Victoria Rosselli, an art director at FCB Chicago, and Laurel Stark, a freelance creative director, are both open about their own struggle with mental health. They have both been managing related issues since they were teenagers and have struggled at various points in their careers, not only with balancing the demands of a creative career and their not-always-compatible mental health needs, but also with feelings of shame and failure around having diagnoses. What's more, they were troubled by what they saw as an absent conversation within the ad industry about mental health, especially during these stressful and isolating times that we're experiencing.
In a bid to destigmatize these challenges and nurture some form of regular conversation around them, they turned once-hidden personal struggles into public work. Entitled Our Silent Partner, the initiative crowdsources work that expresses what it's like to live and work with mental health symptoms and diagnoses.
Intrigued to know more about the project and the general state of mental health support within the ad industry in the US, LBB's Addison Capper spoke with Victoria and Laurel, as well as Ryan Rogers, an associate creative director, and Brian Xavier Lamy, an art director, who contributed stories to the project.
LBB> What inspired your desire to do a project like this?
Victoria> Mental health is a topic that brand and creative leaders aren’t speaking enough about. Although it’s become more prevalent now during Covid, it’s always been an issue. We wanted to start a conversation amongst the creative community and thought the best way for creatives to tell their story would be through their own work.
LBB> You were troubled by a lack of conversation around mental health issues at the moment - why do you think it isn't being addressed within the industry at a time like this?
Laurel> Even before Covid-19, the lack of understanding and stigma around mental health issues discouraged us as a society from having an open and honest dialogue. So because we’ve been ‘taught’ to feel shameful, we hide our experiences, and because we hide our experiences, it’s easy for people in positions of power to ignore or overlook.
But speaking from my own observations, I also think this particular gap in action also stems from a larger issue. In good times as well as lean, our industry benefits from selling and celebrating a singular and unsustainable narrative around what success looks like and what we should aspire to. In addition, thanks to our continued failings when it comes to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), we also have a general lack of empathy for the people our current power structure doesn’t benefit.
LBB> Tell us about the project - what inspired the idea to crowdsource stories and people's creative interpretations of their experiences?
Victoria> Our project was based on the insight that agency leaders may have trouble talking about mental health, but they never seem to have trouble talking about creative work. So we decided to turn once-hidden, personal mental health struggles, into very public creative work - in the hopes that it might provoke a conversation.
As creatives, we have the ability to convey a message and grab an audience’s attention, which is exactly what these creatives did with their submissions.
LBB> Did you give any guidance / brief with regards to the creative to the people that wanted to contribute?
Laurel> We gave them a brief that was pretty broad and pretty simple: create a piece of art that expresses your personal relationship with mental health. While we offered support and answers to any questions that came up, we limited our involvement to that. We decided not to curate, creative direct, or place many restrictions on the creative process or the type of deliverable. We wanted it to be authentic to each individual, and we wanted to encourage honesty and self acceptance through the creative process.
LBB> How did you crowdsource the content?
Laurel> We started by reaching out to friends (and friends of friends) who have either shared privately with us or publicly through social channels, their own mental health experiences. But now that the site is live and we have an email set up, we are actively accepting submissions from anyone who wants to anonymously share their story.
LBB> Given that you are open about your own mental health issues, how did you find the process of working on this project and reading the stories of others?
Victoria> It was heartbreaking but also truly eye-opening and inspiring. No one’s mental health story is the same, but learning about other people’s stories makes you feel much less alone - and gives you so much more perspective and empathy. You never know what the person who sits across from you at work or what your award-winning ECD is going through. I truly think mental health can be normalised the more we welcome and allow these stories to be heard.
LBB> Advertising can be a brutal industry - long hours, a lot of pressure, etc. Regardless of the pandemic, do you feel that there's enough mental health support within the industry? Happy to hear both positives and negative aspects here! Feel free to expand on your answer as much as possible here.
Ryan> Empathetic leadership can go a long way in alleviating some of the inherent stresses of working in advertising. Tough conversations about your own well being can feel slightly easier if the person you're reporting to has created a safe environment. Most importantly, empathy should echo from the C-Suite down. – Ryan Rogers, Associate Creative Director
Brian> There is not enough mental health support within the advertising industry. Only until recently have I been given resources such as a list of places to seek support or an app to download for a meditation to listen to. While this is helpful and extremely important, it’s only a small piece of solving the underlying problem. We don’t need a band-aid, we need a real solution.
I believe it starts with creative resource management as well as training/learning for employees so that more people can be utilised. If only one person on a team knows how to use an application or perform a specific task, then the project can’t be assigned elsewhere to help take the burden off of a specific person. This ends up leading to certain people being overworked and others being underutilised.
I don’t think enough time is spent on training and learning for employees, probably because it isn’t a billable task.
This is all important, because the difference between working a jam-packed eight-hour day and a jam packed 14-hour day is life changing. At the end of a 14-hour day, I’m exhausted. My body physically can’t workout. And as we know, moving around creates endorphins and endorphins make us feel better. So when I can’t get a workout in, my mental health suffers. It’s hard to use the ‘resources’ they’re giving us if I don’t have the time to use them. And by the way, I’m all about ‘making time for the things that matter’. But sometimes, it feels like I don’t have a choice.
On the positive side, my boss and managers were extremely supportive of helping me through a several month period when I needed to support my mental health even more as I was tapering off an antidepressant drug. I needed to see a psychiatrist every Monday at 10am, so this meant that I would need to come into work at 11am every Monday. If my boss didn’t understand this, I would have either never come off the medication and still be depressed and numb or gone off of it the improper way, which would cause a whole new set of problems that would affect my ability to do my job.
More people need a boss who shows empathy, support flexibility and the desire to take action to make things better.
LBB> What changes would you like to see with regards to mental health support within the industry at large?
Brian> Clients are demanding more and more of us everyday and this weighs on us heavily. The job of a creative is not black and white anymore. The industry needs to reshape the way we think about resourcing, allocation on clients and developing the talent we have so that we can use resources more appropriately to avoid burnout. We need to stop bandaging the problem up and burning people out. It’s not normal to work 10+ hours a day in and out. There will be exceptions, but it can’t be the norm.
Other support that’s needed is flexibility for doctor appointments without judgement. Finding a therapist or psychiatrist that is a match for both your personality and needs is not easy. Then trying to schedule it outside of work hours makes it even harder. If managers and leadership put emphasis on flexibility about this, I think they’ll be surprised to see how much it will help the mental health of their employees.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Brian> We need actionable change. And that starts at the top. The feeling that I don’t have a choice to work a 15-hour day and stop at 5 or 6pm is not healthy. No one should feel ashamed for working an eight-hour day. The CEO, CCO, CTO and especially the CFO need to create a workplace where people can thrive and stop just trying to survive.
Separately, I think mental health is often tied to being a ‘millennial crisis’. But what I’ve witnessed is that the millennial generation is the one who’s raising their hand. I’ve worked alongside peers who are much older than I am and their struggles with mental health are very real. I can’t speak for older generations, but it seems like agencies are forgetting about the value they bring. Because there is such demand and emphasis on work, the culture and people aspect sometimes gets lost. Spending 30 minutes to check-in with a coworker is not just good for mental health, it’s good for business. It might not be tied to a billable hour, but in my experience, it can boost that person’s morale.