Monday, 1 December 2014

6 PR lessons from clinical depression (or "How mental illness made me a better communicator")


"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality."

This very telling quote is by author, journalist and mental health advocate Andrew Solomon, from his deeply moving TED lecture entitled Depression: The Secret We Share. It was midsummer of this year when I first heard the lecture, and at the time I was in the midst of the deepest, most serious bout of depression I have ever experienced. For whatever reason, Solomon's lecture struck a chord in me like nothing I'd yet heard on the subject of depression, and for a few days I listened to it over and over, latching myself onto the man's pristine prose and light-hearted pathos as though it were a life raft. It felt like a roadmap out of my malaise.

Here is the video. I highly recommend it - whether you're depressed or not.



In May of this year I announced to the world, through this very blog no less, that I was "going it alone" as an independent PR contractor. It had been tumultuous and stressful spring, but one from out of which seem to spring unexpected opportunities, and feeling adventurous at the time I embraced them. And for the first month of my voyage into the seas of freelance work, all seemed to go well. It didn't last.

The other thing that happened to me at around the same time I left my old job at the airport is that my doctor recommended that I try going off my anti-anxiety medications. I had been prescribed Duloxetine about two years previous during a time of similarly high stress, and I had been taking it religiously ever since in what had ended up being two years of tremendous professional growth and productivity. Why I thought this was a good idea at this turning point in my professional life I still can figure out, but I took my doctor's advice. This, it turned out, was a colossal mistake.

By the end of May there were plenty of outward signs that my overall mental state had deteriorated. It began with seemingly constant memory lapses, lapses that I simply put down to the stress of client-hunting and financial uncertainty. But by the end of June things had deteriorated to such an extent that I could no longer be blind to what was going on. Work assignments that would have been a breeze months before became epic struggles. All I wanted to do was sleep and hide from the world. My emotional outbursts became more and more extreme. My only moments of reprieve were swimming, running and walks with the dogs in the river valley.

Amazingly enough in retrospect, it wasn't until the first few weeks of July that I came face to face with the true depth of my depression, and when, like Andrew Solomon in his personal account in his book The Noonday Demon, I found himself completely paralyzed - and reached out to my father for help. This was the start of a long climb out of the abyss I had found myself. I found myself a new doctor and I began once again with the medications and the therapy, realizing only then that I would probably have to be on some sort of mood stabilizer for the rest of my life.

I also returned to the job market, figuring that given everything I had been through I was better off in a permanent position with good medical benefits (namely a plan that offered psychological services) and a paycheque I could count on every other week. After several months of job-hunting I figured I would have to take the next semi-decent thing on offer and then hold tight until I found something better. Instead, I landed in a fantastic position that thus far (it's only been three weeks mind you) appeals to me more than any job I've had up to now.

I'm back. A little shaken up still, but I'm back. The vitality I so sorely lacked this summer is back in full force. I'm writing again, back in classes (finishing the PR department I had to put the kibosh on in my previous job due to the onerous commute), involved in the spoken word/poetry scene and in far more of a mood to socialize than I've been in a long time. But my climb out from the abyss this summer has also meant mending relationships strained by my moods. The only way truly to break free from my summer of hurt was to be open and frank about what I had gone through, and in doing so fire a broadside at the taboo that still prevent so many of us about talking frankly about depression.

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. And as a professional writer and communicator, a key component of that vitality is being open about my experience, with the hopes that it might help others who have dealt with - or may currently be dealing with - similar struggles. And in the last few months, in my numerous conversations with friends and colleagues, I've come to several conclusions, namely:

  1. Most of the really smart people I know feel like they're barely holding it together much of the time.
  2. The communications profession is particularly rife with mood disorders, probably through a combination of the stress that comes with the job and the emotionally sensitive nature of the type of people generally drawn to the profession.
  3. People are generally forgiving when it comes to this sort of thing. And if they're not, chances are they're not people you want in your life anyway. In other words, there's nothing like a serious bout of depression to tell you who your real friends are.
  4. We all medicate. Be it uppers, downers, booze, weed, obsessive exercise, RPG games, work, reality TV, porn, Pinterest - we're all on drugs of one form or another.
But enough about me. What can we, as public relations practitioners, take away from our struggles on the fringes of mental health so as to make the world a better place, and be better at our jobs. Because ever since returning to the work world with a refreshed mind, body and soul, I've honestly felt like I'm better at my job than I was before. Could it be that going through what I went through, as unpleasant as it was (and something I wouldn't wish on anybody), was one of those "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" things? I've never been a fan of this cliché, but my bad run of mental health made me, if not stronger, certainly more aware and mentally agile.

So what were my 'educational takeaways' from this experience? Here's my attempt at distilling them into words. I'll probably have more to add later, but here's what comes to mind now, for what it's worth.

1. The truth lies.

Any experienced public relations person will tell you that "telling the truth" is only the start of your ethical obligations in the profession. Being honest and transparent is, of course, of vital importance and a baseline requirement of any credible organization, but blurting out truths without framing them in a manner that protects you and your organization is potentially as injurious as lying. Some might interpret this as tacit dishonesty of a sort, but a comparable example would be to rephrase the sentence "We're all going to die" (an indisputable truth) with "We only live ones, so let's make the most of it." Is this a spin? Perhaps, but it's one that we're all better off with.

Anybody who has ever battled clinical depression will tell you that, when you're in the throes of it, you feel as though a veil has been lifted from you, thereby forcing you to stare unflinchingly at the dark and horrible truths of the world - and of you yourself specifically. And while some of the statements that a depressed person habitually makes are easily refutable (i.e. "Nobody loves me."), others are less easy to fend off, such as "What, concretely speaking, is the point of it all? I'm a mid-level word-monkey who's out of a job - what the hell am I contributing to the well-being of the world?"

This of course, on a basic level, is true, but at the time it's the equivalent of a company telling its shareholders that "Well, in the fullness of time the sun is going to swell to the size of a supergiant and swallow the four innermost planets of the solar system, incinerating the earth and everyone on it, before going supernova, so what, concretely speaking, is the point of expanding into the European market?" This of course is a caricature, but if nothing else it's made me all the more sensitive to the wording of both internal and external communiqués. The truth lies - this is one of the most impactful statements in Andrew Solomon's TED talk, and one that has stuck with me ever since.

2. SWOT analyses are awesome.

Source: bizbingo.blogspot.com
Anybody with any training in public relations, or has spent enough time in the profession, has at one point or another sat down to do one of these. For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, read my early post entitled 'If Fictional Characters Conducted SWOT Analyses'. And for those of you who are well versed in them, you may be interested to know that the process is not only a crucial step in writing a communications plan, but also a useful process for bushwhacking your way out of a deep depressive episode.

Why a SWOT analysis? Simply put, it helps you filter out all the noise that clouds your judgment and keeps you paralyzed while at the same time giving you the 'comforting' base of cold, hard facts devoid of the cloying platitudes of The Secret-style positive affirmations. In other words, it appeals to the emotionally calloused mind of the depressed individual while at the same time offering a way out, and by way of the 'Weaknesses' and 'Threats' boxes you're neither invalidating nor giving undue credence to what the toxic voices in your head are saying. Because if you simply try to wallpaper over those voices with sanctimonious clichés, in my experience you just end up strengthening their resolve.

3. Aw hell, why not write yourself a whole goddamn communications plan?

I didn't actually do this, but I nearly did. I certainly wrote myself elements of one - key messages about myself and all. And all in all, I think this was more helpful than most of the self-help books I picked up and subsequently tossed aside. After a few weeks back on my medications, I felt like I once again had the energy to get up and do something useful towards getting my life and career back on track, and feeling like I was completely out of touch with my profession, the process served as a useful refresher. It also felt more real, like my own personal change management process. In other words, I was determined to sound good until we feel good - or at least have the right messages.

4. Writing will never let you down.

Once it became apparent to me that I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode, one of the first things I did was disentangle myself from as many commitments as a reasonably could. I quit a summer class. I resigned from a board I was heavily involved in at the time. I simply felt I couldn't fulfill the responsibilities I had taken on, and admitting this fact to myself was one of the first steps in acknowledging that what I was dealing with was an illness - not simply a case of head-up-ass syndrome. Like a drug addict entering treatment, it was an acknowledgement of my own weakness and vulnerability - the first step on any road to recovery.

But at the same time as I was pulling back from my numerous extracurricular activities, I was thoroughly burying myself in my writing - the one place, it seemed, that my brain was still working. I wrote poetry. I revived a novel project I had long abandoned. And I took on new freelance writing projects, projects I knew I could still do a bang-up job on in spite of my fragile state of mind - the type of work I've been doing for ten years now and can virtually do in my sleep. And in my writing work I found a semblance of sanity, and rediscovered my love of words and communication. And from that I started to rebuild my professional life.

In actual fact, I managed to get quite a lot of work done during the summer, in spite of it all. Much of it I feel was on some sort of automatic pilot, and the fact that I was able to keep moving, albeit slowly, through this morass proved, in the end, to be a source of pride. After all, I could scarcely have been able to do that it was truly sucked at my job. Whether you're deeply depressed or at the peak of mental fitness, write your guts out! I have no doubt that Emily Dickinson would have made a fine PR professional had she had access to the types of treatment that exist today.

5. Never lose faith in your network.

Probably the hardest thing about coming out of my midsummer depression, apart from the job hunt, was the fear I had that my depression had made a mess of my own personal and professional social life. After all, PR people, even the most introverted among us, are at heart social animals whose profession is centred on interpersonal connections and imparting meaning between people. And with Edmonton's marketing and communications community being pretty small and close-knit, I found myself re-entering the workforce with a profound fear that my sudden disappearance from the scene and my failed attempt at going independent would leave me scarlet-lettered in the profession.

All this turned out to be classic paranoia. One of the worst aspects of depression is that it's an inherently selfish and self-centred condition that causes one to spend an inordinate amount of time fixated on oneself and one's flaws (real and imagined), which to all around you is practically as bad as being a narcissist who is constantly flaunting their positive attributes. In other words, unless your mental state has caused you to behave in a truly egregious matter, chances are you're still regarded in the same light as you were before things began falling apart. To put it bluntly, people don't really pay that much attention to you most of the time, unless you're really out there screwing things up.

Sure enough, once I had built up the courage to start reconnecting again, it was as though nothing had happened. Moreover, for those with whom I did divulge what I had been through during the summer, the reaction was universally sympathetic, usually followed either by a similar personal account or accounts of people they've known. This is, after all, a line of work full of people who 'feel all the feels', people generally endowed with high levels of emotional intelligence, and as safe a crowd as any for talking frankly about mental illness. That and my poetry circle, of course.

A good friend and mentor of mine told me early on that whatever happens in this line of work, "The network will provide." And in my own struggles this year I've really come to realize how prescient this remark was. The network did provide, and I am now back on my feet, feeling stronger than ever.

6. We need to be talking about this stuff.

As a privileged, educated and well-connected urban professional living in a progressive city and working in a profession dedicated to communicating truth in an emotionally nuanced way, I, if anyone, should feel comfortable talking frankly about ups and downs in my own mental health. And yet I don't. Not really. Even though I live in a country where I enjoy legal protections from discrimination due to mental health, the stigma persists. Even as I write this blog post, the hesitant Piglet archetype lurking in the back of my mind is urging me not to press the 'publish' button. "You don't know what this is going to do to your reputation!" it chirps. "Have you really thought this through?"

My answer to this is a definitive yes. I have thought this through. This is a post I've been wanting to write for months now, and it's only been my schedule and my cognizance of the persistent taboo around discussions of mental health that have kept me from doing so. But I truly believe that as professional communicators, we have a duty to talk frankly about depression and other mental health issues (bipolarity, BPD, OCD and so on). It is estimated that one out of five of Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime. That means that not only one out of five of our fellow PR professionals will go through it, but that a full 20% of our external and internal publics will. That's a hell of a lot of people!

I am fortunate that I now work for an organization that not only provides a stellar health plan for its employees that includes mental health care, but one that also 'walks the talk' through active promotion of health and wellness (including mental health) to its staff and is also on the frontline in training community support workers to help the most vulnerable people in this province - and help empower them economically. Awareness of mental illness continues to increase in our society, and it is heartening to see more and more employers taking the problem seriously. But at the same time, the taboo around disclosing such conditions to anyone other than a clinical psychologist behind a closed door persists, and it is up to people like us to 'push the needle' big-time on this issue.

And like any paradigm shift, it seems to me that it needs to start with us, among ourselves as a professional community. I know for a fact that I'm far from the only professional communicator who has struggled with clinical depression or worse. We are a sensitive, highly-strung bunch as a profession with a penchant towards workaholism, insufficient sleep and one or two extra glasses of wine at the end of a long event that we perhaps don't need. And a lot of us are prone to an acute sense of isolation (especially those of us who specialize in writing) that creates the perfect breeding ground for all manner of mental malaise. We talk a good talk, but lots of us are kind of a mess deep down.

My challenge to you all is this: let's keep it real when it comes to depression. Let's actively engage in conversation about it, whether that means being frank about our own struggles or acknowledging those of others - and prioritizing the promotion of mental health and wellbeing in our work. As a person who has been through a nasty spell of it and come out the other end, I'm extraordinarily thankful to my family, friends and colleagues who have stood by me and helped me put my life back together. And I'm also more determined than ever than ever to use my position to help make a difference - and that has to start telling my own story.

A number of years ago a campaign entitled 1,000 Conversations, spearheaded by Native Counselling Services of Alberta (through its National Day of Healing and Reconciliation event-planning department), set out to trigger a nationwide wave of conversations about truth and reconciliation in relation to past injustices committed on Canadian soil - primarily the Indian Residential School System but also the internment of Japanese Canadians and other skeletons in Canada's closet. Among the project's greatest champions were CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers (who this May was appointed chancellor of the University of Victoria), a woman who in recent years has gone public about her own struggles with depression - which she has likened to "sliding into caves of emptiness." 

To my mind we need something akin to the 1,000 Conversations campaign for sufferers of depression and the like - a consciousness-raising campaign aimed at ending the stigma once and for all. And if anybody's going to spearhead something like this, it's people like us PR folks. Not that I'm necessarily offering myself up for the job. After all I've got a new job to focus on and a school program to finish - not to mention a poor, neglected blog to revive. Down the road, who knows? But for the time being, I float the idea out there for all it's worth.

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and we communicators are in the vitality business. The news we communicate isn't always good news and we're certainly not in the business of spinning bad news as good. But it is our job to empower our publics, internal and external alike, with calls to action and offer solutions. And the more we can collectively chip away at the taboo surrounding depression and other forms of mental illness, the more empowered we'll all be in our efforts to elucidate and punch through the noise.

(Special thanks to Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series for his timely visual appearances in this text. Even though I can't lay claim to a brain the size of a planet, I still feel your pain!)

2 comments:

  1. Welcome back, Ben. Your unflinching honesty and insights into this is welcome and needed. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Nikki! It took some guts for me to publish this thing, and your comment means a lot to me.

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