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Don't Write Off Mental Health in DEI/IDEAS Work

Photo from Harvard Business Review

I didn't think I would make it past 30 years old. As I now approach this significant birthday milestone, I realize just how much the professional IDEAS work I've done in the past two years has saved my life on more than one occasion.

You might say mental health isn't part of IDEAS work (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Social Justice). I say it is the core of that work. As humans, we all have minds. Therefore, we all need to consider the implications of our work environments on our mental health. Why is it radical to believe that employers should take an active role in taking care of our mental health? Who said that mental health conversations should be left out of the workplace? If you're really having a bad day, will it affect how you work? It's human to be affected, and it's human to care about that effect showing up at work in you and your colleagues.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, "an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older -- about 1 in 4 adults -- suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time." I am one of those adults. You might be one too. What’s so striking about this powerful statistic is that it excludes those who have mental health symptoms without a diagnosis. The scope is staggering when we expand the data to include those who experience temporary symptoms, such as depression and anxiety from adverse experiences, because it happens to ALL of us. Mental health simply cannot be overlooked as it is a crucial part of the human experience, especially in today’s world where technology & social media bring traumatizing images and news to your doorstep 24/7. The reality is that people need our help as a community support system to navigate day-to-day challenges in the workplace and the ambient stressors that occupy our mindspace on the job.

I was misdiagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in 2010 following a long string of self-harming behavior and a suicide attempt, my third at the time. In 2019, I was hospitalized after my fifth attempt and diagnosed with Bipolar II and OCD. After years of therapy and medication, I'm stable, but it wasn't easy. However, what helped more than anything was establishing a community of care around me to support me when life gets hard - including my workplace colleagues.

When I started at IDEAS Generation in 2020, I was fresh off a new diagnosis and scared about how it would show up in my work. Anyone gets new job anxiety, and I was incredibly nervous about having enough of a 'handle' on my diagnosis to get through my work 'undetected.' But in reality, that would have taken more energy than I had to give. Ask anyone who has ever had to do it; masking is EXHAUSTING. So I chose not to. Instead, I decided to communicate to our Executive Director and my manager, Dan, about how my reality changes weekly or even daily. I explained how I can be really productive when I'm on an upswing and work long hours. However, I may get distracted easily while being louder and fidgety. I explained how when I'm in a downswing, I move and speak much slower and that my pace of work changes significantly. I explained how my confidence jumps from very high to very low and that I have to do extra work to manage my impulsiveness, irritability, and temper.

I didn't just explain myself; I asked for support as well. I communicated that my love language is words of affirmation and that when I'm feeling down, verbal reassurance picks me up quickly. I asked for a flexible schedule to take it easy when things got too stressful and work at times that match my mood/productivity level. I asked for space and time to respond to emails later than 'normal'. I asked for support on holding boundaries because my people-pleasing tendencies sometimes lead me to overextend myself. I asked for help in setting goals because I have a more challenging time sometimes thinking about my existence in the future.

Mind you, I've never been so transparent with an employer in my life and I was TERRIFIED. However, I learned that giving people the opportunity to show up for you is the only way that they will, and boy, did Dan really show up for me! He showed up for me in a way that I've never experienced with an employer and really took my needs to heart. He was flexible and understanding in the accommodations. He never made me feel less than for asking in the first place. He now knows me to a point where he can read where my mood is and adjust accordingly without making me feel odd or different because of it. As an employer, you might think that it must have been hard to make those changes or show up for me in that way but he would tell you that it was easy to show up as a HUMAN for another HUMAN. He’s also quick to share how meaningful and enriching our relationship is precisely because of the immense trust and respect that underlie our community of care.

When I say the community of care, it means just that - a community made up of those who care. There is not one person who takes on the whole of caring for the individual at the center of the community. Instead, the community is created by the sum of effort and support from multiple individuals/organizations/entities. Offering even the tiniest sliver of support contributes to an individual's community of care, and it can mean an immense amount to that particular person. We spend most of our time at work/with coworkers, so it makes sense that support from our workplace goes a long way toward stabilizing our mental health.

According to the Curb Cut Effect, accommodating for the most marginalized benefits everyone. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, we could all use a bit more space and grace for our mental and emotional selves to feel like better workers and better humans. If a coworker came to you and asked for help, would you help them? If the answer is 'No' or 'It depends', that has more to do with you than the person asking for mental health help. What scares you? What's holding you back from saying yes? Where is that resistance coming from?

Give space, give grace, and take up our social responsibility to be part of others' community of care in the workplace. It costs nothing yet means absolutely everything. Take it from me; you might even save someone's life.

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