World Mental Health Day 2017

Tomorrow, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. This day was created by the World Health Organization (WHO) with the goal of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and putting more effort into supporting mental health.

The theme for World Mental Health Day 2017 is “mental health in the workplace.” According to the WHO website, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, which is the leading cause of disability, and more than 260 million people live with anxiety disorders. A good portion of us lives with both.

When I looked up World Mental Health Day, I was a little taken aback by the theme. Not because it’s a bad theme, but because it is so relevant to the last year of my life.

From August 2015-August 2017, I worked at a nonprofit as a full-time communications coordinator. And during the first few months, I really enjoyed it. It was my first full-time, totally adult job since leaving college, and I was getting to do things that I’d actually studied in school. I spent my days writing, editing, researching social media trends, and becoming better at project management. It was exciting.

Then, things at the company changed. We lost our communications director and our executive director. When I left more than a year later, we still didn’t have a communications director, and the replacement executive director was unqualified and oblivious to the negative workplace environment.

Work became a place I dreaded. I spent all 35 days of vacation allotted to me and took a few unpaid days out of the office as well just to avoid it. The negative working environment caused a decline in my mental health, physical health, and overall wellbeing.

So when I went to the WHO website last week and started reading about mental health in the workplace, it struck a little too close to home.

First I read about risks to mental health: poor management, limited participation in decision-making, low levels of employee support, unclear organizational objectives, unsupportive managerial practices, bullying, and harassment. I had experienced all of those things at my last job. No wonder I was so miserable.

Then I read about what those risks could lead to: psychological problems, physical problems, reduced productivity, and increased staff turnover. Oh, yeah. That could explain why my past year involved stomach aches, acid reflux, IBS symptoms, anxiety attacks, severe bouts of depression, a lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of being trapped, and general apathy. These risks are most definitely what caused me to ultimately leave the job, along with at least three other people in the same year.

What my last company didn’t understand was how important it is to maintain employee’s mental health. They, as a lot of smaller companies do, claimed that they didn’t have the money or resources to provide this care. One leader told me that he wasn’t surprised or worried by the staff turnaround because people who decided to work at this nonprofit chose to do so only for a short time on their way to better things or chose to do so because of things in their personal life that pushed them to accept a more flexible work schedule in exchange for a smaller salary. He didn’t seem to consider that maybe some people chose to work there because they actually cared about the company’s mission and would continue to work there if the quality of life at work was improved.

Luckily, I was able to get out of that environment and move on to a new company last month. My first day at the new company was a shock to my system. They did everything that the WHO website recommended to protect and promote employees’ mental health. Management was aware of the workplace environment and worked to improve it every day. They listened to their employees and involved them in the decision-making processes. On my first day, my boss pulled me aside to tell me about the resources available to me, the culture of the office, the endless growth opportunities, and how my opinion and how others treated me actually mattered to him and the company.

I was floored. I thought about what a difference a conversation like that would have made at my last job. About how during my last week of work there, they had a specialist come in to tell us about the resources available to us–resources that had been available the whole two years I worked there that no one had ever told me about.

My new job reinforced for me how important it is to promote mental health in the workplace. I’ve realized just how much damage the last job did to me when I hear someone that sounds like my old boss and my stomach starts to hurt.

As I read workplace good practices for mental health, I couldn’t help but smile. Because my new job has health and safety policies. They tirelessly inform us of the support we have available to us and where we can find it. They promote a healthy work-life balance with teleworking options and schedule adjustments. From day one, they told me about the career development programs offered. And I’ve already felt more appreciated for my contributions than I ever did at my last job.

For those out there who still think that mental health isn’t real or isn’t important, I ask you to read my story and remember that there are thousands out there like me. Even if you don’t have a mental health issue, chances are you can relate to working somewhere terrible. Think about that experience and imagine what a difference it would have made if management had addressed the toxic dynamics in your workplace and supported you in finding better ways to spend your days.

And if you really can’t imagine that, check out this stat from WHO: “For every USD $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of USD $4 in improved health and productivity.”

That’s just simple math, people. It’s worth it to invest a little more time in mental health, whether that worth is measured in happiness or dollars.

So spread the word! Let people know that World Mental Health Day is a thing and that it matters just as much as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Down Syndrome Awareness Month and AIDS Awareness Month and every real-life issue that we talk about. Because mental health and mental health issues are real, and we should talk about them, too.

Note: This post is an account of my personal experiences and opinions only. I do not speak for either company alluded to in this post.

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