Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. [Read more…]

Leading Integrated, Supportive Lives

In groups I’m co-facilitating in Chicago, discussing and supporting each other through common struggles quickly erases boundaries of race, age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. I feel the same way when I’m out on the trails. Everyone watches each other’s back, offering helpful hints on the next obstacle, like this waterfall climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.
 
While too many political leaders encourage divides (no, this is not directed at just one person), no one can prevent us from leading integrated, supportive lives if we choose to pursue unity and peace over segregation and conflict.

Hiking up the side of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

13 Reasons Why Not on Suicide

For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.

Speaking at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser/rally for No Stigmas.
Photo courtesy Adam Pitra and No Stigmas.

With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.

During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.

My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:

  1. Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
  2. Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
  3. That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
  4. There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
  5. Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
  6. Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
  7. Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
  8. About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
  9. Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
  10. People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
  11. Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
  12. A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
  13. If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.

These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.

I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.

You’re worth it.

Helping Employees Cope Through PTSD

While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.

PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.

(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)

Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.

Screen+Shot+2016-08-23+at+2.39.25+PMThe ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.

Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.

[Read more…]

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
[Read more…]

Stepping Up When Anxiety Shuts An Employee Down

(Part of a series written originally for mental health advocacy group NoStigmas.)

If you manage a large team or even a few people over a number of years, chances are you’ve encountered an employee struggling with an anxiety disorder. React well as a leader/manager and you’ll help the struggling employee recover and contribute to your organizational success. Pile onto their problem and you’ll help send that employee, and your results, into downward spiral.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one type of anxiety disorder in a typical year.  While anxiety disorders are treatable, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has found that only one-third of those struggling seek help.

As a leader/manager in any organizational setting, you don’t need to diagnose the disorder to recognize when an employee needs help. If you believe help is needed, consider the following:

Draw attention to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Many organizations establish EAP outlets because they pay off financially. An employee struggling with an anxiety disorder is more valuable to the company after learning to manage their mental health. If you believe an employee who may need help would be uncomfortable directly discussing EAP programs with you, ask a human resources partner to talk to your full team about EAP offerings.

Consider your employee’s workload. An employee struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, may need you to hand out work assignments at a pace they can handle. If you overwhelm them with more work than they can conceivably accomplish – and don’t help set priorities – you may trigger a debilitating reaction.

Create an environment for success. Social Anxiety Disorder is among the most common anxiety challenges. From a leader/manager perspective, you may notice an employee blushing, shaking, tensing muscles or even displaying periods of unusual confusion that can accompany panic attacks. If this happens, create safer situations for the employee to build social success. An employee may be “afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others,” according to WebMD, with the fear potentially compounded by a lack of social skills or situational experience. You can create confidence that comes from experience by slowly building an employee’s comfort in social situations. Consider asking them to present a topic to you individually, inviting their active participation in small group discussions, and offering to be their practice audience if you know they are facing an uncomfortable speaking role. Even being the center of attention without needing to speak can make someone struggling with anxiety uncomfortable. Ensure that this attention doesn’t last long enough to trigger a tough reaction.

Provide advance warning. Anxiety disorders can be triggered if an employee faces a situation without time to identify a success path. To the extent you can give an employee a heads up on a new work requirement and bolster their confidence, you might mitigate an episodic reaction. Some anxiety disorders prevent people from thinking through issues, getting ideas stuck in the “fight-or-flight” section of their brain. Time, problem resolution discussions and encouragement can help the brain find circuits past its instinctive amygdala to problem-solving regions of the mind.

Anxiety disorders are categorized as mental illnesses, but they are not mental capacity limits. Theories about the causes of anxiety disorders include components of brain chemistry, brain circuitry and genetic traits. High-stress life experiences can contribute to chemical imbalances and circuit stresses. Fortunately, treatments for anxiety disorders are available with proven success records. Some individuals can recover in as little as a few weeks, while treatments in tougher cases can take more than a year (usually simultaneous with work).

To treat a chemical imbalance, redirect thought patterns or alleviate anxiety symptoms, your employee may need to search for a therapist, find a support group, and/or get medical help in identifying an appropriate prescription. Managers don’t play a role in these actions (other than through recommending EAP connections). Managers, however, can play a role in helping an employee follow through on many coping strategies recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

ADAA suggestions for an anxiety disorder sufferer include:

  • Managing time with to-do lists and engaging managers in setting priorities.
  • Not procrastinating so that work is done well before an agreed deadline.
  • Not overcommitting.
  • Asking for help.
  • Avoiding toxic coworkers. (Managers can help here.)
  • Taking breaks. A walk around the block or a few minutes of deep breathing can help clear one’s head.
  • Setting boundaries.
  • Savoring success. Celebrate good work before moving on.
  • Be healthy. Eat healthy. Sleep. Exercise. Limit caffeine and alcohol.

Keep these practices in mind. Consider adjusting your management style on everything from the food brought in as treats to the frequency at which you change priorities, the ways in which you communicate and the team members with whom the anxiety sufferer must interact.

A good employee may trigger into an anxiety disorder, even after years of great performance. The good employee is still there. As a leader/manager, you can help bring the best back out of them with a little care and concern. It’s in your interest to make the effort.

Common Complications for Muslims and Mental Illness

Political pandering driven to simplistic sloganeering is creating a common challenge for Muslims and mental illness sufferers.

For Muslims in America, being perceived as sharing a common religion is an increasing burden following Orlando’s Pulse shooting, San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, 9/11 and other incidents. Foreign attacks, including yesterday’s airport attack in Turkey, don’t help either.

For those struggling with any mental illness, being perceived as sharing a common disease is an increasing burden following Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech, and other incidents. The Germanwings crash and other overseas events only add to misgivings.

Since Muslims and mental illness are rarely discussed in mainstream media outside of tragic events, the perception of all Muslims and anyone struggling with mental health challenges is that violence is part of the label. For most, this is far from the truth.

[Read more…]

Political, Spiritual and Mental Health Ruminations

During long walks, my mind wanders down political, spiritual and mental health paths I frequently lose by the time I reach a writing device. Some ideas stick, though not necessarily the most important ones. Please treat these as invitations to react.

  1. I’m sure I’m the only person who watched Straight Outta Compton and later wondered what impact the fiduciary rule would have if it applied to people like Suge Knight and Jerry Heller. (I was also reminded after re-watching last week that the movie deserved better from the Oscars.)
  2. Shouldn’t we look at the whole transgender bathroom issue from the perspective of optimizing the mental health and safety of everyone involved, including transgender people? If we agree that’s the goal, solutions are achievable. It doesn’t seem, though, that solutions are the objective for many in this debate.
  3. When will Donald Trump speak to America’s schoolchildren about not bullying children of Mexican heritage using his “words”? By Election Day, some will have endured 18 months of abuse beyond typical elementary, middle and high school torment. As I’ve heard from people I know about taunting they or their children have endured, it’s clear this wound needs substantial healing.
  4. As Pope Francis regularly calls for governments to further redistribute income, I’m wondering what Bible chapter I missed where Jesus meets with the Romans to demand tax increases. Shouldn’t the Pope spend more time reaching out directly to the wealthy to inspire them to give more? Should religions, including the Catholic Church, direct more of its resources toward social services?
  5. From a checks and balances perspective, is it better to elect President Trump than President Clinton given how many Americans view both leading candidates as untrustworthy? She would likely demand and receive total allegiance if Congress flips to Democratic control. He would likely be checked regardless of which party controls Congress, right?
  6. If a preacher in a white supremacist sect teaches that his holy book demands the elimination from earth of everyone who is not white (even if most who read that book disagree with his interpretation), would the FBI infiltrate that church or would we consider that profiling? Aren’t violent supremacy movements equally a problem whether based on race alone, race and religion, or solely on religion? Shouldn’t we react the same regardless?
  7. Bernie Sanders rightly talks about income inequality, and has even hinted at a few solutions that make sense along with many that would speed a path to Venezuelan-style collapse ($170 burgers, lines for toilet paper, troops in the streets). Breaking up the largest financial institutions—and otherwise actually enforcing antitrust laws—could spur the innovation that followed the AT&T break-up. Would he apply the same standards to information control and other business sectors that he applies to financial power?

I wish my walks included more time thinking about strawberry-rhubarb pie, river float trips and great dance moves, but I find myself frequently caught in loops around political, spiritual and mental health. I never assume that I have all the facts (almost never anyway), so please feel free to share your thoughts and insights, knowing that I’m far from finding answers to some of these questions.

Mental Health Steps to Reverse Troubling Suicide Trends

DSC_0176Last week’s Centers for Disease Control release of deeply disturbing suicide trend data reminds us that even many proven mental health steps still require widespread attention and support. Even as understanding of brain function and chemistry expands, adoption of beneficial physical and mental health practices remains woefully inadequate.

Our minds are vital temples; each worthy of protection, repair and expansion. Our bodies provide foundations for these temples; requiring protection, nourishment and strength to support mental and spiritual health. Many of our temples are in disrepair, though, with data suggesting that far too many are collapsing or teetering on the flimsiest of cornerstones.

So how do we repair and rebuild?

Training Our Minds

A growing body of evidence shows that troubled minds don’t need to remain in a state of pain. A multitude of mental health steps support individuals seeking first relief and then fulfillment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other brain development and thought techniques used by professional therapists have proven effective at helping individuals struggling with self-belittlement, impulse control and a myriad of other issues. At a research forum hosted last week in Chicago by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Jon Grant noted that suicide rate reductions attributed to CBT can be as high as 50 percent for those with recent attempts, though he warned that properly trained CBT practitioners are in very short supply.

Seeing a professional therapist isn’t the only path toward better mental health:

  • Meditation and mindfulness techniques have a proven track record of aiding brain healing and development. For those particularly struggling, it is often beneficial to pursue these activities with guidance.
  • Expressing gratitude for elements of life helps to route how we view the world through the more positive aspects of our minds.
  • In addition, prayer to a loving god (when believed by the person praying) has been shown to generate mental health benefits, while participation in a religious community is often connected to better physical self-care practices that also help build a strong foundation for mental health.

Feeding Our Brains

Whether better mental health starts with exercising the brain or exercising the body depends on factors that include individual brain chemistry. For many, finding the energy needed to pray, meditate or participate in mindfulness-oriented therapies may first require a physical boost.

Among the critical physical tasks that help us build the foundation for mental health are:

  • Sleep. Professional athletes increasingly emphasize sleep to achieve peak performance, but everyone needs sleep’s healing and restorative powers to be our best selves.
  • Exercise. Brain chemistry imbalances are key contributors in most instances of depression, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. Exercising helps generate critical chemistries the brain requires.
  • Improved nutrition. Many studies show that healthy diet, including Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and other nutritional elements, is an essential mental health step.
  • Substance abuse avoidance. If the mind and body are consuming energy to fight toxins, they aren’t building a stronger foundation.
  • Gaining sunlight needed for the Vitamin D our brain requires can be an important part of mental health development.

[Read more…]

I Want to Die; Dealing with Severe Teen Depression

It has been many months since I joined Dr. James Sutton on The Changing Behavior Network, but he still considers that interview to be “one of his best.” Discussing my years when “I want to die” was more than a passing thought for me, the interview focuses substantially on the coping strategies that helped extricate me from that pain.

Dr. Sutton is an experienced, insightful and nationally-recognized psychologist, author and speaker focused on supporting emotionally troubled youth. If you struggle with depression or know someone who might need your support, check out our interview at The Changing Behavior Network. If you are struggling with other family or youth development issues, chances are he’s done an exceptional program that will help you too.