White Coat, Black Art·Q&A

Show empathy for employees struggling with mental health issues, author says 

The author of Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person talks about how she's coping during the pandemic and offers some suggestions for how others who are feeling socially isolated or depressed can cope.  

Anna Mehler Paperny's advice to bosses: 'Make sure the person knows that they are valued'

Journalist and author Anna Mehler Paperny, who has lived with severe depression for more than a decade, has had to talk to her boss about her mental health struggles. 1:04
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As the global pandemic continues, many Canadians are dealing with isolation and anxiety. Those aren't new feelings for a large part of the population that was already struggling with their mental health. 

Anna Mehler Paperny has lived with severe depression for more than a decade. The Toronto journalist's searing memoir, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person came out last year. It chronicles her quest to get well, while also examining the system she turned to for help. 

She spoke with White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian  Goldman about how she's coping right now, and about what others might take from her experience, as they try to manage their own mental health during the current crisis. Here is part of their conversation.


I know this may be a loaded question for you. But how are you doing right now?
 
Right now I'm not bad. That said, I am wrestling with my depression, which has been overtaking me a little bit over the past couple of weeks.

I've had to step back from work, which is always a struggle for me.

And I'm just taking some time off and trying to sort of get my bearings a little bit, but it is a very loaded question.
 
As someone who has been in a mental health crisis, do you have any advice for people who may be feeling like they can't cope right now?

Oh, man, first of all I want to say I'm sorry. It's a horrible place to be in. And no matter whether this has happened to you many times, whether this is the first time, it's brutalizing.

Anna Mehler Paperny says it's crucial to talk to other people about what you're struggling with. 'Being able to express your problems aloud makes such an enormous difference.' (Submitted by Anna Mehler Paperny)
Perhaps the single most difficult thing right now is how easy it is to feel as though you're all alone. And it can make otherwise manageable bouts of depression so much worse. 
 
And so I want to say it's so crucial to be able to talk about what you're struggling with to other people. These can be friends. These can be family members, they can be psychologists or psychiatrists. But being able to express your problems aloud makes such an enormous difference. 
 
One of the disadvantages of not being in the presence of one another because of this physical distancing is that it's difficult to judge how our friends or family are doing. What do you think as a community we need to look out for right now? 
 
I think … just trying to keep tabs on the people that you care about, and make sure they know that you're not judging them. You love them and will love them, no matter what they're going through … because it's very easy, when you're in the throes of mental illness or in the middle of an emotional pit to think that this is just a weakness that pertains to you and nobody else, and that you are feeble and undeserving of help. 
 
Many people may find themselves having to go to an employer now or in the future to say that they're struggling. You've been in that position. How hard was that for you?
 
Incredibly hard. It's still hard, even though this is something that I've had to do multiple times. It's hard for me because my job is such an important part of who I am and my work is such an important part of who I am.

I'm learning that it's important for your employer to know the truth of what's going on. But they also don't have a right to know your private struggles. I think everybody on their own has to find that where that balance lies. 

It's painful and it's scary. It freaks me out every time I have to do it.- Anna Mehler Paperny on talking to her employer about her mental health struggles

For example, if…. you need time off, [or]  you need them to cover, say the cost of drugs, it's important for you to say what you need, and why you need it in the most straightforward way possible … Just remember, they want you to work for them because they respect the work that you do, and they want you to be able to continue to work for them. 
 
It's painful and it's scary. It freaks me out every time I have to do it. But I'm always much more relieved afterwards when I've been straightforward and forthright with my employer in times like these.
 
It's scary because of the way society stigmatizes people who ask for help when they're in a mental health crisis?
 
Very much. It's intensely scary to admit that you ... are struggling with a mental illness when as a society, we tend to disregard mental illness in so many ways.

It's so harmful when we do that because the more people try to sort of swallow it up within themselves and … to just get past it, the worse it becomes.

Anna Mehler Paperny, pictured here with her four-legged friend, says she's been fortunate she has a boss who has been empathetic to her struggles. (Submitted by Anna Mehler Paperny)

You need to be able to say up front, I have a mental illness. This is something that is treatable, and that can improve, but that in order to improve, it requires attention from medical professionals and from colleagues and from employers.
 
Do you have any advice for the manager or boss who's on the other side of that conversation?
 
I've been very lucky. I have a manager who has been very empathetic. Just knowing that somebody is empathizing with you makes such an enormous difference. 

So much of mental illness, especially depression, is a person devaluing themselves.- Anna Mehler Paperny

But I think also [they need to] make sure the person knows that they are valued, and that you will give them the tools that they need, or the time that they need to be able to recuperate because they are so valuable to you. 
 
Because so much of mental illness, especially depression, is a person devaluing themselves — that they're useless or worthless — they are to blame for everything that goes wrong.

I'm seeing more talk on social media and elsewhere about mental health issues related to COVID-19. And let's be clear, there were stresses on the system before this pandemic began. But as someone who has written about the system and [who has] been through it, where do you hope this conversation goes?
 
What I'm hoping more than anything else is that COVID will finally push us to pay attention to mental illness in a way that we never did before … I think we're being forced to reckon with it. 

I mean, Canada prides itself on its health-care system. But for so long, we have let mental health and mental illness fall by the wayside when it comes to treatment and when it comes to maintaining health.

I would be so over the moon if we could take this opportunity to say, you know what, we've gone too long disregarding mental health and mental illness and pretending like it's something that's going to fix itself, because we simply can't continue, you know, turning a blind eye to this entire realm of health any longer. That would make me really happy.


Q&A edited for length and clarity. 
 
 

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