According to a recent study by Harvard Medical School, 18 percent of employed Americans between the ages of 15 and 54 reported that they had experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month.
Coping with a mental illness such as depression or anxiety (or both, since they often go hand-in-hand), is difficult for anyone. For an executive, the challenge — and the stakes — are even tougher.
How does someone who struggles to maintain mental health succeed as an executive?
I asked Dennis C. Miller, a successful healthcare and nonprofit executive whose early years were defined by severe depression and anxiety as the result of an abusive family life. After graduating high school at the bottom of his class, Dennis turned his life completely around in just 10 years.
He earned his bachelor’s degree with Phi Beta Kappa membership then completed a graduate degree at an Ivy League university. Miller built a career as a hospital executive and became a successful entrepreneur as a motivational speaker, author, leadership coach, and educator.
Dennis recounts his story in Moppin’ Floors to CEO: From Hopelessness and Failure to Happiness and Success. He offers the following advice for handling stress and depression in the workplace.
1. Do exactly what you would do if you experienced any other health challenge
If you suddenly developed a loss of hearing or a pain in your chest, you wouldn’t try to diagnose and treat it yourself, would you? More likely, you’d try to find a doctor who handles those types of cases. Your first step should be to contact your health insurer to help you find a psychologist or psychiatrist in your area who can work with you to identify and treat your mental health issue.
2. Don’t suffer alone
Reach out to a trusted family member or friend, and begin to build a support system. Just admitting that you are depressed and struggling can help to relieve the stress of your situation.
You might be surprised to find your confidants relieved that you taking steps to get better — odds are good that they already sensed a problem and have been worried about you. Human resource professionals at your company, faith-based organizations, and local mental health centers are also good places to seek support.
3. Don’t let fear of stigma add to your stress
The average workplace is stressful enough as it is!
Depression is not a character flaw. It can be the result of life trauma, loss or grief, and/or biochemical flaws in the brain. It is also extremely common and very treatable.
At work, and in life, focus on the things that you can influence or control, and make sure that stress management techniques such as breathing exercises and coping strategies are part of your treatment plan.
4. Try to maintain a balanced life
Friendships, exercise, a healthy diet, and time off for vacations are important to “de-stressing” ourselves. Plan ahead for weekend fun, and consider taking a mid-week break as well — go to a movie (or have an at-home movie night), have coffee with a friend, learn something new at a local college or library, or spend time pursuing a hobby.
5. Use your experiences to help others
You never know who might be suffering in silence. Contribute to a work atmosphere where employees are encouraged to speak up about stress, family commitments, workload, etc. Find ways to educate your work community about mental health, such as a mental health awareness table at your company’s next health fair. Discourage stigmatizing language.
Remember, what’s good for your employees is good for your company: Improved mental health decreases absenteeism and low productivity, which improves the company’s bottom line.
Dennis’ life journey inspires us all to pursue our dreams and live a meaningful and productive life. That in spite your life’s difficulties and the current circumstances you find yourself in, there is a path forward to make your life happier and more successful.
Dennis learned to reach out for help and support. He tells us that everyone who achieves any level of happiness and success often must overcome some form of adversity.
Even a troubled kid from Jersey can achieve happiness and success.
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