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Mental Health at Work: How One Tweet Changed the Conversation

Mental Health at Work: How One Tweet Changed the Conversation

Scared to take a mental health day? You're not alone. One woman shares why she's standing up for mental health days in the workplace.

You might not know Madalyn Parker by name, but you’ve likely heard of the email she wrote to her coworkers that was retweeted more than 16,000 times.

“I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”

Company CEO Ben Congleton’s email response was applauded across social media. “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health—I can't believe this is not a standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”

Here’s the story behind the now viral tweet, plus the ways Parker is finding her voice as an advocate for mental health in the workplace.

When treatment fails over and over again
“I have almost definitely struggled with mental illness my whole life,” says Parker, 27, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was diagnosed with anxiety sometime in middle or high school (she’s not sure exactly when because she wasn’t treated for it at the time). During her college years, she experienced panic attacks, and her schoolwork and relationships were suffering. When Parker began to feel suicidal, she reached out for help. Parker was diagnosed with depression. She has been in therapy since then.

“I've been a lot better about monitoring how I'm doing and knowing when I need to ask for help. But, it's really hard to gain that self-awareness,” she says.

Parker has treatment resistant depression, which means depression that doesn’t improve even with treatment. Treatment resistant depression is common—out of the 15 to 20 million people who have depression, one third don’t respond to treatment. Because of this, Parker has yet to find a medication that works for an extended period of time. Six weeks was the longest stretch during which Parker felt “kind of good.” Throughout her life, she would try a medication for three to four months, only to have her symptoms return. This vicious cycle happened over and over again. Parker says she now considers it completely normal.

Dealing with “real world” depression
After college, Parker started her first job as an engineer at a software tech startup. She was 10 months into her position when her medication was no longer effective. When familiar symptoms came back, she knew she had to tell somebody about it.

Parker confided in a colleague who she considered a confidant, a mentor and a coach within the organization. She took him aside and explained her mental health struggle as well as her fears about what her coworkers would think. Parker told him she didn’t want people to think she was lazy or bad at her job, but she needed help.

“I'm sick and it takes energy and time to take care of this,” Parker says of her condition.

Parker’s new role as an advocate 
Parker still works at her tech startup and takes time off when she needs to. “To be honest, I'm just wired for honesty,” she says. “Putting a mask on at work and not being able to authentically be me takes energy.”

“It is incredibly hard to be honest about mental health in the typical workplace,” said Congleton in a July 2017 essay for the website Medium. “In situations like this, it is so easy to tell your teammates you are 'not feeling well.' I wanted to call this out and express gratitude for Madalyn’s bravery in helping us normalize mental health as a normal health issue,” the CEO wrote.

Now, Parker is an advocate for mental health in the workplace. “There is so much that I wish people understood and knew about mental health.” She speaks at conferences, shares her story and has high hopes for the future of mental health in the workplace.

“I'm hoping that we are moving in the right direction and we're sort of breaking away from all of these things that have been ingrained in us about society and about the way one should act,” she says.

Although within the past 12 months, one in five people have reported that they have a mental illness, it’s still taboo to talk about mental health in the workplace. “I think that we need to break down the stigma and realize that this is something a lot of people we know and a lot of people that we love deal with,” says Parker.

Foundations like the American Psychiatric Association are educating companies about why mental health matters and this past October, World Mental Health Day was dedicated to mental health in the workplace. Some bigger companies like Sprint and Chevron have started to carry out depression and mental health initiatives, but there’s still more headway to be made.

“I think it's up to those who are higher up at these organizations to realize this is a big issue that affects a lot of people. They need to make an effort to make sure that people feel supported,” says Parker.

How you can manage your mental health at work
Although Parker works in a very supportive work environment, not all companies are the same. In a poll of more than 1,500 people in the 2016 Work and Well-Being survey by the American Psychological Association, fewer than half of workers said that their employer supported their well-being. Not sure how to manage your mental health while at work? Here are some suggestions:

Remember, you’re protected: Under the law, your employer can’t discriminate against you for having post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or any other mental health condition. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees with physical or mental impairments that limit daily functions.

Use your support systems: When you have depression and are working full time, you might feel like you have nobody to turn to. Parker suggests attending local meet ups for people with your condition.

“People with depression tend to isolate, so any way that they can get a sense of belonging and being with other people is really helpful,” says Mike Ashworth, PhD, a psychologist from Medical City Green Oaks in Dallas, Texas. To find local meetups in your area, check out the National Alliance of Mental Illness’s site.

Know when to stay home: Having a bad day is different from living with depression. “Think of a bad day as temporary and fleeting. You're likely to get back on track tomorrow,” says Dr. Ashworth. Depression, on the other hand, lasts nearly every day for two weeks. “With depression, it's more chronic and it affects almost every part of you,” he adds.

This is why it’s important to listen to your body. For Parker, sometimes she’ll go into work and not be her best self mentally. If she has pushed through working for a few days and still doesn’t feel great, she usually decides to stay home. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you and tap into how you’re feeling.

Depression can also disguise itself in the form of headaches, gastrointestinal problems and other forms of chronic discomfort. If physical symptoms last for two weeks or longer, you might want to see a doctor or therapist. Do not assume that symptoms will suddenly go away on their own or that you have to live with them.

There’s no right or wrong way to take a mental health day: Mental illnesses manifest themselves in many ways. For some people, just getting out of the house is huge. For others, a mental health day might mean taking a walk, making tea or just lying on the couch.

“Be deliberate about planning your mental health day and being mindful about asking yourself, ‘what do I really need to do to nourish my mental and emotional health?’” says Ashworth. For example, do you feel like you need to recharge your batteries? Or like you need to plan something fun? Or have you been feeling lonely and like you need to get together with family or friends? Plan your day based on your answers.

Parker says that finding things to replenish her energy store is important during her mental health days. “I need to do what I need to do to take care of myself,” she says. Parker admits that her mental health days never look the same mostly because her mental illness never looks the same. She always caters her mental health days towards how she’s feeling.

Know when it’s something more serious: “If you take that mental health day or two and you continue to feel irritable or overwhelmed in your personal life with day-to-day tasks, have struggles refocusing your energy or feeling motivated at work, those are warning signs that something bigger may be going on,” says Ashworth. If you’re experiencing such signs, it might be time to speak with a therapist or doctor. Check to see if your company has an employee assistance program, or go online and look at resources like Active Minds and Mentalhealth.gov. Moreover, if you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

As for Parker, she hopes to continue chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental health—especially at work.

“I hope that the conversation continues. People need to keep talking about it so that we can normalize it. It shouldn't be this thing that we don't talk about.”

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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