Managing my depression and anxiety while working at high performing startups every day is challenging. Covering mental health issues while in the office; finding reasons to explain away the mysterious weekly, unmovable, appointment; the bathroom breaks to cover an anxiety attack; showing up to work exhausted because it took everything I had just to get out of bed and shower.
Things become even more complicated when I factor in everything I’ve invested into my career as well as my professional goals and ambitions. Like many of my Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management classmates, I’ve been fortunate to move up the career ladder ambitiously and aggressively. For me to manage that pace required immense dedication and focus, hard work, and withstand a great deal of stress. Sometimes one or all of those are not possible in the midst of a deep depressive episode or a period of high anxiety; it’s hard to be focused and work hard at work when it takes all your focus and effort not to crawl back into the safety and comfort of your bed.
While I know there must be people in my workplace that are dealing with similar challenges because of the significant stigma regarding mental illness (especially within the context of your professional life) I don’t know who these people are. There isn’t a support group at work I can join. and I can’t problem solve and share experiences with them.There are many questions I have: should I disclose my illness at work, how does medical leave work, what should i do if I have an anxiety attack at the office, etc. I’d love to be able to problem solve these issues with fellow sufferers. I’d love to problem solve in a open, safe environment with people that are dealing with the similar issues to mine. I’d love to have resources to support me that discuss the questions above and provide best practice solutions.
There are resources available. But those resources are too broadly focused (NAMI is awesome, but doesn’t really focus on specific subgroups) or they are support different ends of the spectrum than where I and many others sit. There are lots of resources (though not enough) at the end of the spectrum servicing those most in need; those who can’t hold a job and struggle to function. At the other end of the spectrum, for those feeling a little blue sometimes, we have a lot of resources for those sufferers for whom, a little Prozac or Ativan is just what the doctor ordered. There are those who do struggle to get out of bed or suffer from extreme anxiety, but don’t find that impacts their professional goals. But, for those of us who do struggle to get out of bed while at the same time, have ambitious goals, there are limited resources out there. And, we need to start problem solving.
It’s lonely. While over 20% of US adults are currently being treated for some type of mental illness, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The stigma is real. It’s more real the further I progress in my career and especially the further I climb up. I can’t say this enough. It is really, really lonely. I know there are folks out there that can empathize with me.
Its often invalidating. Hyper-competitive environments tend to value some abstract vision of emotional toughness, which to many translates to, at the very least not talking about your feelings and preferably just not having them or reacting to them in the first place. In many cases, this just heightens my depression and anxiety.
There is lost productivity when sufferers spending time and energy focused on covering and figuring out their own way through the professional jungle. This real time, real energy, real focus, that could be focused on creating the next big thing.
So, what can you do, what can I do, to solve these problems? If you’re able to disclose, it’s time to start looking for solutions in your community. I want to say that everyone everywhere should open up, but thats really a conversation you should be having with your partner, friend, and/or therapist.
If you’re like me and suffer from a mental health condition, the most important thing you can do is to keep yourself healthy. We need you healthy, because the solutions are going to come from us, the sufferers. You know the drill: see your therapist, take your meds, use your skills, practice self care and self compassion. Remember how strong you must be, how capable you must be and how hard you must be working to be able to manage all that you’re managing.
You can also take initiative and seek out others who are going through it too.
I recently participated in a Mind Share Partners peer group where I was able to problem solve with other high performing professionals. This is a great first step. Personally, it was validating and I felt less alone. I heard stories of similar high performing professionals asking the same questions I was asking. I even met someone that I knew from business school in my group!
Professionally, it was incredibly valuable. Through the problem solving I was able to hear tips and tricks from others, learn best practices, and have multiple discussions around if, how, and when to disclose your illness. It was awesome!
We’re making progress. While the stigma is still strong, it’s slowly going away. Organizations like Mind Share Partners are providing real, practical, solutions. There is still more work to do and it will be hard. But, more importantly, I want other high performing professionals suffering from a mental health condition to know you’re not alone. I know because I am one and I have met others. These people are facing many of the same struggles that you’re facing. We’re going to come up with solutions and those of us suffering from mental health conditions are going to be the ones who come up with a solution. We have the strength. Look at the battles we fight every day.