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 Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn.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…]

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.


Mental Illness, Politics Increasingly Intersect

It’s a bit frightening watching as the mental illness and political worlds increasingly overlap.

When I started writing on two tracks—one focused on mental illness and another on politics and public policy—I thought I was covering different subjects. Now, it’s clear that understanding mental illness and its remedies contributes to comprehending and working in our political system—recognition I share with no desire to diminish either topic.

Consider the following:

  • Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real,” according to Wikipedia. “Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation.” As we look at public policy today, how often do we find political debates rooted in falsehoods, clear policy inconsistencies and words twisted by political opponents to suggest they mean something other than what we heard. As is the case with schizophrenia, improving our political system requires multimodal treatment that includes educational, social and other interventions, including direct treatment of some of the primary causes of the psychosis in the system. In government, the psychosis often originates in a disconnected, dysfunctional political system.
  • According to Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder “is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Can you think of anyone from the political world for whom this description applies? Understanding narcissism is too often critical to understanding politicians.

[Read more…]

Mental Health Through Dramatic Change

A dramatic life change, solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, helped Cheryl Strayed restore her life path in the biographical movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. Dramatic gestures may not be enough, though, for those searching for mental health.

After her Ghana volunteer trip failed her expectations, Carly was left to ponder her future. Following is how Carly contemplated her experience:

How many times am I going to do this before I realize it doesn’t work? Leaving home in high school. Didn’t fix me. Quitting Tiffany’s for a whole new career. Already saw how well that worked. Going to volunteer in Africa thinking that focusing only on others would pull me out. Torment.

Find a damn balance, Carly. Come on, be smarter.

You can’t do this in one dramatic move. But you know you can do this. You know you can feel better, be better. You’ve done it before. One step at a time. Use your coping skills, all of them. Well, I still can drink, can’t I? Yeah I can still have some wine, maybe just not so much. I can handle that.

I just can’t count on a single change to fix everything. It’s such hard work to fix everything. So hard. But I don’t need it all to be perfect, do I? I’ve felt okay before without it all being perfect. I just need to keep enough on track that I don’t fall back.

Why does it work for others? They go on a long, spiritual journey in a strange land or on some mountain trail and come home healed. That would be so much easier. Why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I just love me for me?

Good question, Carly? Why can’t I?


Fight or Flight for Mental Health

Fight or flight instincts don’t help if you have no idea which way to run. Carly’s search for mental health as an attempt survivor continues:

Carly’s tipping point came on the way home from a weekly volunteer meeting in Akuapem Hills, Ghana. The taxi driver had been told in his native language to take Carly to Central Station. He turned the wrong direction.

“No. No. No,” Carly said. “Central Station. Please. Central Station.”

God no. I’m dead. Raped or dead. Or both, she thought.

A group of people started coming toward the car.

“Please. Central Station,” she begged, eliciting no reaction.

Her California colleague, the one who had given directions to the driver, had spoken to him in Twi. Carly had no idea how to do that.

Carly’s fear quickly elevated. I’m dead. I’m not going to be someone’s slave. Oh no, not in this life.

She tensed her fists and prepared to fight and run, even if she wasn’t quite sure which direction to go. A group piled quickly into the taxi around her, leaving no time to do anything and no escape.

Carly prepared for the worst. Instead, they left Carly alone. Fifteen minutes later, she was at Central Station, coated in sweat and in the midst of an uncontrollable anxiety attack, even after figuring out that shared taxis picked up passengers whenever and wherever they could. When a volunteer leader spotted Carly, that leader could tell something was wrong.

“I need a cigarette,” was all Carly could muster.

“Well, you can’t smoke here. Women don’t smoke,” Carly was informed, adding to her already chest-crushing anxiety.

“I know a place,” the leader reassured Carly, taking her to a nearby hut where the family invited them to sit at their family table. The leader bought two cigarettes and two beers from the mother, who allowed them to enjoy the comforting taste and aroma until Carly was calm enough to return to her host house.

The next day, Carly began a trek home that included 24 hours at Kotoka international, a story about an emergency family illness, hundreds of dollars in texting and phone charges and a self-promise that she was done seeking dramatic life changes.

The long plane ride provided plenty of opportunity for Carly to ruminate.

Seeking Mental Health in Ghana

Another is a series of stories on attempt survivor Carly Jacobson’s search for mental health:

When Carly finally arrived at the Projects Abroad center in Akuapem, she was immediately taken to her host house. Her luck turned for the better, though she could hardly tell. All eight of the volunteers had beds and nets, luxuries she didn’t immediately know to appreciate. One of her eight shelter mates was a girl from Canada who spoke English, another comfort Carly would learn to cherish. Though Ghana is officially an English-speaking country, finding English speakers wasn’t as easy as Carly anticipated. Twi is Akuapem’s primary language. Projects Abroad volunteers came from all over the world, sharing only an interest in the promised experience.

Carly’s second day in Ghana was adventurous.

Stuffed into a tro-tro, a shared taxi van carrying 20 people dripping sweat onto each other, Carly was escorted on a full-day journey by a project coordinator to the nearest city where she could exchange her money, an exchange Carly’s operational efficiency mind figured could have been done in less than an extra hour in Accra the day before.

Day three was her first as a functional volunteer, dumping a muddy cinder slime into brick molds that were packed down and set out to dry. Once dried, the bricks were carried, stacked and cemented to build a local schoolhouse. When class in a nearby school ended, the best part of Carly’s volunteer work began. Children swarmed the volunteers, including Carly. She held offered hands, knelt to allow many to run their fingers through hair that was neither dark nor curled and hugged dozens eager for human embrace. [Read more…]

Seeking Mental Health; Finding Fear

Sometimes the journeys we take hoping to find mental health affect us in manners we never intended. Such was the case with a trip to Ghana for Carly Jacobson–suicide attempt survivor, dear friend and subject of my current writing project.

Carly’s Ghana Story (Part One)

The runway view at Kotoka International Airport provided Carly Jacobson with reassurance that she could survive this experience, a comfort that lasted only minutes.

The airport seemed modern enough, capped by a celadon green parabolic wing structure that was just one of several curved features adding visual interest to the terminal design.

In operations, however, the gateway to Accra, Ghana was anything but modern. By the time Carly endured a gauntlet of scammers and over-chargers between collecting her baggage and finding her escort from Projects Abroad, anxiety overwhelmed every other emotion.

“Take your bags,” a shabbily dressed man stated as he began grabbing bags out of Carly’s hands while demanding cash for his service.

“No. No, thank you,” Carly replied as she tightened her grips.

“Take a cart, miss?” another man offered. “Only two dollars.”

“It says ‘free’,” Carly replied.

“Two dollars,” he insisted, gripping the nearest cart firmly to prevent Carly from using it without paying him.

Quickly, the putrid aroma nauseated Carly. Temperatures soared above 90 degrees even in late November. It became clear that showers, the human kind, were a first-world pleasure, or at least an unusual occurrence among these airport denizens.

Carly breathed again on spotting the Projects Abroad sign, thankful she had someone local who could help her navigate this unusual terrain. The twisting, erratic drive to the not-for-profit’s office, in a dilapidated car likely saved from a European junkyard, rejuvenated Carly’s tensions. The sign inside Projects Abroad only added to her anguish. “Keep all cameras and valuables secure in your compound,” the sign warned.

“Why do we need to secure our cameras?” Carly asked naively.

“If anyone sees it, they’ll take it,” the project administrator matter-of-factly stated. “They’ll hurt you if they have to, but they’ll be the ones leaving with it.”

“Anything else before I go to my work site,” Carly asked, hands still grasped tightly around her bags.

“Stuff any money in your shirt. Here,” he said, pointing toward Carly’s chest. “Oh, yes. Here’s your t-shirt. Taxi will take you now.”

It was moving too fast for Carly to process. She got in the taxi, with a destination of Akuapem Hills. Had Carly studied a map before departing, she would have been frightened that it took two hours to arrive, but bumpy travel that included dirt roads and what seemed highly circuitous driving already had her wishing she had a Liam Neeson type back home to lead her rescue.

As the taxi approached a road-blocking security checkpoint, the driver used one of the few English phrases she would comprehend.

“Don’t say anything,” he warned.

Carly’s thoughts quickly went a dismal direction. Please don’t take me. Please don’t rape me. Let me live.

After extensive discussion, the driver pulled out a stack of bills, handed them over to the armed men blockading the street and was allowed to pass.

Less than a day in Ghana, and Carly quickly crossed over from fearing living to fearing for her life.

Finding Love and A Life Worth Living

As I strive, love provides the road on which I stride.

I love. I am loved. I even have come to love myself.

I always knew I was capable of the first. I could love. Until recently, I couldn’t believe I could be the recipient of the second. I am loved. I’ve learned I couldn’t reach the second without first achieving the third. Finally, I love myself.

I never even dreamed love could be this good.

Look at the woman I share my life with. My wife. My dream.

I admit it, even my fascination.

How does she do it? How does she know what I need, just when I need it? She holds me when I need to be held. She comforts me when I need to rest. She encourages me when I need a boost. She cajoles me when I need a swift kick to the backside.

Most of all, she refuses to let me give up on myself, particularly on those increasingly rare days when giving in feels easier than fighting through the next obstacle.

I once questioned—several times definitively answering no—whether this is a life worth living.

With every ounce of my being, I now know the answer is yes.

Mine is a bizarre, challenging life in a crazy world.

I love it, at least most days, and embrace it on all.

Even the tough days help make me who I am.

(This is the fifth in a series of insights lovingly shared by Carly Jacobson, founder of The CARL Project.)

Striving for Mental Health

(Part 4 of a series of insights on her mental health journey from Carly Jacobson, founder of The CARL Project).

I’m not perfect.

In reality, I could never conceive of perfection as possible even as I set this unrealistic standard as my minimum personal requirement, only to continuously batter my ego for every moment I fell short over so many years.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to be flawless. I can’t. I won’t. I no longer demand it of myself. Perfection is the realm of myths, certainly not of humanity. It’s good to achieve my best each day as I strive for even better the next, but my best doesn’t have to be perfect to warrant self-approval.

When I’m not my best, not living up to what I know I can be, I’ve learned to dig into my deep innermost chasms for levels of extra effort that sometimes require excavation. After calling on these reserves in recent years, I know they exist even as they choose inconvenient moments to escape my grasp. I know they are there. I search and claw and pull until I find them. I refuse to allow them to hide.

If I falter one day, I work to be a little bit better the next and then just a little bit better the day after that. Perfect might still be the direction I work toward, but I’ve removed it as my goal and, perhaps most importantly, my expectation.