Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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High-Functioning Depression: The Mental Illness that Hides in Plain Sight

April 7th is World Health Day, and this year’s theme is “Depression: Let’s Talk”. While we have focused quite a bit on the topic of depression in light of “Bell Let’s Talk Day” only being a few weeks ago, I thought I’d discuss an issue that doesn’t get as much attention as it should – high-functioning depression.

Take a minute to think about an employee you talk to every day. You may chat with them about their family, discuss your plans for the weekend, or even joke around with them. Now imagine that on the inside, that employee is suffering from low energy, negative thoughts, and is struggling to keep a smile on their face. This is the reality for people living with high-functioning depression.

Just like regular depression, high-functioning depression results in loss of energy and feelings of hopelessness. The difference is, people with high-functioning depression don’t show any of these symptoms physically. They can go to work in the morning and perform tasks perfectly well. In fact, they could even be one of the highest-performing employees on your team. One could say that the “overachievers should not be overlooked”.

When it comes to high-functioning depression, a person’s outward behaviour doesn’t match the reality of what they are feeling. They plow through to get things done in their personal and professional lives, but are “exhausted”. High-functioning depression has been likened to “running a race with a weighted vest”. Because that vest is “invisible”, the illness often goes unnoticed by friends, family, coworkers, and HR managers.

Although the nature of high-functioning depression makes it difficult to detect, it’s certainly not impossible. There are subtle signs that may help you tell when an employee is suffering. Recognizing the signs can be crucial to preventing the situation from developing, and ensuring support is in place. Let me share with you some of the signs that an employee may have high-functioning depression:

  • Constant self-criticism and/or feelings of low self-worth
  • Place too much pressure on themselves
  • Feel like they are wasting time on the job
  • Feel like they have little life purpose or are lost
  • Feel like they are a nuisance to their family and friends
  • May have substance abuse problems outside of work
  • Worry about the small stuff and are unable to let things go

The feelings associated with these signs are not necessarily manifested on the outside and these signs do not necessarily indicate the presence of high-functioning depression, but glimpses of these signs can be flags for you to offer support.

It’s important for a manager, HR or otherwise, to remember that a mental illness doesn’t have to be seen to be real. Ensuring that you’re checking in with your staff and starting an open dialogue can make all the difference when it comes to helping an employee with high-functioning depression. Employees are more likely to ask for help from their employer when you provide them with a supportive environment.

Do you pay attention to the employees that seem “okay” on the outside? Do you have the support mechanisms in place to encourage open communication?

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#MentalHealth

Blue Monday, which occurs on the 3rd Monday of January, is often publicized online and in the news as the most depressing day of the year. While scientific evidence has proven this is not true, this term continues to trend on social media every January and contributes to the conversation around mental health awareness. January is also home to Bell Media’s popular mental health awareness campaign #BellLetsTalk, where Bell contributes proceeds from every #BellLetsTalk hashtag used in text messages or on social media on that day to support mental health organizations.

With all of these social media initiatives contributing to the conversation around mental health, I am amazed at how far we have come. There was a time when people were encouraged to hide their mental illness from the world, due to stigma and shame. Now, there are hundreds of online support communities that want people to share their mental health stories and show them they are not alone. Social media has truly changed the way we look at mental health.

In 2018, it is expected that 20 million Canadians will have at least one social media account to connect with the world around them, share news, and stay in touch with friends. Social media also provides us with a sense of community. People suffering with their mental health often describe being stigmatized by their illness and have trouble speaking out about it at school or work. The mental health community on social media has given people an opportunity to contribute to mental health awareness by giving them a voice. People can now search a hashtag like, #TalkAboutIt on Twitter or search mental heath support groups on Facebook and find like-minded individuals who are experiencing the same things they are. The ability to connect with others through social media is an incredible thing.

Regular people dealing with mental health challenges aren’t the only ones speaking up. Social media gives us access to celebrities and influencers like never before. It should come as no surprise that celebrities, just like us, suffer from mental health issues or know some who does. A lot of popular celebrities have come forward via social media in recent years to speak about their mental health and support others who are dealing with mental health challenges of their own. Well-known public figures such as Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga and Ryan Reynolds have used their social platforms to help reduce the stigma around mental illness. Seeing this kind of support and acceptance from a huge celebrity can truly make a difference to someone who is dealing with their own mental health challenges.

Mental health organizations are also now using social media to help them implement campaigns around mental health awareness. Organizations like CAMH and The Canadian Mental Health Association have utilized social media to show followers what they’re working on and the impact their organization has on mental health. People dealing with mental health issues are now a lot more aware of the services that these organizations provide, and have the ability to connect with them more efficiently than ever before.

That being said, I know there is a dark side to social media use as well. Issues like cyber bullying continue to plague these social networks, and can end up creating mental health challenges instead of assisting them. That’s why I think it’s so important to practice the kinds of values that are promoted on these trending days, like acceptance and understanding, year round.

With 30 years of experience in the mental health field, seeing the outpour of support that comes through on social media on days like #BellLetsTalk or #WorldMentalHealthDay is amazing. While I don’t love every aspect of social media, I do love the mental health community that has emerged as a result of it.


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Does Your Organization Consider Mental Health a Public Safety Issue?

Mental-Health_0Should mental health care be considered a public safety issue? The recent crash of a Germanwings plane that took the lives of 150 people certainly highlights this question.

Although still under investigation, this tragedy has brought to the forefront the issue of responsibility of employers to ensure their staff are physically and mentally fit to perform their job duties. As tragic as the apparently intentional actions of the pilot are to fathom, Canadian aviation authorities assure us that this was a rare occurrence. But for this particular airline, and for many of us travellers all around the world, mental illness has now entered the realm of public safety.

We all know the stats – one in five Canadians will suffer with a mental health issue at any given point in their lives. What this tragedy reminds us is that no one is immune to this stat: not pilots, dentists, doctors or any other professional who has responsibility over the lives and health of others in their work.

Federal authorities have long known the risk that some untreated mentally ill people can pose, so whose responsibility is it to report and document these individuals? Doctors and therapists are required by law to report to the federal government employees who operate or direct aviation equipment who they determine are living with depression, suicidal tendencies, or other mental health-related symptoms. Certain industries, particularly those dealing with public safety, are strongly regulated to avoid potential tragedies.

No employer wants their employees to struggle with this or any health issue. Responsible employers foster a healthy and safe work environment, and want to empower their employees to seek counselling. This is why many Canadian employers have incorporated external EAP (Employee Assistance Plan) services to help them follow best practices when there is a perceived risk to the mental health of the individual, especially in safety sensitive situations.

While EAPs need to work within the limits of the law, EAPs who assess employees to be at risk of harming others, or themselves, have a professional and legal obligation to report this information to the proper authorities, including the employer if the workplace is at risk.

Being an employer responsible for the emotional wellbeing of your employees means supporting and accommodating your employees for the overall health of not just the employee, but your entire organization.

Are there any situations where the perceived risk to the mental health of the individual supersedes public safety? I look forward to discussing this in the comments below.