As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Erik Niewiarowski, career and B2B content leader at PinkNews, shares their experience of living with depression and general anxiety disorder and how employers can support struggling employees with mental health.
I vividly remember the day that won’t be a day I will soon forget. A moment that forever changed the trajectory of how I live my life, how I remember my past, and how I hope for the future. As adults we spend most of our time at work, so this moment has also shaped how and where I work.
Before I share, I need to share some context. I grew up in the American Midwest, Milwaukee, Wisconsin to be exact. Both of my parents immigrated to the US from Poland as children in the early 60’s. Their families managed to escape the Soviet-era authoritarian regime for that American dream.
Even as a child I knew there was something different, both about my sexuality and my mental state. Not even my parents were equipped to handle it. What I thought were tantrums and meltdowns were actually the first signs of panic attacks and anxiety. Instead of being asked what was wrong, I was called spoiled or too emotional for my own good. It’s not their fault, they thought what they were doing was the right thing. Mental health issues weren’t their thing, nor was queer. So I put all those feelings in a closet where they stayed for almost three decades.
Now let’s go back to that day. I remember waking up thinking it was going to be tough. I had just started sessions with a new therapist and my anxiety and panic attacks were becoming more frequent, as was the depression that followed them. I had started my working day (at a previous employer) and my daughter was having problems with her school uniform. My partner was away taking our youngest to nursery. I could feel panic boiling up.
The complaints did not subside. It was almost time to go to school. I got a call at 9:30. When the panic and anxiety mounted, I yelled at my daughter and slammed the dresser drawer. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground with my daughter crying for me saying daddy, are you okay? I had had my first (and fortunately only) psychogenic blackout.
I got up, locked myself in my office and called my partner. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like, I’m sorry I can’t be your partner or the parents of the kids anymore – you have to go home and I’m going back to the US.
“It was within the space of 45 minutes that I stopped thinking I could heal myself and asked for help.”
My partner came home and took our daughter to school. During that time I was packing a suitcase and taking out my passport. When they got home, they very calmly came to me and said: if you feel the need to leave, that’s fine, but before you do, please call your therapist.
I managed to get through to my therapist, who said: Erik, please call your GP and get a prescription, I’ll give you 20 minutes to call me back, if I don’t call you.
So I did. It was within the space of 45 minutes that I stopped thinking I could heal myself and asked for help. I say without hyperbole that if I hadn’t, I can’t say for sure that I would be here today typing these words. I finally received the diagnosis I hadn’t known for a long time: I live with depression and general anxiety disorder.
My GP jumped into action and started me on antidepressants. Three years later and after a period of medication trial and error I have now dialed in: sertraline for depression and proponalol as needed for anxiety.
50% of the LGBTQ+ community has suffered from depression
Once I recovered, I started panicking again, this time about how my new diagnosis was going to impact my job and career. At the time, I was working for a boutique publishing company – a small, close-knit family business – and I didn’t want them to know. I’ve carried the burden of internalized homophobia/biphobia and the toxic male idea that strong men aren’t depressed with me my whole life, and that’s not something that can be unlearned after a week of antidepressants and therapy sessions.
Finally, I opened up to my line manager and another colleague, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was stunned to learn that I wasn’t alone. My breakdown was a culmination of experiences that coincided during the times of COVID. Selfishly, I thought I was the only one.
According to data from Champion Health, around 1 in 6 people in the UK are living with depression. For the LGBTQ+ community, the numbers are starker. Data from Stonewall found that 50% of LGBTQ+ people suffered from depression and one in eight suffered from anxiety.
“Some are simple gestures while others involve systemic culture change.”
Yet we still have to work, we have bills to pay and mouths to feed. In this uncertain post-pandemic economic climate, it is incumbent on employers to support their employees when it comes to their mental health and well-being.
Anecdotally, I’m lucky enough to now be employed at a place that has a vested interest in the mental health of their employees. However, I have to acknowledge my privilege and admit that not enough people have it as good as I do when it comes to workplace support.
So what can employers do to support the mental health of their employees? After years of researching and writing on this very topic, I’m more than happy to offer a few suggestions. Some are simple gestures, while others involve systemic culture change and some heavy lifting when it comes to politics, but all are attainable.
Offer mental health support in the workplace externally or internally
The holder is available in different sizes and shapes. If an organization has the resources, it must offer access to mental health resources. It can be as simple as a company-wide subscription to online platforms like Spill or Headspace. These are platforms dedicated to mental health well-being and give access to therapists, meditations and other resources to increase one’s well-being. Give employees a safe space and platform to talk to someone who will listen and offer help.
It’s also important to note that mental health issues are just like the LGBTQ+ community, they’re not a monolith. We all have individual needs that need to be addressed, so support that can address a myriad of needs is best.
If a company can’t afford that solution, at the very least it can pay a few select colleagues to be mental health first aid responders. The cost of mental health support is minimal compared to the cost of having to hire and retrain new employees.
Put an end to stigma at work
This is another simple gesture that involves changing the culture within the work. Many people are afraid to talk about their problems simply because they don’t feel safe. It’s really easy to create a sense of psychological security within the work. To create this space, leaders must become proactive.
Thankfully, through my work, I’ve seen an upward trend in this regard. Maybe it was the pandemic, but when we were ushered into our bosses’ homes on Zoom calls we got glimpses into their lives outside of work as well. Progressive leaders have begun to open up more about their own history and experience with mental health. This shift in culture allows for empathy. When people have a shared experience, it’s easier to talk about it.
As Simon Blake OBE, Managing Director of Mental Health First Aid – England once told me: We know that some of the most influential change mechanisms occur when people in senior leadership positions talk about their lived realities, their health experiences mental or being a lesbian or being trans, because they have a platform.
Rethink company policies
Just like other taboo topics like menopause and pain, progressive employers who really care about their employees need to take a look at mental health and wellness policies. Would a few extra sick days to address mental health really help hurt financial bottom line? How about a few days dedicated to mental health?
These questions are rhetorical, but it makes sense for employers to be committed to mental health and wellbeing. Aside from the moral argument, this type of engagement allows employees to be their authentic selves, which leads to more innovation, creativity, and ultimately more profits for the company.
I don’t consider myself an activist, but I choose to speak openly about my struggles with depression and anxiety because I know that for every person who speaks up, there are thousands who don’t.
My mental health journey is ongoing. There are ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, and lots of Hall and Oate. All I’m certain of is that I’m still here, and that nadir brought me finally being able to face all of my past and look into the future.
I’m here, I’m queer and I suffer from depression.
If you are struggling with your mental health and need to talk, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or Switchboard LGBT on 0300 330 0630.
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