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How my mental health issue helped me to become a better HR professional

On October 10th we celebrated World Mental Health Day.  World Mental Health Day is a World Health Organization Campaign observed on the 10th of October every year.  The overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. The Day provides an opportunity for all […]

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On October 10th we celebrated World Mental Health Day.  World Mental Health Day is a World Health Organization Campaign observed on the 10th of October every year.  The overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.

The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.  This year, I recognized the day by taking time to reflect on how living with a mental illness has made me a better HR professional. Here are a few of those reflections:

I’ve navigated the mental health care system: My first experience with major depression came in the fall of 2001 as I entered by second year of University. At the time, the resources available to support a person struggling with mental illness were far more difficult to identify and access. My University health center was ill equipped to offer the right supports and my condition deteriorated over the next several months. My parents were at a loss, taking me to my primary care provider, only to be referred to the emergency room at our local hospital. What followed was months of referrals, as well as in and outpatient treatment before being referred to a mental health rehabilitation program that I believe saved my life. I could not have accessed this program without the commitment of my parents and their ability to research, direct, advocate and support when I was not able to do so for myself.

This experienced allowed me to access and utilize a broad range of resources (some helpful, some not so helpful) and understand how to pinpoint the type of support and care required for myself and others. I learned how to be specific about the need, to find allies, and explore alternatives. Most importantly I learned to keep pushing for the type of care and support required. In turn, I’m able to do support the employees in my organization to navigate the mental health care system and find the right supports. It has also helped me to identify whether the employee programs that the organizations I work for offered meet the employee need or whether they can be improved.

I understand how a simple accommodation can help someone stay the course: early in my journey with mental illness I lost an entire year at a prestigious Canadian University because I simply couldn’t manage the fight it was going to take to get credit for the work I had already produced the semester my illness became debilitating. The University required extensive “proof” of my illness, would not allow for my parents to act as my advocates and provided only a limited window for me to submit final exams and assignments to get credit for the course. I was devastated and it only increased feelings of despair, anger and frustration that my illness was already amplifying. I walked away from a significant financial investment, my friends and roommates, and all of academic work I had done that year because I simply couldn’t fight for it to be recognized. I thought that I might never get the University degree I had always pictured as part of my future.

After a year off to recover and care for myself, I resumed my studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. There I found the Paul Menton Centre for students with disabilities and a community of caring, responsive professors and teaching assistants who offered reasonable accommodations with a simple ask. If impending deadlines elevated my anxiety I was allowed a reasonable extension. No questions asked, no extensive documentation required. The compassion and support that the staff at Carleton University showed me allowed me to obtain a University degree, with honors, in 2006.

My degree subsequently allow me to qualify for an HR Advisor role in the Federal Government which has helped me to chart the course of my professional career. I have always felt it my duty pass on the compassion and support that I was shown by the team at Carleton. I do that in my work by proactively proposing accommodations when I recognize a member of my team, or the teams I support as an HR practitioner is in need. I advocate for reasonable accommodations and share with employees how they can manage their health, while maintaining a connection to the workplace. I take the time to educate and explain the WHY behind the accommodations process to my clients. Accommodations, while not always convenient for the organization, are essential to allowing employees to maintain a connection with the workplace while they work through their treatment.

I can be an advocate: We’ve seen the statistics and headlines: 43.8 million Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year; the mental health care system is woefully underfunded to support the mental health crisis that has been caused by the pandemic; and we are all being pushed to extremes by uncertainty and added responsibilities like homeschooling and childcare. It is now more important than ever that workplaces offer low-cost, free and accessible resources to their employees to support their employees and their loved ones in navigating these uncertain times and to support good mental health.

As an advocate I make the business case for improved mental health supports in my organization, encourage story telling and promote existing resources. I take the time with employees who are struggling to help them to research additional resources in their community. I play a challenge function with management: is this truly a problem employee? or is it an employee in crisis? Advocacy, empathy and understanding are critical to shaping workplaces that support good mental health.

Giving back to the community is an important part of my advocacy. Prior to my move to the United States I held an annual fundraiser in my hometown to raise funds for the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Foundation. Through this event I shared my own story to demonstrate that mental illness has a pretty regular face. More recently recognizing the acute and unique struggles faced by the BIPOC community I have been making regular donations to the Loveland Foundation whose resources and initiatives are collaborative and they prioritize opportunity, access, validation, and healing for communities of color with specific emphasis on black women and girls. I have also worked with my organization’s leadership to create safe spaces for black employees to connect and find support and allyship in the face of continued instances of police brutality and the continued undercurrent of systemic racism.

I have the benefit of being highly functioning, despite my mental illness. It is my responsibility to use my position and privilege to raise awareness, essential funds and create pathways for others.

I am thankful for the insight and experience that my mental health challenges have imparted on me. I truly believe this have made me a more empathetic and resourceful human resources professional. I believe that these qualities support the legacy I aspire to leave in the organizations I work with. As I continue to build my career my credo will continue to be that “I have the position, privilege ad responsibility to create the conditions in my organization and community to support improved mental health for all”.

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