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7 Easy Ways to Support Colleagues With Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Month. This year it’s of special significance to me since I recently lost my brother Spencer, who lived with schizophrenia. It’s been heartbreaking.

Like many people with a mental illness, Spencer was unable to make a living. I know this contributed to his despair. It’s a shame because he was bright-eyed and intelligent and had so much to offer.

Chances are you have a colleague who suffers from a mental illness — probably silently, unbeknownst to others. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four adults has a mental health disorder. One in seventeen has a more serious variety like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

It may be the founder of the business where you work. It could be the CFO, who experiences bouts of serious depression; the creative director who’s doing her best to manage bipolar disorder; or the computer programmer who’s autistic. Maybe it’s you, and that’s a-OK.

It’s easier than you think to support these colleagues, even if you’re not sure who they are. Here are some simple things you can to do help:

1. Read up on mental illness — increase your awareness.

Check out National Alliance on Mental Illness. Learn about suicide preventionADHDAsperger’s syndrome and different types of depression.  

2. Post something in honor of Mental Health Month, even if it’s small.

It’s amazing how much a simple post or retweet can signal support and respect to your colleagues, especially those who suffer silently. Consider joining a NAMIwalk or adding your name to the Stamp Out Stigma pledge. Then post about it. Follow the #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth hashtag and retweet something. Do something, even if it’s as simple as sharing this article.

3. Improve the way you talk about mental health issues.

This may be the number one, most helpful thing you can do. Think twice before making offhand remarks about “going crazy,” “acting psycho,” being “schizo” or “ADD,” or saying that something is “making me want to shoot myself.” Here’s an excellent article with more communication tips. I’m still working on this, so feel free to offer other suggestions in the comments.

4. Ask!

If you know a colleague who lives with a mental illness, consider asking them how you might better support them or if there are any changes you can make to work better together. You might be surprised by how simple the suggestions are.

5. Improve your health insurance and work policies.

If you’re in a position to influence your health insurance or work policies, reevaluate them with the perspective of wanting to retain talented employees who live with a mental illness. Invest in mental health benefits. Again, small tweaks can make a big difference.

6. Respect different personality types. 

Think of this as emotional and neurological diversity. Just as a good teacher accommodates different styles of learning, create a sense of openness to different personality types and operating systems. By showing respect for different modes of working, you make it safer for people to bring their full talents to bear. You may find that it leads to better results.

7. Read this article in Harvard Business Review. 

It’s a brave, honest account with some practical suggestions.

“There are no simple answers for organizations. But as someone who has suffered, sometimes silently, from a mental illness for more than 30 years, I can speak personally about how it can be managed on the job. I have worked for world-class consulting firms and publishing companies, both in Europe and America. Life in a hard-driving corporation may not have the life-or-death responsibilities that commercial pilots must bear, but it can be just as stressful.”

In sharing these tips, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating being soft on business results or boundaries. Issues around mental illness are complex — in the workplace and in general. The onus is on those with a mental illness to seek treatment.

But it’s on the rest of us — business owners, colleagues, managers — to provide a workplace that’s supportive. It’s not just a moral imperative, it’s smart business. The productivity upside is huge.

For many people, a job isn’t just a means to make a living but core to their dignity. It’s a livelihood in the fullest sense. If some small action makes it easier for them to hold on to that, why not do something?

So take a step. You’ll be helping someone’s brother.

What other simple steps can people take to support colleagues with a mental illness? Add to the comments below. You can follow me @jeffgiesea.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention LifelineHead here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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