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Erasing the Shame around Mental Illness in the Workplace


Jack Morton's SVP, executive creative director on why she stopped living in shame about her mental illness and shared her story at work

Erasing the Shame around Mental Illness in the Workplace

I’m a high-functioning, stable, well-adjusted creative…. with a mental illness. It’s hard to write and was hard to disclose – something I recently did to my colleagues. But it was time. Time to stop living in shame. Time to share my story. Because the only way to build a truly inclusive workforce is by lifting stigmas.

How can we be aware if we are unaware?

Nearly one billion people live with a mental health disorder. For most, it’s terrifying to talk about or admit. There’s the fear that people will avoid you. Fear you will lose your job. I grappled for a long time about disclosing my illness professionally.

Would people judge me with a different creative yardstick? The shame and fear were debilitating. Believing that I was flawed in some profoundly fundamental way, I carried around a sense that I had somehow failed at life.

Then it hit me. My illness is not a character flaw. It is the opposite. It is part of what makes me, me. And my medication, which I take willingly with an open heart and mind, is not a crutch or quick fix. It helps me be the best version of myself.

I shared my story because we can’t erase stigma unless we talk about it. I’m fortunate to have a safe and supportive workplace. I was worried about being penalized, ostracized, or discouraged from being my authentic self. Instead, I received so much encouragement and validation.

Today, amidst a climate of self-empowerment, there is an assumption that you can manage mental illness without medication. False. Medication can be a lifeline and allows people to manage their illnesses and lead functional lives.

There is no shame in having diabetes and taking insulin. No shame in receiving chemotherapy for cancer. These diagnoses fit within our societal understanding of illness as a physical manifestation. We aren’t taught to view mental illness the same way. I often wished I had an affliction that people could see and understand.

Not everyone is ready to voice their story, and that’s okay. Regardless, workplaces need accommodate those with mental health struggles. It starts by talking about it and giving those with personal histories a platform to speak, share and educate others on how to best support colleagues. My top three include:

Be kind and listen.

If someone shares their struggles with mental health, understand the trust they have in you and honor it by listening and reacting with love and kindness, without judgment or comment. Don’t feel like you have to fix it. And if you’re not sure what to do or say, ask the person how you can best support them.

Avoid comments that encourage “getting better” or saying “things could be worse.” 

Sometimes there is no better, and sometimes there is no worse. These things make the person you are trying to help feel sadder. In my experience, what helps is acceptance, acknowledgment, and saying that you care for them just as they are.

Ask what you can do to help? 

Often the answer is “nothing, just listen”; sometimes, it is more tangible. Especially at work, there might be real things you can do to assist someone struggling. The key is not to try and solve the problem – just help.

There has been progress in the workplace, and it needs to continue. It’s fantastic to see companies prioritize wellness, facilitate safe conversations, and teach people how to communicate with those who see the world through a different lens. It’s part of the greater diversity, equity, and inclusion work so many of us are doing, which is where it should be. Our agency has added belonging to the DEI conversation too. Because to thrive, we need to feel like we belong. Without it, those with mental illness will continue to live in shame.

Lucille Marie Essey is SVP, executive creative director at Jack Morton, where she leads a team of creatives for the New York City office, working on clients such as EY, J&J, Google, Unfinished, ESD, EQRx, IBM, New York Times, Sheetz and more. She is also a member of Jack Morton’s global creative council and is a vocal and active advocate for supporting women in the creative industry. 

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Jack Morton US, Mon, 30 May 2022 07:00:00 GMT