HR Management & Compliance

How To Overcome the Mental Health Stigma

In part one of this article series, I was exploring 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. Here we continue our discussion by addressing the mental health stigma and strategies for overcoming it.

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To listen to the entire episode, click here.

Jim: Let’s talk a little bit about stigma because you’re talking about having it be a safe place, and that’s obviously very important in order for people to feel comfortable sharing. And then earlier, you mentioned how some companies are reticent to start a program because they don’t want to have the appearance of having mental health as an issue at their business, which is pretty ridiculous.

But that aside, there is, of course, a huge stigma, and mostly because of a lack of understanding, where somehow, just having someone have a diagnosis or knowing that someone might have a diagnosis makes it some other thing—the feared “other” and something that’s to be misunderstood or feared. And meanwhile, of course, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t have someone in his or her life who has to deal with real problems. How do you help coach people so that they can realize that the stigma is really a roadblock and it’s nothing valuable at all?

Eric: Yes. So with respect to the stigma, some of the things that I’ll talk about when I come into a room are—they touch a little bit on some of my own experiences that I was describing to you that integrative psychologist helped me understand. I’ll ask a broad question, and I’ll ask something like, “How many of you within the last week had been dealing with a very challenging situation that you feel has been affecting your performance at work?”

And you get some people raising their hands a little bit and some people kind of halfway up. OK, that’s fine. Obviously, it depends on the size of the room. Then you ask, “OK, how many of you within the last 3 months have lost a loved one unfortunately to a passing?” Then you start to get some more people raise their hand.

“How many of you have dealt with divorce in your family?” You get more and more people raising their hand. “How many of you have ever been let go from a previous position?” I know that’s sometimes a sensitive topic, but I’ll ask it in meetings. And a lot of times, people are open, and they answer that question.

So I go through this list, and at the end of the day, I get a room where the hands are up unanimously. And that’s evidence of the fact that we’re all facing something. And so, you can speak in terminology and [use 00:26:16] stats and talk about how many people are affected. The proof is in the pudding when you talk about real-life situations. And so I usually don’t ask those types of questions until I’ve shared my story first.

Because going back to that safe space thing, it’s a lot harder for people to share with the room and with me until I’ve been willing to be vulnerable myself. I’ll often travel around also when we have an alliance of athletes and entertainers and musicians. And I’ll usually bring one of them with me to each one of these sessions.

So you see the room light up because they see this person who has the quote unquote “perfect” life, or so they perceive, and then that person’s talking about really something as simple as what he or she deals with in life, as well. So, I’ll give you an example. I got off the phone yesterday with Brian Scalabrine. His name was the White Mamba when he played in the NBA. And he was the sixth man off the bench, a really popular guy, and won a championship with the Celtics.

And when we were talking, and I was telling him my stories, he was like, “Eric, my story is not as complex as yours. What could I talk about that could ever capture people the way that you do?” And I said, “Brian,” I said, “People look at you, and they see that you’re a broadcaster for the Celtics now and that you play in the Big3,” which is this league for professionals after you’re done with the NBA, “and you’ve got this family and a wife and kids that are beautiful and everything seems perfect.”

“What’s not perfect?” And he said, “Well, ever since I was a little kid, I would wake up after I didn’t perform well, and I’d be on myself, and I would have this down, heavy-weighted feeling.” And I was like, “Brian, do you realize how gold that is for people to hear that?” It’s like, people think that you just skate through life because you were given these God-given talents that are better than anyone else.

And we started talking about what are some of the things that you do to get out of that mind space? And he was talking about how from an early age, he knew he had to get himself up out of bed and start moving and that physical activity was the only way he was going to be able to move those feelings out of his head. So, when you bring an advocate to talk about a personal experience, and then you bring someone of influence who seems to have it all, and then he or she talks about something, and it’s not necessarily something that is earth-shattering or catastrophic, we certainly have influencers who do talk about things like that.

But I often bring people who just have everyday ho-hum things because it hammers home the point that it doesn’t need to be something that was so catastrophic. Here, if you look at Brian’s case, essentially what he’s saying is he was born with this perfectionist attitude. And while that made him the player that he was and got into the NBA and helped him win a championship ring, it also is one of the things that takes him down. He’s so hard on himself because he never feels like he’s doing things right because he always feels like there’s better ways to do things and ways that he can improve.

So, you now take that into the office, Jim. I actually was once asked a question on a podcast, if you could imagine this question coming from someone: “How do we screen for people who have mental health complications so that we don’t risk hiring them?” And I said, “Sure. If you want your highest performers, your hardest workers, your most in-depth thinkers and analytical thinkers, you could screen for them all you want.” Our greatest strength is often our greatest weakness. And in a case like Brian, I think that’s indicative of you’re going to look around the office, and you’re going to see those people who are like that.

You’re going to see the people who can hyper-focus. And that’s an amazing skill that they have for the productivity of what your company wants to accomplish. The question is, how is that skill set also negatively affecting them if they’re not managing that skill that they have? So, it’s talking about mental health in a very different way that shows the universality of what we all face that then helps an organization to realize, yes, this is a topic for all of us. And that’s what helps break this stigma down way more than anything like talking about stigma or talking about stats.

Jim: That’s a great answer. I really like the idea of having a whole room of people with their hands raised. That must be very powerful.

Eric: It is. And it’s humbling also because you come into a room, and these people don’t know you from Adam. And again, I’m still a baby in this space, relatively speaking—2 years into it. But I’ve worked in sports for 15 years. I’d never talked about mental health in the workplace.

And then I shared my story on LinkedIn because it was the only social media source that I had and had all these people call literally in a week, 400 calls. I had my personal telephone number, and they were from as far as China. And I’m keeping them in a spreadsheet, and I’m calling these people back. And one after the other, the common thread to all these calls was that they were sharing with me these challenges that they’d face.

They had a child who they lost to SIDS. They had their dream job when they were 22 right out of college, and a friend convinced them to take a start-up position outside of that dream job that they have because it would have more of a financial upside and equity stake. And they did it, and they’re making a lot of money, and they’re technically happy, but they’re not as happy as they were when they were in that dream job. Think about how often that happens. It’s so common, and we dismiss that as, “That’s life. Deal with life.” No, it’s not that.

Those are things that build up in us. They’re chronically stressful. And when that stress continues to build and we do nothing about it to release and rewire that stress and trauma from our system, it’s corrosive inside of our bodies.

Jim: You’re reminding me of this insulation, is I guess how I’d put it, that happens in an environment where these things aren’t talked about. I think a couple of things happen. I think one, a lot of people don’t want to admit that anything could possibly have happened to themselves.

And then they don’t want to color their coworkers with thoughts of that either. So they build walls between themselves and the people who are around them. And it’s something that I’ve experience myself when I see people struggling—they’re maybe not crying or something, but you can just tell something’s wrong. But there’s a little wall inside of you that says, “You don’t want to make trouble. You don’t want to make it a whole big thing. Maybe it’s nothing.”

And it’s taken me a long time to learn how to overcome that because it’s a stupid thing that gets in the way of helping people. What’s the worst that happens? You go up to them and say, “Hey, are you okay?” Commiserate with them about something. Or, if they don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, too. It’s just the worst that ever happens is they’re like, “I’m fine.” And then that’s the end of that. No one’s ever like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re accusing me of having mental illness.” I’m sure you’ve experienced that.

Eric: It is. One of the slides that I use when I do my presentations is I ask everyone, “What is the most common conversation that happens around the world in every single language on an everyday basis?” People throw out ideas, and I say, “The most common conversation is two brick walls talking to each other.” Because it goes like this: How are you doing? Good. And you? Good. We have that when we go into work every day, we have that when we’re on the subway every day, we have that when we are getting fast food at the restaurant from the server, and we have that even when we’re going to a reunion where we haven’t seen some of the people for a while and we’re just not in the mood to talk to them. “How you been? Good. You? Yeah, I’m good. Okay, cool.” And then you walk the other way.

We don’t have this comfort level of removing one brick from that wall and just saying, “I’m good. Things could be better.” Something like that. Think of how that opens up the opportunity for someone like you, and you just phrase it really well just to ask, “How are you doing? Is there anything I can help with?” And I think part of when you see someone like that and you notice someone who’s in a despair situation or just someone who is not acting the way that you might’ve seen him or her act over the last week or so is to say, “Hey, listen. I’m here for you. Whatever you need, I just want you to know that I’m here for you.” That’s what people want to hear. And they might say to you, “Jim, you know what? Right now, I’m fine.” And that’s OK.

But just knowing that you’re there for him or her is so important. The other piece of that that I’ll say to motivate people to do that is one, let’s look at the statistics of suicides in our country, and then, let’s look at the stories behind some of these that we hear, OK? So we hear about the fact that we have 44/45,000 people who die by suicide every single year in our country. And by the way, that’s at a 30-year high right now. And it’s scary. And so, as scary as that number is, I’m going to throw out a scarier number to you. We have 1.4 million people who attempt suicide every year.

So while we have 44,000 or 45,000 successful suicides, we have over 1.4 million who attempt. If we have over 1.4 million who attempt, think about how many more millions we have who are close to the thought of attempting. Because it all works on this spectrum, which means we have tens of millions of people who are affected to the point where suicidal ideations are at least in their mind.

If that’s the case, and then, if after many of the cases when we do lose people, we hear things like, “You never would have known,” “That person never showed signs,” and “That person was the life of the party,” shouldn’t that motivate us to reach out to people? And like you said, what’s the worst that happens? Someone says, “No, I’m fine. It’s OK. I’m dealing with it.”

It should be incumbent upon us as human beings and as individuals who are caring people to at least say, “Hey, I see you over there. I just want you to know I’m here for you if you ever need something.” That goes such a long way with people, and I think that’s something we need to become more comfortable doing.

Jim: Yeah. And just to add to that quickly is, 9 out of 10 suicide survivors have never tried it again because it’s often a momentary thing. The cliché is it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and like most clichés, that’s very real. A person is overwhelmed, and maybe next week, he or she would be fine. And sometimes, that’s all it takes is someone just saying, “How are you doing?” or “I could talk” or “Let’s go grab a drink” or whatever it is.

Eric: It’s a feeling of isolation. I can tell you when I had my ideations, and I knock on wood—I’m knocking on wood right now—I haven’t had them since, and maybe it was based on those treatments of TMS that I was getting. And so that’s what threw me into that way of thinking. But I felt there were error messages going on in my brain.

And to your point, if it was an impulse thing, I was fortunate enough that I knew that those were not the right messages that my mind should be thinking at the time. And so I had the wherewithal to ask for help and to ask someone to bring me to the hospital because I didn’t trust myself at that time. But not everyone is as fortunate, number one, to be around people when it happens.

And number two, you’re right. You could feel that way, and your brain tricks you into this hopeless, cavernous place where you feel like there’s no way out. And if you have someone reach out to you and say, “I’m here for you,” that can be just what the doctor ordered, no pun intended, in terms of what’s going to help you at least fight through that moment and get through those feelings that you’re having so that a week from now, you’re back to living your life, and maybe you’re not 100% perfect because that’s not how it works. But you’re not having the ideations to the strength that you had before. It’s why compassion goes such a long way. That’s why being there for each other goes such a long way.

Jim: It’s a great point. I think I have one last question, which is, we talked a little bit about what HR can do. And what can individuals do who are experiencing mental health challenges in an environment that isn’t conducive to seeking help?

Eric: So, you’re talking about obviously in an office environment specifically, right?

Jim: Yeah.

Eric: OK. So, the first thing is what I would say, whether the office is accepting of these types of situations or not: Your life is more important than your job is. I know a lot of people don’t love to hear that. I didn’t love to hear that when I was going through it. Your work is often your identity. But let’s be honest: You’re not going to have an identity if you don’t have a life.

And I know I’m speaking in very black-and-white terms right now, but I’m doing that for a reason. Because if you’re starting to feel a major panic attack coming on or you’re starting to feel major suicidal ideations coming on, there is zero shame in reaching over to someone at another desk or going into the office of your boss or a coworker and saying, “I’m experiencing this right now. I need help right now.”

And maybe the first person you speak to isn’t helpful, but just like it would be on the street if you’re reaching out for help from people, look at people in the eyes, tell them you’re in need of help right now, and get the help that’s needed in that moment. That’s kind of my elevator pitch to anyone who’s going through something: Your life is more important than your job is.

Now, to the people who are dealing with something and they feel like it’s something that they can quote “get over” right now and they just have to kind of grin and bear through it for a little while, there are many practices that we teach. If you go on our website, there are two different places to get there. It’s weareallalittlecrazy.org and then sameheremovement.org.

There’s a section called starr practices, S T A R R. And it stands for stress and trauma active release and rewiring. And so we teach things like alternate nostril breathing or victory breath. And these are things that when you’re in a moment of extreme anxiety, in a moment that feels almost catastrophic, there are ways to calm down the central nervous system to bring this overall common normalization to your system so that you’re not going to feel that on-edge feeling for that much longer. So I certainly promote everyone going and taking a look at some of those resources.

Obviously, if there’s any interest in having us out and doing programs, these are the types of things that I love doing, just because I love helping people, and our organization loves doing it. But I would say that there are things that you can do literally sitting at your desk where no one would even notice what you’re doing, but it’s certain rhythmic breathing patterns that help you to get to the point where those feelings start to wane and go away.

Jim: That’s great. That’s great advice. I’ll make sure to include a link in the description.

Eric: Great.

Jim: It’s really important that people have resources they need, and odds are that a lot of the people who are listening will be able to make use of that. So yeah, I’ll definitely make sure to put that in the description. Eric, this has been a great talk. I really appreciate your taking the time to join us.

Eric: Absolutely, man. Thank you so much for having me. It’s an interesting topic. Obviously, mental health is all-encompassing when we think about our society but especially in the workplace, where I think we have a really long way to go. So I applaud you for taking a step in pioneering and really diving into the topic deeply as it pertains to the office environment.

Yeah, it’s my pleasure. I tell my friends all the time, you spend the best parts of the best time of your life at work. So to think that you can’t address some of your problems during that time is just really unhealthy. Listeners, we’re always interested in suggestions you might have for what we should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter at HR Works Podcast with any thoughts or concerns you have or if you have any thoughts in general. Thank you for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.

You can find the STARR practices that Kussin mentions here.
To listen to the entire episode, click here.