In a recent episode of HR Works Podcast, we addressed the serious issue of mental health with expert Eric Kussin, the founder of We Are All A Little Crazy: a 501c3 dedicated to making sure that everyone in the workplace is accepted, heard when they want to be, and safe. In this episode, Kussin tells us a little bit more about his path to where he is now. It’s one that is remarkable but will likely also be familiar to a lot of our listeners out there that personally live with, or have friends, family, and coworkers that live with mental wellness concerns.
To listen to the entire episode, click here
Jim: Hello, everyone, and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate your taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I am the host of HR Works, Jim Davis, and the editor of the HR Daily Advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of HR professionals. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent. Today’s topic is a serious one: mental health in the workplace.
By some estimates, one in five people in the United States live with a mental illness. Experts believe that only half of them are diagnosed. So it’s an issue that’s often invisible between stigmas and poor or missing diagnoses. People with a mental illness in the workplace often have no support system and no road map to managing their illness. Our guest today knows all too well how hidden and complex this issue is, for it is one he’s very close to.
We are very lucky to have Eric Kussin, the founder of We’re All A Little Crazy, a 501c3, dedicated to making sure that everyone in the workplace is accepted, heard when they want to be, and safe. As we get into the episode, I’ll let Eric tell us a little bit more about his path to where he is now because it’s one that is remarkable but will likely also be familiar to a lot of our listeners out there—that person you live with or your friends, family, and coworkers who live with a mental illness. Thank you so much, Eric, for taking the time to join us today.
Eric: Sure. Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: Absolutely. Can you just bring us up to speed about what happened to you and how you got to where you are?
Eric: Yeah. How much time we got?
Jim: Yeah, right.
Eric: I’ll try to give the CliffsNotes® version of it so I don’t take up too much time, but I spent 15 years working in professional sports on the league and team side of things. Six months into my tenure with the Florida Panthers, I was their chief revenue officer. I essentially hit a wall, and I fell apart as a human being. I couldn’t put sentences together; I was forgetting people’s names in my own family; I couldn’t answer e-mails. That felt like there was no connection between my brain and my mouth. That’s how bad it got. And I was fortunate enough to have very supportive owners who let me take as much time as I needed. The exact terminology when they were talking was whether it’s 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, we never leave a soldier out in the battlefield. And they both had military backgrounds, both were West Point grads.
And so I felt supported by my workplace that I’d be able to get over this fairly quickly and be able to get back into work mode. My life had been my work for so long. And unfortunately, I learned that that wasn’t the case. I learned about how complicated mental health is. I didn’t know for mental health beforehand, but essentially, for the next 2 ½ years as I came back to New York to try and see the top practitioners (I’m using air quotes there) in the Northeast, I was pumped with over 50 different psychotropic drug combinations.
My days were spent staring at a ceiling, not watching TV, not listening to the radio—basically dead to the world. And these doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was just pill after pill after pill and mixture after mixture after mixture that led to TMS therapy, which is transcranial magnetic stimulation, where they shoot electromagnetic waves into your brain, which led to suicidal ideations—first time I’d ever had that, which led me to decide to check myself in through the help of family to a psych ward, which is a scary term to say. So I went to Cornell Med Psych Ward, and I was told in no uncertain terms by their expert psychiatrists there that I was at my last resort and the last thing I had left to try was shock therapy.
So I went through 5 weeks and 12 sessions of shock therapy and left the hospital no better than I was before. And I thought my life was over essentially; I figured there’s no way that I’m going to be able to get out of this miserable period because I’ve tried everything that there is, according to what these doctors have told me. And serendipitous as it would be, my mother met this woman who practices what’s called integrative psychology. She’s a yoga practitioner and also a psychologist, and she believes in the mind-body connection. And it was then that I learned, by talking to her, that these life experiences that I had had prior to all of this kind of breakdown happening were what had ultimately affected me.
So I had an older brother who had broken his femur bone and was in a body cast; then had cancer for 5 years and went into remission; and then flew out of a jeep, landed on his head, cracked his head open, lost partial vision in his eye, and was in the ICU for a month. He was diagnosed with a relapse of cancer, and then a stronger chemo regimen sent his body into septic shock. The septic shock then sent him into a coma for 3 months, when we didn’t know if he had any brain activity. He finally wakes from the coma, and they have to put a shunt in his brain to drain the fluid out, and then his kidneys fail from the rigor of the septic shock, and my father has to donate a kidney to him, all followed by the next year, three of my close friends pass away from heart conditions unexpectedly.
And so essentially, the way that this woman described it to me was I was walking wounded where for me, I thought of those experiences in life as, “It’s like anyone else. Yeah, I had more shit happen to me,” excuse my language, “but how different is that than anyone else going through difficult challenges in life?” And she kind of sat me down, and she explained to me that I was having this front-row seat for all these traumatic events that I was watching, and those traumatic events were having an effect on my mental health. And that’s really where I first got an understanding of this global understanding and this picture of how mental health affects everyone.
A lot more to my story, but I don’t want to go too much in detail to take up too much time. The one thing I’ll say, Jim, which is fascinating, is almost every time I do one of these podcasts, the folks who start off, they start off with the stats that are out there because they’re the ones that are the most common. One in five people have a mental illness. Many of the people in that one in five don’t get treated. My theory is completely different because of what I experienced.
My theory is it’s not a one in five issue—it’s a five in five issue. It’s not necessarily that five in five have a disorder; I’m not going to that level. They don’t all get to the level that I got to. But who in this world doesn’t deal with the premature passing away of loved ones, the sickness of loved ones, the breakups, the divorces, the job losses, the difficult bosses they’re dealing with, the bullying in school, the cyberbullying—the list goes on and on.
I could list for you 50 different things that people write in to me about the challenges that they face in life, but all of those things affect our mental health. So when we’re talking about mental health in the workplace, we have to think much broader than just the one in five of mental illness. Because everyone in our workforce is dealing with some form of mental health challenge at some point that they’re working for you.
Jim: Listeners should know I heard you speak once before at this CNBC event, and it was very hard to hear your story, and then listening to it again, it’s just as hard. What a set of challenges to go through. A lot of people don’t have an opportunity to get help or don’t have an understanding workforce, an understanding leadership in the organization. They may not even know something’s wrong until something’s really wrong. And it’s just incredible to me that you went through all those years of talking to all of those professionals, and not one of them was able to say, “Maybe it’s the trauma of what happened in your life.”
Eric: Well, it’s not so uncommon. It’s a scary thing, Jim. And one of the reasons why we started our advocacy work is because the nature of psychiatry right now and the medical industry combine it with Big Pharma. You think about it: We grow up, and we have strep throat or bronchitis, and we take an antibiotic, and we get better in a day or 2. Or, you believe early on that there’s this magic formula for it: I take a pill, I sleep, and I get better.
So why would we think any differently when we’re sick from a mental health perspective that any of those things would be any different? So that’s the reason why I was chasing the pill. And so all of these doctors I was going to see train under that same philosophy, which is this is a chemical imbalance, so we need to get chemicals into this person’s brain to change it.
And you don’t get those questions from people outside of the psychiatry and psychopharmacology world of “What’s gone on in life? What are some of the challenges you face? What are the traumas you’ve been through?” And the more you talk to people—and the more that I’ve opened up to people—the more you realize that everyone in this world has faced something, whether it’s chronic stress-related or whether it’s some form of trauma. And by the way, that trauma doesn’t have to be something that they themselves lived through. So I’ll give you a real quick example. When some people think of trauma, they think, “I was the one sitting in the front seat of a car when a major car accident happened, and a friend or family member passed away right in front of my eyes.” Certainly, that’s very traumatic.
But it’s also traumatic to pick up the phone and hear something like that or to hear that it happened to a friend. And so I think that there’s this misconception that we have to be living in and through the trauma physically for it to affect us. And there’s this concept of vicarious trauma, the trauma that we’re living through in other people that affects us tremendously.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely. If you talk to someone who’s struggling, and he or she is having a hard time. Part of what, in my opinion, commiseration is is people kind of offload some of that energy into you, and part of being a good listener and a good friend is accepting that energy and helping to dissipate it because you definitely feel it.
Eric: Well, what you’re talking about, yeah, there’s a term for it: people who are empaths. They sit with people, and they give them space to share. And I think that’s part of it, but even take a step before you’re an empath, and you’re giving people that place to share. The thing that I learned because it happened to my brother and because it happened to my friends is that even if nothing is said, it’s the events themselves—that’s the way that my practitioner described it to me was, ‘Pretend you had a front-row seat at a basketball game, and these events are taking place on the court in front of you.’ Well, when you’re that close to those events, whether something’s said or not, how could you not be impacted by what you’re watching?
Think of a first responder going into a burning building, and yes, he or she saves a child, but there’s a mother crying because another child was burnt in that building. These are things that we see even before we get to the point of the communication that takes place. When we’re seeing these things happen, we have these motor neurons in our brain, and we’re watching them happen, and we’re feeling, “Wow, that’s kinda happening to us at the same time.” And when it’s to a loved one or someone we’re close with, it impacts us because we then start to think about all the what-ifs. What if this affects these people to where they’re no longer with us anymore or their life is impaired for the rest of their life? It’s really, really difficult topics to think about.
Jim: Yeah. And then you’re supposed to take all of that and just put it away when you walk into a workplace.
Eric: Exactly. The fascinating thing about going back to that stat one in five is that we don’t know because we don’t open up and talk about this often because we live in a society where we’re very private—we protect what goes on in our family. And I understand the genesis of that, going back a number of generations. But to your point, someone could be dealing with major fights going on at home and breakups and being close to divorce. And then it’s like, you come into work, and there’s this expectation to be this professional.
Totally understand that that’s the case. But at the same time, when people aren’t working on what they’re dealing with and what they’re challenged with outside of the office and they’re expected to just keep their head at their computer or in a meeting, talk to others, and wake up and do it all again the next day, what are we neglecting? What are we not working on? And the analogy that I make is these chronically stressful and traumatic situations that we’re living through are the equivalent from a physical health standpoint of eating a cheeseburger and fries every single day for lunch, never doing anything about it, and then having plaque buildup in our arteries.
Well, stress and trauma build up in our system, just like plaque does in our arteries. But we go to the gym, we run, we lift weights, and we try to eat better because that plaque builds up. But when it comes to mental health, we say, “I’ll just push it to the back, and I won’t deal with it right now. I’ll focus on work.” I was one of those who made that big mistake. I’m calling myself public enemy number one here; I loved what I was doing for work. I had a situation where sports was what got me away from some of those things, but unfortunately, because I focused so much on work and loved it so much, I wasn’t dealing with these underlying things clearly that were affecting me.
Jim: Yeah. And as you mentioned, it’s something that, over time, builds up and in HR in particular, as they are often the stewards of these kinds of programs. If they’re not actively doing something about just communicating to their employees that there is a program or there are people you can talk to if you ever need to, it’s just sort of a time bomb. And the way it’s presented can be drastically different from person to person, but it’s never good.
Eric: Well, and to your point from an HR perspective, I think we’re in a really interesting place in 2019 where there’s more and more talk in the media and in the public eye about mental health. But people are still trying to crack this nut and figure it out. And so one of the interesting things that I hear oftentimes from companies is, and I’m going from one end of the spectrum to the other here:
You have some companies that say, “Well, if we bring someone in to talk about mental health, I think we’re admitting then that our company has mental health or mental illness problems inside these walls. How is that going to be perceived by our vendors and by our clients?” I don’t think there’s a company in this world that doesn’t have mental health complications in its office. It’s an impossibility. We live life. That’s what happens.
So I think that’s shortsighted, number one. Number two, you look at the numbers from a productivity standpoint in terms of how much productivity is lost in the United States alone and then around the world based on how many people are coming into work feeling stressed, feeling overworked, and feeling to the point where they’re at the end of their rope. I know the DSM-5 just added burnout at work as an official diagnosis. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that—we’re all burnt out to some degree—but I think it’s something to take into consideration.
So I mentioned that I think of it in terms of a spectrum. You’ve got companies that say, “We can’t have anyone in.” Then you have companies that say, “Yeah, we’ll have someone in. This is great for our employees.” And what do they do? They do a 2-hour event; they check the box; and they say, “Well, we did this mental health thing. Now, it’s onto the next.” And then you’ve got the companies that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with that take mental health seriously to the point where one, they care about the overall health of their employees. That’s great, and that’s altruism. And then number two, they realize that healthier employees are more productive employees.
So we work on programs throughout the course of an entire year collaboratively so that their employees are feeling the best they can and then are creating the greatest work product that they can because it’s something that, at the end of the day, if they don’t address it, you’ve got people at computers with their heads kind of falling toward the keyboard, you’ve got people going to the bathroom really often just to take breaks, people going out to smoke cigarettes, and people going on longer lunch breaks. These are the things that seem like no big deal, but when you add them up over all the employees you have, they really do make an impact on your bottom line.
Jim: Yeah. And when you’re talking about that, I’m thinking about how in one hand, you’re mentioning that everybody has some sort of issue or has to address mental health. And I think even if we just sort of set some of that aside and we look at people who have a diagnosed mental health issue, it’s not on anyone’s schedule.
You could have someone who works perfectly fine and feels fine for 6 months, and then some little thing or big thing happens in life or at work, and it’s just a switch. Whatever the hang-up is, it happens, and it can be very damaging and very confusing for people around you if there isn’t a discussion that had been ongoing or at least some kind of way to couch. You see, it’s hard to explain a little bit, but-
Eric: I know what direction you’re going in. I’ll give you one example—maybe this will help you think about the point you were touching on. Take an organization where you have employees who go out and fly around to give presentations, whether as a group or as individuals. And this has happened to me many times, where your adrenaline carries you through that 2- or 3-day period when you’ve got the conference or the presentation that you have to give at a prospective client’s office, and you seem “fine.” And then, mental health oftentimes lags behind there. So you’re going on these fumes that are adrenaline, and then all of a sudden, you come home, and it feels like you hit a wall and like you can’t get out of bed.
So exactly to your point, it happens on its own time frame, and it’s often that we can’t necessarily pick when it’s going to happen. We also can’t pick when life experiences are going to happen to us. So you might have a big project coming up, and then someone’s grandmother passes away. Well, unfortunately, death doesn’t wait for the projects that we have and the deadlines that we have.
So I think the key with all this—and it goes back to the programming element of working and having mental health programming in your office—is how do we equip our employees with the tools to best be proactive about their mental health so that they’re ready when shit hits the fan, for lack of a better term, because it’s ultimately going to happen in life.
And they’re more understanding of these feelings that start to come on them when things start to feel like they’re falling apart to where they can do more and more of the practices that will teach them so that they can maintain a little bit more of a level playing field and not get so high or so low to the point where their productivity just takes a complete nose dive.
Jim: Let’s talk about some of that programming. There are companies out there that have, like you mentioned, good programming. There’s going to be a lot of midsize to small businesses out there that maybe don’t even have an HR person. Or, if they do, the department is very small and overworked. What advice would you give to them to get started?
Eric: Yeah, for sure. I can speak from firsthand experience of being one of those organizations that comes in. All of our programs are named after an American sign language sign. That’s our campaign. It’s called SameHere. SameHere essentially means I’ve been through challenges, and you’ve been through challenges. If we all go through challenges, why aren’t we talking about them? It’s a way to normalize the conversation.
So it’s a long way of explaining that when we partner with organizations—and it doesn’t have to be ours; obviously, it could be any that’s out there—it’s finding an organization, whether you have an HR department or not, but it’s finding one of these organizations that can help you set the culture in your office around this concept that we all go through things.
Eric: We have more and more of these topics of “We’re going to bring someone in to talk, and they’re going to talk about mental health.” The common misconception in the office going into the meeting, depending on what the person is going to be talking about in the meeting, is that “We’re going to be sitting through an entire lesson on what depression is and what anxiety is and what mental illness is.”
That’s the quickest way to lose employees and to lose their interest. The most important way to gain the interest of employees is to talk about these life experiences that we all go through, and you start to see heads nod in the room, and you start to see people feel comfortable and opening up.
I think one of the most important pieces then in terms of that programming is making sure that whoever leading it is an advocate who’s had a lived experience because having that lived experience is so important in creating a space in that room that’s a safe space, meaning that you have someone willing to be vulnerable at the front of the room and talk about what he or she has gone through. Because I can tell you just the microcosm of sharing my story online and how many people reacted to me and never met me before. When you share your vulnerabilities, what happens is people start to share back.
And so, it starts with that table-setting type of culture-changing initiative where you are giving permission to the people in your office to understand that this is a topic for all of us. This is not a topic for just those people with a diagnosis just to leave the office for this all-important psychiatrist appointment that they have once a week. It goes way beyond that.
In part two of this article series, we’ll continue our discussion with Kussin concerning mental health in general. Specifically, we’ll speak about the damaging stigma associated with mental health and offer a few strategies for overcoming that stigma.
To listen to the entire episode, click here.