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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

Silence is Acceptance: HR Cannot Avoid Talking about Mental Health

Killswitch Engage.

“I see myself in you, I know you can make it through.” – I Am Broken Too by Killswitch Engage, Lyrics by Jesse Leach

There is always more going on behind the veil.

I was 18 years old when I first heard Killswitch Engage. 2002 was a strange time in heavy music history. Nu metal acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were dying out or losing steam while legacy acts like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, or even the likes of Slayer and Testament, were not yet in full recovery.

Something had to fill the void. And something did. Enter Killswitch Engage – godfathers of the “metalcore” scene, which combined thrashy riffage, harsh melodic death metal vocals, and lyrics that dug deep into societal issues.

The moment I heard Jesse Leach, vocalist for KSE in 2002, belt “THE TIME APPROACHES!” in Numbered Days, the opening track of Alive or Just Breathing, I was a different person. I was hooked and immediately stopped everything I was doing and ran to Best Buy to buy the CD! Do people still buy CDs at Best Buy? Anyway….

And then, in a blink of an eye, it seemed over for KSE. Vocalist Jesse Leach abruptly left the band. I was crushed. Another amazing up and coming band was seemingly undone by egos and selfishness.

Thankfully, the band continued and released some classic tunes with Howard Jones replacing Leach. KSE continued stronger than ever blasting hits like the emotional The End of Heartache and their interesting take on Holy Diver from Dio fame.

And then, it all happened again! Howard Jones left the band abruptly, and all seemed lost. Again, typical Rockstar ego and selfishness destroyed a great thing.

Or did it?

Eventually, after KSE held tryouts for yet another new vocalist, Jesse Leach rejoined the band! And then the story came out.

Jesse Leach had struggled with mental health during his first stint with KSE, and truly, his entire life. It had gotten so bad that he couldn’t function as a bandmate anymore and was forced to leave KSE.

In addition, Howard Jones also struggled mightily with mental health challenges, including an almost suicide attempt, which forced him to leave the band, as well.

We’ve all reached rock bottom. Some of our rock bottoms are lower than others. Many don’t understand why people act the way they do. Many don’t understand mental health in general. That’s OK, but it’s not an excuse for those individuals to not show empathy and support.

Unfortunately, the stigma of mental health in society is still rampant. I thought we were better, and people can be, but we have a long way to go.

This morning, I received my daily SHRM email with the title “The Workplace Stigma of Mental Illness.” The article “Mental Illness and the Workplace” is a good read. A theme is that to stamp out stigma, we must be willing to discuss situations and have hard uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise, stigma has unfettered environment to grow strong and rooted.

“It’s hard to be the first to talk about mental health,” says Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer. “To have someone like Joel say he’s going to a therapist and what he’s working on paves the way for someone else to say something about what they’re going through.”

Talking about “it,” whatever “it” is, is paramount. HR professionals NEED to talk about mental health in their workplace. HR professionals need to be sounding boards for others. HR professionals need to be advocates for employees.

Why HR? Because we are uniquely situated to handle such conversations. As the old joke goes, HR is part administrator, part lawyer, and part psychologist. People inherently go to HR with their concerns. We are trusted, and we have a responsibility to read between the lines and look for signs of mental health challenges. We ARE NOT doctors and should refrain from diagnoses. However, we can see signs and probe and try to get people to open up about bigger underlying issues. And from there, we need to be advocates and ask how we can help, if we can help.

While HR should take a lead, that doesn’t excuse anyone else from avoiding such conversations. No one should avoid these hard discussions. Too much is on the line. The mental health crisis in the United States (and across the world) is not going to get solved without discussion. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  1. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. – 43.8 million, or 18.5% – experiences mental illness in a given year.

  2. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. – 9.8 million, or 4.0% – experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

  3. Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13 – 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8 – 15, the estimate is 13%.

  4. 6.9% of adults in the U.S. – 16 million – had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

  5. 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias.

  6. Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5% – 10.2 million adults – had a co-occurring mental illness.

The consequences of inaction for families, friends, coworkers, businesses, and society in general:

  1. Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

  2. Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18 – 40.

  3. Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. Adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.

  4. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 10 – 34.

  5. More than 90% of people who die by suicide show symptoms of a mental health condition.

  6. Each day an estimated 18 – 22 veterans die by suicide.

And yet the stigma persists. Comments are made and go unchallenged.

“Joe just doesn’t care about his work as much as others do.”

“Keyshaun took a month off work? Wish I could just leave work like that.”

“Diane’s behavior is so rude and irritating. Why can’t she just be happy?”

It happens frequently unfortunately. The stigma remains unchallenged. Joe does care. He just doesn’t have the internal strength right now. Keyshaun isn’t on vacation. He’s battling the urges to put a gun in his mouth. Diane can’t just “suck it up.” Being happy is a choice, yes, but mental health battles can rob people of their choices. It’s hard to explain and can’t be unless you’ve gone through those challenges.

At work, whether you’re in HR, the receptionist desk, the frontline on production, the janitorial crew, or in the C-Suite, if you come across such conversations, don’t just walk away or be silent.

Silence is acceptance, and we cannot accept this type of behavior anymore. Our family and friends and coworkers need us all to support them – to be their strength when they have none to give.

I am not writing anything new or groundbreaking. Google “work conversations mental health” and 172,000,000 articles pop up. I don’t care. I’m not trying to be innovative or new on this.

I am trying to do my part by being open, honest, and direct. I am trying to do my part in furthering necessary conversations. I am trying to do my part in letting others know it’s OK to talk about mental health – no, it’s NECESSARY to talk about mental health in the workplace, and in general. Someone’s life literally depends on it. Isn’t that cause enough to be brave, strong, and unrepentant in having those conversations?

There is no other answer than “yes.” And if you are reading this and cannot relate, please find someone to talk to about their mental health experiences. The only way to understand is to seek understanding. If your brother suffers from cancer, do you tell them to “suck it up! Just be happy!” If someone suffered from a heart attack, do you show contempt for them by saying “what a wuss. Pull yourself together.” If not, why would you say that to someone who’s brain isn’t giving them the opportunity to live as well as they deserve? Be kind. Be empathetic. Be overly so.

I encourage you and challenge you to lead a conversation.

I still listen to Killswitch Engage. And thankfully, they’ve even made amends with Howard Jones. Jesse Leach and Howard have never had a beef, and the band to their credit invited Howard to join them on tours, as well as a guest spot on their new upcoming album! I’m stoked!

For their kindness, tenacity, and edge, KSE are one of my favorite bands ever. Not just because they make great music to my ears, but because their musical themes matter beyond superficial things. Since Jesse Leach rejoined the band, he’s been unabashedly open about his mental health struggles. He says talking about mental health should be as common as discussing a sprained ankle.

And for his part, he’s lived those words by penning amazing lyrics that let others know they are not alone.

Songs like “All in Due Time” and “Cut Me Loose” are powerful reminders that no one needs to suffer alone.

And with their newest song “I Am Broken Too,” KSE continue to do their part demonstrating the power of conversation by pledging profits from the song to Hope for the Day, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention through proactive outreach and mental health education.

As Jesse so eloquently states his motivation for writing the songs he does:

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a language for it, and I didn’t have people around me talking about it or bringing it to light by saying words like depression or anxiety or bipolar,” Leach says. “It was not talked about.

“I’ve lost people to suicide, and you didn’t see it coming because they weren’t talking about it. [It’s] something as simple as telling someone you’re not doing OK and having a discussion about it. As simple as that sounds, it’s a game-changer.”

I challenge everyone, HR practitioners and those who don’t understand mental health issues especially, in being a game-changer for someone in need. A life may seriously depend on it. Remember, there is always more beyond the veil.

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