There were no balloons. No cake. No hugs. No cards. No “welcome back” emails. No questions. Just an empty desk when I returned to the office from disability.
When I reluctantly told a few friends, family and associates that I was on disability, and the reason why, I heard a variation of flippant comments. “I get that all the time.” “You can take disability for that? I’d be out a few days a week!” “Isn’t going on disability a little extreme?” “What a drama queen.” It was evident that it was just easier not to tell anyone the truth.
What precipitated the lack of a celebration and empathy? A grueling battle with severe depression and anxiety, which would ultimately last nearly a year and a half.
As we marked World Mental Health Day, this week, perhaps it’s a reminder that it’s never too late to start paying attention to mental health in the office. This week provides an opportunity to discuss the raw truth and sheer dreadfulness about dealing with mental illness, particularly at work, and help lift the stigma that still exists about the affliction while providing ways to recognize the symptoms.
We spend most of our time at work with our colleagues. And those suffering from severe depression can be difficult to spot, especially by coworkers. For the stricken, it usually creeps in and builds unknowingly over time, and it’s an excruciatingly lonely struggle. And, in most cases, cohorts might either be unsuspecting, oblivious to the sinister changes – or callous in their reaction. I should know.
My first day on disability felt like my last day on Earth. The pain was unimaginable, and unless you have personally experienced this pain, you simply can’t imagine what it’s like. I cowered on the couch. The tears would not subside. How had I gotten to this point? Just two months prior, I had wrapped up a global public relations climate change project on behalf of the United Nations, our team and myself, winning countless industry awards. I was at the top of my profession. I had worked for four of the nation’s top retailers and on Capitol Hill. I was a sought-after PR expert. I owned the room. The proverbial and literal class clown. Life of the party. Infectiously optimistic. Yet now, I was immobilized, mentally “disabled”. What in the hell had happened to me?
The sickness came on ever so slowly, growing more ominous as time went on. I had just turned 50, and like Anderson Cooper, who recently admitted that he thought he would die at 50 like his father, I too had predicted my death at 50 since that was the age when father died. As the months passed, I kept wondering, “why am I still here”? I had never saved any money, lived life day-to-day, and drank excessively.
Thus, the torture of the deterioration began, with my mood becoming progressively miserable. I fought a bad cold for nearly four months, with lots of coughing. It just wouldn’t go away. It was like I had given up taking care of myself. Then in succession, I lost a loved one and two close friends. Death suddenly was an obsession and trying to survive was relegated to the bottom of the priority list.
Work was still a priority, and it was dreadful trying to keep up a front that “everything was great” to my coworkers. My booming voice had become flat. I wasn’t eating, so there was a 20-pound, gradual weight loss. By the end of each day, I felt as though I could barely breathe. I made it home to sit in a dark apartment with a flickering TV. The walls were closing in.
Then, one day at work, everything collapsed. I called my doctor from the office supply room, and he told me to come in right away. He walked into the examining room, and knowing the guy who always smiled and laughed, was stunned and horrified by what he saw. A broken man, crying, with a flat voice, bone-thin body and sunken eyes. He immediately diagnosed severe depression, put me on disability and referred me to a therapist. The doctor assured me that I would be ok and would need drug and therapeutic treatment for the foreseeable future. It would be a battle, but I would win. He added that I needed to know that it would take time and was like any other disease and not a scar on my character.
After six weeks of drug and psychological therapy, I returned to work. And then things got worse. I was given nothing to do, demoted, and treated like a pariah. The story gets worse, but suffice to say, that after being gone six weeks, no one welcomed me back. It was as if I had a contagious disease. My colleagues kept their distance. Sitting alone on endless eight-hour days, with no one to talk to, my condition deteriorated.
When the world collapses around you, one of your safe havens is typically your job and the people who work with you. These people see you every day so, invariably, people notice things. I was happy to be back, and hopeful to resume my life. But the aloofness of everyone was humiliating. Then, peering over one of my colleague’s shoulders, glancing at his email was an unopened message, with the bold subject line of “John Casey” What’s going on? Was I going to be fired? A chilling wave of panic set-in. Life was not returning to normal, and the safe haven of work became a dangerously ice-cold abyss. I sunk hard and fast, and ended up back on disability.
Owning up and paying attention
I eventually recovered thanks to lots of therapy, support from loved ones and a sheer determination to survive. I have a wonderful new job and am celebrated for being “older and experienced.” Jim Carrey, a depression survivor, recently returned to work starring in a new Showtime series. In promoting the show, Carrey said that depression is your body finally deciding it’s had it with the person you’re trying to play in the world; henceforth, there’s no reason to be ashamed of surviving depression.
Which is why I won’t be silent about the illness.
Jason Kander, a candidate for mayor of Kansas City stepped out of the shadows — and his election last week by revealing his severe depression, disrupting his professional life and doing so in a profound and public way. He’s brave – and lucky – identifying his symptoms and seeking help before it’s too late.
Interestingly, LGBTQ, women, and minorities all have professional organizations and voices to turn to for help and for their issues to be heard. And companies are quickly embracing the need for diversity; however, industries famous for inclusion, like advertising, generally ignore mental illness, probably because so many are reluctant to share.
There is no shame to severe depression. When a colleague takes sick leave to have an operation or recover from the flu, they usually return to a celebration. Why shouldn’t those who have a bout with depression be treated the same way? By paying attention, and engaging, you may help save a life.
Here are warning signals to watch out for with your colleagues:
- Work output slipping
- Voice change, or the lack of expression in spoken words
- Gradual, unexplained weight loss
- Empty eyes and dark circles that look lifeless
- Sudden lack of participation in pizza parties, office outings
John Casey is global head of public and media relations for worldwide digital consultancy Publicis.Sapient. He is also an adjunct professor of digital business transformation at Wagner College in New York City, and the author of the upcoming book “Spin Stop: Life of a PR Guy.”