At Work"

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” ~ Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral's Kiss

I have been thinking a lot lately about mental illness and the workplace. I think about how depression impacts me in all facets of my life but maybe I think mostly about how it impacts me and my work. I think about how it may or may not affect my performance and my relationships with colleagues. Yes, I think about it a lot.

As I have written before, I am in a very unique situation - I work for an employer that values diversity and people with disabilities (under the Canadian Human Rights Code, depression is considered a disability). Sadly, this is not the case for the majority.

In particular, I am lucky that I have a manager who seems to intuitively understand how to manage an employee who has chronic depression. I say intuitively because as far as I know, she has had no formal training on the subject. Yes, she and I work in Human Resources but that doesn't mean that all HR professionals understand how mental health impacts the workplace or how to manage those who have it. I know that from both personal and professional experience.

Currently I work as a Recruitment Consultant but in my previous role I was an Employee Relations Consultant and my day to day accountabilities were to coach managers on employee performance related issues, discipline, and return to work/workplace accommodation. I saw on a daily basis the impact that lack of communication can have within the workplace.

If an employee has many sick days or is often late, the instinct of many managers is to "write Susie up - this behaviour can't go on any longer." I have a question, Ms. Manager, have you spoken to Susie yet? Have you been able to ascertain why she is absent from work so much or why she is chronically late? Does punishment fit the "crime"? Is there even a crime? Start with a conversation.

And herein lies the crux of the problem. We, canadian employers that is, are still not talking. It's as simple as that. OK, maybe there are a few whispers here and there about the fact that something needs to be done. And, we are beginning to hear startling statistics from sources such as the Conference Board of Canada and the Canadian Mental Health Association:
  • Over 500,000 people are absent from work each day for mental health reasons
  • 1 in 3 workplace disability claims are related to mental illness
  • Mental health claims (especially depression and anxiety) have overtaken cardiovascular disease as the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada
  • $6.3 billion is the estimated cost of lost productivity due to mental illnesses in Canada in just one year alone
  • Less than half of employees believe their company promotes a mentally healthy work environment
  • Due to stigma and discrimination, many employees are fearful of disclosing their illness and reluctant to seek help; only 23% of Canadians said they would feel comfortable talking to an employer about their mental illness
I don't know about you but I don't feel so good about this - as a Human Resources professional, as a person with depression, and as human being concerned about our health as a nation. But here is the good news: we can change this and we will.

One of the things that has helped me in my fight against depression is the fact that I know that there is a community of people out there who are in the same boat as I and who are committed to talking about mental illness. Two fabulous "communities" that I belong to are Partners For Mental Health (PFMH) and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Back to Ms. Manager for a moment. I kind of can't blame her for not knowing where to start or how to start. Although government and grass roots organizations are starting to talk about mental health and the workplace, the majority of employers aren't there yet. It's a bit of the wild, wild west out there. And that's exactly why PFMH and the CMHA are doing such important, exciting work - work that I am so proud to be supporting as a volunteer.

PFMH will soon be launching a new version of their successful Not Myself Today campaign from last year. The new campaign in May & June will highlight mental illness in the workplace: Not Myself Today - At Work.  There will be tools, information, and lots of discussion with Canadian employers. Funds raised will support both PFMH and CMHA. And the collective consciousness raised? Well, that will benefit us all.

KB xo

P.S. I want to hear from you about mental illness and the workplace. Share your experience, questions, thoughts, and ideas about how we can tackle this issue. I'll be writing about this throughout the upcoming Not Myself Today - At Work campaign this spring.

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