I dunno. Lincoln was depressed, how’d he do?
By John Burton
Being open about mental health is hard enough when you are doing it to your dog, let alone to your boss or client. But, as my daughter can attest, you spend more time with the people you work with than you do your own kid. And there, for the obvious reasons, is where most people try to keep their mental health a secret.
The presumption is, of course, that your mental health impacts your ability to do your job. I didn’t have my first Episode until I was already established, and even then I had the typical fears. But because I had court dates, staff, and clients, I was forced to be very open about it.
So I was, with amazing reception. Until I bumped into one attorney who said to me in a mediation, “How does depression not affect your ability to do your job?” To which I answered, “I dunno. Lincoln was depressed, how’d he do?”
I read this amazing article in The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk (credit where credit is due) about Lincoln’s depression, and how, if he had had it today, it would be treated in his campaign as a character issue, and about how it made him a better President, and about how, the day after he got nominated to run, he was found in the convention arena with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands by the then Lieutenant Governor of Illinois to whom he – wait for it – refused the stigma and simply said, “I’m not very well.”
When Mike Wallace (60 Minutes Correspondent – and, if you are under 35, just trust me) was working, I used to answer the question, “What are you afraid of?” with, “Two things – snakes and Mike Wallace.” Mike Wallace in his memoir was brazenly open about his battle with depression, his suicidal tendencies, etc. And, he was one of the greatest reporters to ever live.
Abraham Lincoln and Mike Wallace – you wouldn’t think they have a lot in common, but they do have this. They excelled at the peak of their profession, and they were reflexively open about their battles with mental illness.
From which I have learned this. Internal acceptance of your health, defying myth, and performing minimize mental illness to not even a side note on your resume. I have said more than a few times, “Yeah, I had a hard time getting into the shower this morning, but I am here now.” And I have found that it actually creates a kind of respect more often than not, rather than a prejudice. And you have to remember this, if you are a mediator in a room with two lawyers and two clients, one of the four of them knows EXACTLY what you are talking about. Same thing if you are checking out a married couple while your manager watches and the person bagging is within earshot. One of the four of them knows too.
Do not be afraid of yourself. Be afraid of not being yourself. Enough is enough with the myth that mental illness prevents you from excelling at what you do for a living. I can mediate with a sprained ankle, you can build a house or work from home part time with a head cold. And at the end of the day, there isn’t any significant difference.
In future blogs I will try to share some successful experiences with sharing mental health in the workplace, and some strategies that might be helpful for now. Foremost is this – you need to believe in yourself first. People will pick up on that, and move on. And your job / career won’t have to be one of the things that you have to carry with you while you heal.
From Abraham Lincoln in a letter from the White House on December 22, 1862 to a grieving daughter who had just lost her father:
“You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”
Tell me that President who dealt with depression full time wasn’t at the top of his game.