Depression: Start the Conversation to Remove the Stigma

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 25, 2017
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SAN FRANCISCO—Carol A. Kivler was 40 years old with a loving spouse, three children and a comfortable life teaching at her local college when her health started to fail. She became anxious, couldn't concentrate or focus, and experienced excruciating headaches. Her condition became so desperate that she had suicidal thoughts of driving herself and her children off a nearby bridge.

After numerous medical screenings, she was diagnosed in 1990 with clinical depression, which can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It's a diagnosis she has lived with for more than 20 years. She eventually found relief through electroconvulsive therapy—also known as shock therapy—which acts as a kind of neurological defibrillator. The treatment, she said, became her "silver bullet out of the pit of depression." 

Now 16 years into recovery, the founder and president of the Lawrence, N.J.-based nonprofit Courageous Recovery Inc. shared her story during a concurrent session here Oct. 23 at the sold-out Society for Human Resource Management 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

Much like cancer and AIDS, which were once taboo workplace topics, she said it's important to talk about depression and destigmatize it so that people are not afraid to seek treatment. People fear that if word of their diagnosis gets out, they will be passed over for promotions, seen as less credible or labeled as "damaged goods," Kivler said.

An estimated 43 million people in the U.S. suffer from depression, and it is a leading cause of disability, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The estimated cost of untreated depression on businesses in the U.S. is $100 billion annually because of its impact on productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism, she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities]

Kivler, who is an international executive coach and corporate trainer, recalled an executive she worked with who had decided to retire three years before he was eligible to do so. Talking with him, she learned he was having difficulty concentrating and making decisions—some of the warning signs of depression. She suggested he get screened, which led to a diagnosis of depression and subsequent treatment. He cut back his hours while undergoing treatment, but eventually returned to work full time.

It's so important to have those conversations with people in a caring, productive way, Kivler said. That requires creating a respectful and safe atmosphere.

"You're not trying to diagnose people. All you're trying to say is 'I'm here to help you.' "   

For example, instead of asking "Why are you so unhappy all the time? You're bringing everyone else down with your attitude," a better approach would be to say, "It's hard for me to understand what you're going through, but I can see that it's distressing for you. Please let me know how I can help you." 

It's all about showing empathy, according to Howard J. Fulfrost, a partner at Los Angeles-based Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP, who was attending the conference as a member of his firm's diversity and inclusion committee. 

"You can't ask an employee to disclose whether or not they're disabled, but you can have conversations around issues that they're confronting in their everyday life—from just one human being to another." 

Kivler shared other workplace strategies for addressing depression:

  • Boost awareness about mental illness through education and training.
  • Foster a stigma-free workplace. 
  • Invest in a formalized "return-to-work" process that allows employees dealing with depression to reduce their hours and return to full-time hours when they are able.
  • Encourage a healthy work/life balance among employees, and include mental health in wellness programs.
  • Seek out corporate initiatives. Two free ones are the ICU Program from Dupont and Right Direction from the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and Employers Health Coalition Inc.   

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