What Happens When You Have a Mental Health Crisis Mid-Career?

Today’s topic is how to cope with a mental health crisis in your career. I’m Chester Elton, and this is Adrian Gostick, my co-author and dear friend. Thank you, Chester. We’re going to discuss how to eliminate the stigma of mental health at work and learn from our guest’s story and research. Our guest is Jason Finucan, a mental health advocate and founder of Stigma Zero. Jason has experienced both a major physical illness and a mental illness. He shares his personal experiences in his book Jason One, Stigma Zero: My Battle with Mental Illness at Home and in the Workplace. Welcome to the podcast, Jason. Thank you for your time. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure. [Music] We’re thrilled to have you on, Jason. Can you tell us about your journey? You mention in your book that you were hospitalized with a mental illness in 2005. What happened and how did it lead you to write the book and found Stigma Zero? Sure. I was 29 years old, and I had been suffering from worsening mental health symptoms for two and a half years, but I didn’t understand them at the time. In February 2005, I had a six-day manic episode, which is an extreme manifestation of mental illness. I didn’t sleep at all for six days and I was very unwell. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar one disorder. The whole experience was disorienting and full of stigma, especially self-stigma. I had misconceptions and lack of knowledge that I now address and stigma from my family, friends, and colleagues. Some of it was unintentional with very little malicious, but it affected me negatively because people judged, misunderstood, or made incorrect assumptions. I was lucky that after diagnosis, I got treatment—lithium, a mood stabilizer for bipolar disorder. After a few months, it worked and for the first time in three years, I felt like myself. I was free of the symptoms of this illness and realized that we are not responding to mental health or illness as we should. Why would we empathize with someone with type one diabetes or prostate or breast cancer but stigmatize depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder? Looking back at my open-heart surgery at 12 years old, I asked myself a simple question: On the day I started experiencing depression, I self-stigmatized and hid my illness. But what if my heart problem came back? Would I have hidden it? Would I have felt shame? Would I have been afraid to tell my boss or friends? It occurred to me clearly that I and everyone behaved differently. The only difference was that one organ failed versus another. That clarity made me want to help by sharing my story. I did it first as a volunteer for many years with a local Montreal organization called AMI Quebec. They do wonderful education outreach programs, and I was the guy who told his story. I was part of that education outreach for six years and did over a hundred volunteer keynotes. I crafted my message and story until my wife said I should quit fundraising and do this for a living. That’s when I founded Stigma Zero and wrote my book. The advice of a good wife, eh? When you marry up, it makes all the difference. It’s interesting that we empathize with diabetes but stigmatize mental health. We’ve gone through ridiculous upheaval: pandemic, war, inflation, social unrest. You’re an expert in mental health, so what advice do you give to people struggling to find balance with everything happening around the world? Where do you start? I’m glad you asked that question because I feel many of us aren’t doing the self-care needed to get through it. The first step is to acknowledge we’re living through a difficult time and self-care is vital. I use the analogy of the oxygen mask on a plane. We are told to put ours on first before helping others. That’s the same with our mental and physical health. We can only be the husband, father, brother, friend, colleague we want to be if we take care of ourselves first. And finding a balance between dealing with external pressures and stresses like the pandemic has affected everything, including Ukraine and inflation. But we also need healthy ways to decompress. Reading, movies, exercise, and hobbies are some options. But most importantly, we need to turn off social media and news regularly. We can’t consume them 24/7 or we will be overwhelmed. And of course, we should listen to the Anxiety at Work podcast. You said we need to be updated on the news. But do we really? Sometimes I wonder if knowing about a war in Ukraine helps me. I can’t do much about it. I have a brother in Vancouver who is obsessed with American politics. I told him to turn it off. He’s Canadian and he can’t vote. So, turning off social media is one of the steps to decompress and take pressure off our brain. We need to curate our own information. If you want to know what’s going on with politics, war, or inflation, read about it for half an hour and then stop. Don’t stress about it all day because you can’t change it and you can harm yourself. It’s a discipline, like eating well and exercising. Jason, you published an article: Mental illness: A lifelong battle. Sometimes people think they had anxiety or mental illness in the past. But it’s something people live with all their lives. Sometimes it comes and goes or hides in the background. You said lesson seven is difficult: You can’t soldier on. Tell us how that applies to your life and your work. You have concrete examples with your heart defect. You had open heart surgery at 12 for a rare nerve defect called Wolf Parkinson White syndrome. It needed surgery. Imagine someone telling me at that age, “Do you really need open heart surgery? Can’t you just try harder and soldier through it?” It would seem ridiculous. No one would think that way. But with mental illnesses, minor or major, I have seen people with severe symptoms hiding them and soldiering on. I was one of them. I worked a year longer than I should have before seeking medical help and getting a leave of absence to work on my illness. It’s a trap. Soldiering on is like going to work with the flu. Before COVID, that might have been a badge of honor. After COVID, everyone realizes it’s a bad idea. The idea is to recognize if you are unwell, you need to address it. Don’t hide it or ignore it. I give an example: Let’s say you’ve never had a migraine and suddenly you have one. It shuts you down for the afternoon and you wake up fine the next day. You think it’s weird but don’t worry about it. But then it happens again a week later and then two days after that. How long before you seek medical attention because this is a significant change in your wellness and maybe something is wrong? We don’t soldier on through weekly migraines. We get looked at. People are soldiering on through anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems that they need to address as real concerns. They may only need to talk to a friend or a therapist. They may not have a mental illness diagnosis like mine. But we need to explore it with the same curiosity as any other illness. We talk about the stigma of mental health often. Migraine? We’re sympathetic. But mental health? We tell people to soldier on. Adrian, how often have we said things like “Rub some dirt on it” or “Turn that frown upside down”? One of my children had serious mental health issues. I would say, “Hey buddy, millions of kids are going to school today. Be one of them. Get up and go.” I didn’t realize how harmful that was to our relationship. We’re good now, thankfully. Our podcast is Anxiety at Work. How do you help leaders and team members remove the stigma from the workplace? Give us some practical ideas. To end the stigma of mental health at work, we need the same strategy that worked for stigmas of the past, like breast cancer. In the 40s and 50s, breast cancer was stigmatized. Women would hide it and get no support. Now, that’s unthinkable. How did we get there? Through specialized training, education and instruction that was engaging, inspiring and practical. And through women who experienced it and spoke out bravely. They asked for more research and support. We need people like me who have lived through mental illnesses to do the same. A concrete example for the workplace is medical leaves. Let’s say we work at a large corporation. Chester, you have a minor cancer and need a procedure. You tell your boss and go away. People support you and welcome you back. The person with a mental illness is afraid to disclose it. They give their boss a doctor’s note without explanation. The work announces the leave vaguely. People don’t know how to talk to them or support them. They don’t get a get-well card or flowers. When they come back, their desk is unprepared, and they feel unwelcome and undervalued. This is not to hurt anyone. It’s because they don’t know what to do. We explain how to announce a medical leave without disclosing the illness and promote empathy. We have a get-well card; we welcome them back properly. These are subtle changes, but they make a big difference. Jason, I love that example. It’s powerful. But some people might think this is nonsense. They say we just buckled down in their day. What do you say to those leaders who don’t believe this? We try and succeed to change people’s minds. We get optional feedback from our online program. Many people say they used to think mental health was made up or exaggerated. They say people could just try harder. But after hearing my story and the educational points, they realize they see it as a character flaw, not an illness. I want to clarify one difference in the terms. A mental health issue or problem is like being 15 pounds overweight. It’s not optimal but not urgent. You can live and work with it. It’s a physical health problem. Mild anxiety or depression are examples of mental health problems. A mental illness is like cancer, diabetes, bipolar or clinical depression. You have a diagnosis; you need regular treatment, and you have to manage it for life. But you can live well with it. My message is for both sides. Whether you have a minor mental health problem or a full-blown mental illness, you need to manage them both at the same time. You talk about time. You gave us examples of breast cancer and alcoholism. They used to be taboo, now there’s support. Do you think it’s just time? Talking more and more? I’m saying that things like your podcast, your books, Stigma Zero and my story can change the culture over time. It can take decades, but I believe we’re heading in the right direction. I’ve seen improvement in the last five to ten years. How can people learn more about Stigma Zero or your work? We work with employers of any type and number. We provide training to better respond to workplace mental illness and mental health problems. We want to eradicate the stigma. To learn more, visit our website at www.stigma0.com or email me at [email protected]. This has been a good focus on stigma, which we face every day. I told you about the grumpy manager. I bumped into a grumpy manager the other day. I was giving a presentation to hundreds of people, and he said it was BS. The audience shouted him down, especially the women who were more sensitive to this topic. That’s very true. Where do you think we’ll be in five or ten years? How can we help? I believe employers will recognize that training on mental health and illness and creating a stigma-free environment are essential for success. Not just for taking care of employees, but for the bottom line. Attracting and retaining talent Presenteeism, or working while ill, is a major source of lost profits due to mental health issues. Many companies are realizing this and creating better programs and campaigns to educate, support and advocate for their employees. For example, the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer has raised awareness and reduced stigma. We need to reach a point where mental illnesses are treated with the same respect and empathy as any other illness, regardless of which body part is affected. The only exception is when someone is harming themselves or others, such as with addiction, but even then, we should not judge them harshly. Some mental illnesses are more severe than others and require medication. I have bipolar disorder and I need to take pills every day to balance my brain chemistry. That’s okay, I know how to take care of myself. I also use other methods like therapy and diet, but they are not enough for me. I don’t want to suffer from stigma and judgment on top of my illness. I think companies should support their employees who have mental health issues. I take medication for my bipolar disorder and I’m grateful for it. I also track my health data with an app called eMoods. It helps me notice any changes in my mood, sleep, exercise, and other factors. Sleep is very important for everyone’s health. I try to live a balanced lifestyle and eat well. I avoid too much news and negative people. I focus on my work, my wife, and my friends. They make me happy and calm. Sometimes you can’t avoid family members who stress you out. You can try to limit your contact with them. Call them once a week but keep it brief. Adrian sometimes blocks me when I annoy him. He won’t admit it, but I know it’s true. I enjoyed this discussion, Jason. Here are two takeaways for our listeners. If you don’t have a mental illness, be empathetic and imagine how it feels. Treat it like any other illness and offer support. If you have a mental illness or a mental health issue, don’t stigmatize yourself. That’s the first step to recovery. Thank you, Jason, for your story and your work. You teach us to stop feeling shame and guilt for our mental illnesses. You show us how to talk about them and make them normal. You inspire us to empathize and support each other. You are a great guest, and we appreciate your time and wisdom. Thank you both. I’ve enjoyed this conversation and the great questions.   Author recap: He shared his experience of fighting self-stigma. He said he had no control over his illness, and he had to accept it. He also said we should take care of ourselves in these hard times. He limits his exposure to bad news and focuses on positive things. I liked his discipline and his advice. What else did you note? He works on stigma and reminds us how other issues like breast cancer and alcoholism became less stigmatized over time. He says we need to talk, empathize, and acknowledge mental health. He takes lithium for his chemical imbalance and he’s not ashamed. He says workplaces need to have programs to support mental health or they will lose good talent. He said smart people are more prone to anxiety. He said workplaces need to support mental health. He said it’s not a character flaw but an illness. He said we should avoid toxic people, even if they are family. He said he is grateful for his medication. He reframed his situation in a positive way. He gave us good advice. We thank Jason for sharing his advice on mental health. We thank Brent and Christy for their help with the podcast. We ask you to share the podcast with others who might benefit from it. We invite you to join our online community, the culture works, where you can talk and support each other. We offer our services as speakers and workshop leaders on culture, leadership, gratitude, and anxiety. We do it online or in person. We hope you are well and happy. We want to end the stigma of mental health. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time. Take care and be well.