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Mental health is true wealth
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“I need to take a 3 month personal leave. My 7 year old son is having behavior issues at home and we are not sure what learning challenges he is having at school. I need to take care of him and myself. I am struggling with depression.” With these words I finally opened up to my manager in the summer of 2015. This was the first time I had told anyone outside my immediate family and close friends about my struggles with mental health.
I had been hit with postpartum depression six months after the birth of my first son in 2008. At first I ignored it - I would feel unmotivated for a week each month and thought I would just snap out of it eventually. I didn't seek any help besides talking to some close friends and after one year when I started to feel more “normal” I assumed I had fully recovered. Unfortunately, two and a half years later, after the birth of my second son it came back quicker and stronger. I started to have debilitating migraines with vertigo that made it difficult to get out of bed. I started waking up in the morning dreading going into work. At work I would escape to my car to play Candy Crush to avoid the demands of my team. I struggled but thanks to friends who noticed the signs I was able to get help and start seeing a therapist.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I have not openly shared the story of my mental health challenges as there has always been a stigma associated with it. But over the years as I have talked to more friends, colleagues and mentees I have realized that I am not alone in this struggle. The past two years of the pandemic also exposed how many people were battling with mental health - kids in school, adults stuck working at home, older generations isolated and lonely at home.
“...up to 80% of people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition over the course of their lifetime, whether they know it or not. The prevalence of symptoms is the same from the C-suite to individual contributors, but almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status.”
I share my story today to help destigmatize our society’s perception of mental health. I share it so others might find the courage to reach out for help to loved ones or to medical professionals. I share so that parents can start to recognize the need to talk to their kids about their emotions and the importance of mental well being. I hope managers and colleagues will find ways to be more vulnerable and authentic with their team members and normalize discussions on mental health. Over the years, I have built up a toolkit to support my mental wellbeing including therapy, self care, healthy eating, walking and social connection to pull me through my down times. I have collected many resources to help me and I share some of my readings in the hope that it will help some of you.
Remember you are not alone and if you need help please reach out to family or professionals and seek out help that is available.
I have found this article on depression by Noah Smith to be a pretty accurate description of the feelings, thoughts and needs of someone going through a depressive episode. I have sent this article to numerous folks to explain what I go through or to help people understand what they are going through.
The Child Mind Institute launched a recent campaign “Dare to Share” that features video testimonials from celebrities, public figures, athletes, and kids, opening up about how they found the courage to tell their mental health stories, and what we gain when we #DareToShare.
For working folks here is an article on 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health.
Delaney Ruston (primary care physician and documentary filmmaker of Screenagers) shares some critical information to boost the mental health literacy for our youth today.
Below is a picture that was shared in my third grader’s SEL (Social Emotional Learning) class. I think all of us adults could use this primer as we go through our daily lives. I wish there was an adult SEL class that would send me tips like this :)
I returned to work this Monday, May 16th after a three-month break. My first meeting that day was on how we can encourage wellbeing within our team. I found it refreshing that people at work were talking so openly about supporting teammates, some even advocating for what they themselves needed.
During my three-month break, I switched off from work completely except for leading one meeting. A month before taking the break I had started to lead a bi-weekly meeting for the women across our cross-functional team. This meeting was slightly unusual - it wasn’t to discuss product launches or partnerships, or related to any of our business goals. It was simply a time for the women on the team to dial in and get to know and support each other. I was striving to create a safe space where each one of us felt heard. After more than a year of working from home, I had started to feel disconnected from Google for the first time in fifteen years. So I was trying to create a space where I could change that - where I could feel connected to my colleagues again and help them feel the same.
We invited a small group of twenty women - and about six of them became regulars. Through the exercises I introduced (ex.. the gaining, draining, investing energy exercise I talked about here) I got to know these engineers, UX leads, and product managers beyond their titles. We got acquainted with the challenges each person was facing in their life and also what they were celebrating. We talked about how we were feeling about returning to the office. In a particularly vulnerable session, one woman opened up about her mental health journey. Her words were raw, I teared up at the challenges she had been facing. After the session, she thanked us all for the space we had created together. It made me realize how we need to normalize the ability for someone to speak openly about something that big, that deep, in a work environment. It’s a gift we must give each other.
On the work front, while I was out, my manager changed, my engineering lead transitioned into another role and my product manager quit to go to a crypto start-up. On the home front, the financial market in the US crashed and my husband’s mental state took a nosedive along with our stock portfolio. Everything around me changed, but I didn’t fall apart. I soldiered on. I had days where I felt lost, broken, and untethered. On those days I shed a few tears, wrote in my journal, sometimes talked to a close friend, and woke up the next day ready to figure out what was next.
“We need to create a home to return to. And when I say home, I’m not talking about a physical place or somewhere where pants are optional. I’m talking about a set of beliefs we return to after a day full of, well, anything. We need to dig a foundation so deep that it will exist and thrive even if our surface-level efforts fail. What is left when a harsh wind blows away my daily affirmation Post-its? What can I hold on to if a toxic person reenters my life? And what can I lean on if my journal is ripped from my hands?”
- Be a Triangle, Lilly Singh
I learned that I could now be the strong, stable, and resilient person for my loved ones. Taking time off and getting re-centered will do that for you. During my break I spent the time on the simple things - being a wife and mother, taking long walks with my close female friends, reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in years, witnessing my parents’ joy from playing with little A and putting up artwork on the bare walls of our house.
So what I’m trying to say is this - if you recognize that you are in a place where you don’t feel good, feel overly stressed, feel alone or isolated, and can give yourself the gift of time then please do everything you can to take that time. If that’s not possible, then find a way either through conversations with friends, colleagues, therapists or meditation to find a connection to yourself, to life.
This playlist has helped me shift my internal state, maybe it will be helpful to you as well.