May is a bittersweet month for me. I was born in Speedway, Indiana, home of the Indianapolis 500. If you are not familiar with this event, it is the single most attended sporting event in the world and it is run the Sunday before Memorial Day. Also, most importantly, my first daughter was born in May. On race day. Nope, I can’t even make that up.
While those two events alone make this month so special, there is one thing that brings sadness and heartbreak to me in the month of May. Several years ago, I lost a good friend to suicide. Before this event, the issues of mental health, or even knowing May was mental health awareness month, never even crossed my mind. Now, it will never leave.
1 in 5 Americans will experience some sort of mental illness in their lifetime. That’s an astonishing number. Think about your friends, family, or the organization you work for. Chances are, you know someone who is dealing with some mental health issues. And, chances are, you will never know it.
Before that day in May, I viewed my company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as another useless line item in the benefits manual. Something no one ever used and something I knew nothing about.
After that event, I decided to call. At first, I called for information to provide for my friends. I was curious if I could offer the services of my company to some of my friends who may be struggling. And then the professional on the other end of the line asked me a question. “How are you doing?” I realized I wasn’t doing so well.
As HR professionals, at work, we are mostly in service mode. Part of the job includes dealing with the unexpected. Humans are not predictable. So many other factors go into the day-to-day and we encourage people bring their whole selves to work. This includes stress, relationship issues, happiness, grief, financial woes, childcare struggles, selflessness, and a multitude of attitudes. These things can cause some conflicts. And when these all show up, many times they land on the desk of the HR guy.
There are times that we undermine mental illness in the workplace. We are quick to throw out a joke about somebody being “off their meds,” or that one employee who must “be bi-polar.” We casually wear our anti-anxiety medication of choice like a badge of honor as a way of coping with the stresses of the workplace.
I’ve stressed this more than any other topic I can think of. You need to take care of yourself. And, I’m not talking about the kind of care that includes a bottle of Pinot Noir or a six-pack of your favorite craft beer. As the pressures of the workplace continue to build, as we are asked to do more with less, and the hours get more and the life balance is off, you need to find a healthy outlet to cope with this.
I have realized that I may rely on the “self-care” a little too much. That glass of wine at dinner extends to another one or two. A rough day or week is soothed by that post-work happy hour to try to mask some of the pain and hurt I may be carrying. And, I justify it because I think I’m some superstar runner who can run all that frustration and anxiety away.
Before you jump into that yoga class or join that run club, call a professional. Look right in front of you. Right now. You are the HR person and the EAP is probably staring at you. If not, find it. Make it as visible as possible to everyone in your office. Make sure people know where they can turn to when things don’t feel quite right. Make sure your employees are aware of some of the signs of stress and depression.
I’m not saying you all should be arm-chair psychologists. I’m talking about just the opposite. Don’t hesitate to recommend someone to the EAP, or at the very least, make them aware. Show concern, care, and compassion. There is no shame or wrong in trying to help someone.
I look back at what happened to my friend and sometimes feel of that burden on me. Here I am, this HR know-it-all who should be able to pick up on the signs just because I have my damn HR certification. I kick myself for not paying more attention to the true benefit of an EAP or being more aware of some symptoms.
I also know this is an unrealistic burden to have to carry. That too many times we don’t see the signs because we sometimes see ourselves. We don’t want to admit that maybe we can’t fix all of life’s issues all by ourselves. That maybe, just maybe, we can rise above the stigma of mental health and ask someone for help. Admit that things just aren’t right. Reach out to a friend, colleague, spouse, or professional and just talk.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I now know this all too well. There will be a lot of information and resources and articles written about the importance of mental health. And, the month will come and go. But the issues and the pain will not go away. If you are experiencing what you may think are some signs of depression, or you think a friend may be, there are plenty of resources available*.
It is better to offer help and be wrong than to be silent.
*The following are just a few resources:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
- Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services
- NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness