To the Colleague I Failed Due to My Ignorance of Mental Illness


Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Dear Colleague,

We worked together for six years until 2012. I was your line manager for three years of that. We got on OK. Our working styles were quite different but we had mutual respect for one another. Let’s say we ticked along fairly well in the same team. I knew I could rely on you to do your own job well, although you rarely went the extra mile and you were hardly ever absent from work.

Then one summer, things began to change. (It’s only on reflection that I can recognize the build-up.) You became more distant. You spent less and less time with colleagues. You arrived at the last minute and left as soon as you could. You didn’t seem to have time for a quick chat every now and then.

The first time I became nervous about this was when you faced a big deadline. It was an annual one that you had never missed. Yet this year, you came to me for an extension.

That was missed opportunity number one.

You were given an extra week to complete the assignment but in that time you became even more distant. One colleague even mentioned smelling alcohol on your breath. I was worried. Shamefully, I admit now that I wasn’t worried about you; I was worried about your lack of professionalism and the potential impact on our clients if you were found out. I came to chat to you. You were vague and distracted but I didn’t smell any alcohol. I left you to your work but fed back to my line manager. He didn’t seem too concerned so neither was I.

That was missed opportunity number two.

Deadline day arrived but you didn’t. You called in sick. I was beginning to get really worried. We had just a week to proofread and print your 80-page assignment before feeding back to clients. Again, my concern wasn’t about you but about you missing your deadline.

That was missed opportunity number three.

A few days later, you called and spoke to the secretary. You were unwell. You were going home to your parents. The assignment was complete. On a memory stick. In your apartment. I was irritated but relieved — irritated that someone had to go and collect your assignment but relieved the job was done. Caught up in the pressure of meeting the deadline for clients, I didn’t give your health much thought. I dropped you a short email to wish you well and carried on with my job.

That was missed opportunity number four.

To my relief, the memory stick had arrived with three days to spare. To my horror, it was blank. Certain it must have been a mistake, I tried to contact you. No response. I panicked and so did my line manager. You were the only one who had adequate knowledge to complete this assignment and we knew you kept your notes in a rather unique way.

There was only one solution. My manager and I searched your office high and low for any notes or records that might help us. Your previous six-monthly assignment was retrieved for reference. And I closed myself in a room with the few records we had and a laptop to write an 80-page document in 48 hours as best I could. Incidentally, during the search, I found a Wellington boot with a bottle of whiskey in it. I handed it to my line manager and shrugged helplessly. We had more pressing problems to solve.

That was missed opportunity number five.

I worked incredibly hard. My family didn’t see me for 48 hours but I met the deadline and the assignment was printed and handed out to clients on time. I was furious. Furious with you for putting me in that position. Furious with myself for not spotting the warning signs and doing anything to prevent it from happening. From my point of view, you’d developed bad drinking habits and let yourself down. My sympathy was minimum.

A few months later, you popped in to collect your personal belongings. You saw me across the room and headed straight for me. I took a deep breath and smiled. This was not a conversation I wanted to have. You looked me in the eye and apologized — apologized for letting the team down, for missing the deadline and for leaving me to deal with it. Continuing to look me in the eye, you said: “I lost myself for a while there.” I nodded and smiled, unsure what to say; then I shook your hand and walked away.

That was missed opportunity number six.

I have no idea where you went after that, where you are now, or how you are. All I do know is that, after experiencing an agonizing year with major depressive disorder (during which I have received exceptional support), I am so ashamed of the way I treated you.

If I were to go back in time, this is what I would do at each of those missed opportunities:

1. Simply ask if everything was OK and if I could help in any way. After all, you’d never missed a deadline, so this was clearly a tricky time for you.

2. Sit down with you, make it clear I had plenty of time for you and tell you I’m worried about you, as you seem so distant. Make it clear my door is always open, should you wish to talk.

3. Write you an email to offer help, make it clear we care about you and that there is no need to worry about missing the new deadline. We can sort anything out — there is always a solution.

4. Call you to ask if the company can support you in any way. Your parents were in another country. The fact you had to go home showed you were really struggling. I’d reassure you that we care, that we are there to support you and that your job will be there when you are ready.

5. I would call you to tell you that we’ve found the whiskey, that we are worried about you and would like to know if you are getting support. I’d suggest talking to parents, visiting a GP, calling a helpline or Alcoholics Anonymous.

6. Look you in the eye and say I am sorry you were lost, that I am glad you are better, that there is always support in the company for people when they are struggling and that my door will always be open to support if needed in the future.

As I said, I don’t know where my colleague is now but I am deeply sorry for the way I treated him. The support I have received this year has prevented my suicide. I shudder to think that the lack of support I gave could have caused someone else’s suicide. Thank goodness, I never heard about anything of that nature happening to him; but, if he was seriously mentally unwell, I know that is not to my credit.

If you have a colleague who is struggling, please reach out to them. If you are unable to do it yourself, please ask someone else who can.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Getty Images photo via Deagreez


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