I was in a graduate educational psychology course at San Francisco State when I first learned about Asperger syndrome. At the time, I was coming out of a Master’s in Education program at Brown and shoring up my credentials so that I could teach in the State of California. As the professor described the symptoms of Asberger’s, I began ticking off a list, making mental calculations, noting how many exactly fit my live-in boyfriend at the time.
“Lack of social awareness.” Check!
“Inability to share emotions.” Definitely.
“Standing firm in what they think.” Yes!
I couldn’t wait to come back and tell him, and as soon as I did, it all tumbled out: “I know what the problem is. It’s you! You have Asperger’s!”
Maybe he did. But assigning a mental health diagnosis certainly didn’t help to advance (or at least resolve) our relationship. The truth was, we were in a bad relationship that needed to end – Asperger’s or no Asperger’s. The writing was on the wall, pretty much from the start, and living together for a year and a half did little to erase that. I recall that at the very end, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the tiny bit of good that remained, I asked him, “What do you love about me most? I mean, really love?”
The question just sat there, as if it had sucked the air out between us. His eyes got really big, and his tongue actually quivered. For someone who was ever ready with a witty repartee (a writer by profession), he was mute. Finally, he eked out: “Your cats. I love your cats.”
OK, yes, it was definitely time to go.
So, what did get me out? Not expert advice or new medical diagnoses. Rather, it was my headstrong sister who wielded the relationship-ending crowbar.
In a way that only a sister can, my sister Elicia flew down from Portland, OR and settled in for a pull-out-all-the-stops intervention. She manhandled me into the car, drove me to apartment viewings, generated “to do” lists, shepherded me through shopping centers to buy the supplies I would need to live on my own, and listened patiently as I endlessly ruminated. A few days later, my dad flew in from Boston, to join what had blossomed into a full-on SWAT team extraction effort. With a little help from my friends (or in this case, family), I was moved out of my old co-habitation space, into my new girl-on-her-own-again apartment and on my way to a much-needed reset – all within a week.
This story came to me the other day as I was reflecting on the escalating mental health crisis. Today, there is a steady drumbeat of burnout, depression, stress, addiction, loneliness, disconnection and suicide – and young people are getting hit the hardest. A recent study by Mind Share Partners, Qualtrics and SAP found that half of Millennials and over 75% of Gen Zers have left work for mental health reasons. Overall, suicide rates have increased by 33% over the past couple of decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
So, what can we do about it? This is a question I often ask in my “Managers on the Move” workshop, a workshop that has now been delivered to over 1000 managers and leaders across the country. Predictably, these well-meaning managers and leaders usually give responses like “Identify at-risk employees and refer them to a mental health professional.”
In other words, exit left and hand it over to someone else – the expert.
So, where does that leave the rest of us – the non-experts? While I certainly don’t want to minimize the role of the expert, we cannot solely rely on them to solve the problem. And, in many cases, it’s not expertise we need. In my case, I simply needed effort.
Putting in the effort is something we can all do for one another. Small acts of empathy, generosity, compassion, and gratitude like a phone call, a handwritten note, a hug, or just showing up can go a long way in chipping away at the mental health crisis.
Case in point, in a recent conversation, Mike Yurchuk, Senior VP of HR at Schindler, shared with me how he encourages the managers he oversees to think about their team members. He asks them, “Are there any who are feeling a little left out?” Invariably, these managers know exactly who those people are. “Go to them,” Mike tells them. “Make the extra effort next time you see them.”
It’s these extra-effort things that can cumulatively make a difference. No expertise required.
Originally published on LinkedIn.com