October 6 to October 12th is Mental Illness Awareness Week, with October 10th being World Mental Health Day, a day where mental health awareness, education and advocacy against social stigma is shed light on globally. Mental health affects everyone, all ages, cultures, races and genders directly or indirectly. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, at least 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience and deal with some form of mental health problem or illness. 5% of families will experience some form of anxiety causing mild to severe impairment, 8% of adults will experience major depression and suicide has become a leading cause of death in adolescence to middle age with 24% of deaths among 15-24 year old’s and 15% among 25-44 year old’s. These numbers are on the rise each year with more and more Canadians battling mental health issues caused by several different factors including one’s own personality, genetics, environmental factors and of course stress. Although the signs are often invisible and difficult to spot, mental illness is prevalent in the workplace and can have a significant impact on employee productivity and it can affect other employees and the business on a large scale if not addressed.
President and CEO of River City Recruiting and HR, Allie Knull opens up and shares her own journey with mental health illness as a patient and an employer. She offers her advice on how to manage mental health illnesses personally, and for employers, how to support staff who may be dealing with mental health as well.
1. When did you start to realize you were feeling off or not quite right? Was there an incident that caused an onset or was it gradual?
I was diagnosed with anxiety January 2019. For me the anxiety crept in. I started to feel more stress as my business expanded but also as I was managing multiple medical appointments for my child at the same time. There were personal and professional stressors that I thought I was able to handle, however I started to not feel ”myself” anymore. My anxiety showed up in a way that was very unsettling for me; I was very angry. And I’m not an angry person at all. I became very short with those that mean the most to me so it took a “hey, that was rude!” for me to realize I was not okay. There were also some physical signs too such as lack of sleep and a lump in my throat that didn’t seem to disappear.
2. Did your illness impact your personal or work life? Was there an impact on people around you? If so, how?
Due to my anxiety showing up as anger, it did affect me personally and I needed to put extra effort in my close relationships. Professionally, I think it affected in how well I communicated with my team. Or at least how well I perceived the communication with my team. Once I was diagnosed with anxiety I was given medication to help combat the physical symptoms while I worked on other modalities to help reduce my anxiety and stress. The medication gave me wicked headaches and it turns out I was on too strong of a dose. My doctor and I decided to adjust and the headaches disappeared almost overnight. Those headaches made it impossible to work some days and also made it difficult to attend events after hours, as sitting at a computer screen affected me mostly later on in the day. There were both social and physical impacts.
3. What steps did you take or are taking now to manage your anxiety? What has been the impact on your daily life?
Now I deal with my anxiety by working out a couple times a week and by setting boundaries for myself. I think as a female entrepreneur with a young family I tend to overstretch myself frequently so I tell my team and my clients that I have certain times where I’m just not available. And for the most part, that time-blocking is respected. On a day to day, my anxiety has been diminished as I implemented coping techniques; meditation and breathing exercises, diarizing things (I have a billion great ideas rolling around in my head that I want to achieve) and by letting go of things that drain my energy and no longer serve me. It’s been difficult to do some of these things but I’m so much more focused now that I have my boundaries. I still use the medication but on an extreme low dose.
4. What is the best advice you can offer someone who is dealing with mental health issues/illness?
One of the best things we can do is talk about it. I have a friend that we were chatting about our mutual stressors and she helped me see that things weren’t okay for me. She wasn’t ashamed to share her experience and that helped me navigate my experience. If you aren’t sure if you are suffering from a mental health setback, talk with someone. Whether it’s a friend, family member, member of your church or community, psychologist, psychiatrist, or just your GP, all of these folks want to see you be well. Talking about our challenges helps end stigma around mental health and it’s important to know that mental health illness does not discriminate. Even just checking out websites that offer support may be enough to get help or to know where to seek help.
5. What is the best advice you can offer employers on how to look out for and/or support their employees with mental health?
It’s difficult to see the signs. For example, to combat my headaches I was doing acupuncture on my jaw. As a redhead whom bruises easily, the treatment became apparent a few days after with a giant blue-green mark on my jaw line. I had a client check-in with me and point blank ask, “Is everything okay at home?” which was so remarkable that he would ask that. He was concerned about my physical well being after seeing the bruising on my face. Scars and bruises from mental health are completely different, and also different for everyone. The best thing to do would be to check-in with your staff; ask them how their day is and also be honest in your response as well. I opened up to my staff about my anxiety and how on certain days I just wasn’t feeling well. When I needed to go home and rest due to the headaches, they understood. In what to look out for, any time there is a change in productivity or if an employees habits are altered, it could be a sign that something is going on. Make sure that you offer a safe space for sharing challenges and offer support in ways that you can. And most importantly, allow everyone in your organization to say “I’m not okay today”. Bouncing back from a mental health setback is also different for everyone just like a broken bone heals differently and at different speeds for everyone. Allow for medical appointments if you can and try to support through your benefits plans. The biggest ask is to treat someone that has a mental health setback the same as someone who has a physical setback They both incapacitate the person, just in different ways.
There are a multitude of resources available to support with combating mental illnesses; the Government of Canada lists the top 8 practices employers can take to foster a safe and healthy workplace below.
Top 8 practices for Employers to Promote Mental Well-being
For more information, resources or support, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website: www.cmha.ca.