Mental illness leads to more lost workdays than arthritis and back pain. Think of it as the “silent tsunami”. It is mental health and psychosocial disorder in the workplace drowning productivity in many companies.

I watched it happen from the time of my adolescence to my late ‘30’s. Depression fed my late father’s low self-esteem and he literally worked himself to death trying to feel better about himself at work. His, and our family’s, 26 years of misery could have been avoided had he not feared mental illness stigma and reached out for professional help.  Heart disease disabled Dad when he was in his late ‘50’s. He died when he was only 62.

Like father, like son means that a son's character or behavior can be expected to resemble that of his father. I carried the genetic prdisposition for mental illness well into my adulthood.  After years of struggle and loss, I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I learned years later Dad had bipolar, too, diagnosed two years before his  death, but treatment started too late to make much of a difference. Hismanic side exploded in domestic violence, which added Post Traumatic Stree Disorder (PTSD) for my brothers, sisters and me to carry into adulthood. 

Here is how depression made me feel at work. My first career was as a Christian minister. Mental illness stigma was strong in the church in those days so I told no one and did not seek professional help.I hid behind the pulpit with a phoney smile while suicidal ideation danced in my mind nearly every day. I left the ministery after two years. I was mistakenly thinking the depression was caused by my work and made an impulsive decision to go  graduate school, earn a master’s in Radio-TV-Film with a focus on broadcast journalism. My relatively short-lived career as a radio and television reporter and anchorman was eventually destroyed by disabling panic attacks I learned years later were caused by chronic depression and alcohol abuse. I was self-medicating with alcohol.

An odd phenomenon common to most people with chronic depression. I forget I was ever well. I forget I’ll come out the other side (I always do). I forget there even is another side. This is thought of by psychologists as the “amnesia of depression”. Because depression feels permanent. The late Robin Williams once said depression is like having the “worst flu all day that you just can't kick."

People with high self-esteem feel good about themselves and appreciate their own worth. At the same time, they acknowledge their weaknesses but they don’t allow those weaknesses to play an irrationally large role in their lives. The key word is “irrational”. There is nothing “rational” in the mind of someone clinically depressed. In my experience, I was fearful and paranoid at times that colleagues were out to get me in some way. I always had an “enemy” in my mind when I was deeply depressed and so my focus was not on my productivity, but on them whoever they were. My dad, too. I remember his “enemy’s” name very well. His last name was “Snodgrass” (a fine Scottish name meaning “smooth grass”), which made it sound more menacing to us kids for some reason.

People with high self-esteem are happier than those with low self-worth. They’re also more likely to take on difficult tasks and persevere in the face of failure. Therefore, they’re more likely to succeed.

Depression is an illness, employers. Don’t make it harder for your employees to reach out for professional help by not making it perfectly clear mental illness stigma is not tolerated in your workplace. A common misconception about mental illness is that individuals can’t recover from it. According a study by the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health 65%-80% of individuals with a mental illness will improve with appropriate diagnosis, treatment and ongoing monitoring,

In a 2004 study, employees who received high-quality depression care management over two years realized a 28 percent improvement in absenteeism and a 91 percent improvement in presenteeism (when employees are present at work but not productive). That translates to an annual savings of $3,476 per employee (in 2013 dollars), according to Kathryn Rost, a research professor at the University of South Florida.

Employees with mental illnesses just want to do their jobs, says Craig, the employee who was fired after he disclosed his bipolar disorder. He wants “to be treated with dignity and respect with the understanding that bipolar disorder is like any other illness that needs to be treated,” he says. “It can be managed.”