Dealing with depression difficult in workplace
By DIANE STAFFORD - The Kansas City Star
The way Ryan Lefebvre remembers it, fellow baseball broadcaster Fred White looked at him and asked, "Are you OK? No, really, are you OK?"
And the dam broke.
That serious, caring question by a co-worker was what it took for Lefebvre to let his depression spill out.
But that kind of questions - and an honest response - isn't easy to ask or answer in the workplace.
Social stigmas about mental disease, legal cautions about not violating health privacy laws, fear of job repercussions and disinclination to stick noses in someone else's business all conspire to prevent such interactions at work.
Lefebvre - a former ball player and guy who on the surface "had it all" - shared the story of his chronic, severe depression with a group of about 200 Kansas City area human resource practitioners.
it was a timely presentation in a community stunned by the recent depression-related suicide of television meteorologist Don Harman, as well as the deaths of other people in less-publicized circumstances, some spurred by job loss, financial loss or personal plights.
Their deaths leave colleagues wondering: What did I miss? What could I have done?
"It wasn't a co-worker's responsibility to 'fix' me." Lefebvre emphasized, but it was invaluable that a colleague say that something wasn't right with him and spoke up.
Clare Miller, director of the national Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, said it's especially tough for men to speak out about depression, "and most people aren't sure exactly what to do when we see symptoms."
The symptoms are rife. About 58 million Americans - 1 in 4 adults - experience mental health impairments in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
For about 15 million of them, the impairment is major depression, a serious mental illness that can interfere with thinking, behavior, mood, energy level and physical health.
"Co-workers shouldn't feel pressured to solve the problem," advised Nancy Spangler, a Kansas City consultant to the mental health partnership. "They're not trained to diagnose or respond in the best way."
But given that work comsumes many people's waking hours, co-workers are as likely as anyone to detect an individual's serious depression, a medical condition that usually is treatable with medication and counseling.
Unfortunately, "it's a sticky wicket" to talk about mental health issues at work, Spangler acknowledged.
"Co-workers are legally free to say, 'Hey you seem depressed,' but supervisors need to be more careful when discussing health issues," she said.
When confronted with a co-worker or employee who appears to be having mental health problems, the key to expressing concern - but avoiding legal hassles - is to focus on performance, experts say.
"Tell the person what you observe and that it concerns you," Spangler said.
A sample best-case approach for a supervisor might be: "We notice you're missing deadlines. That's not your style. We're worried about it."
A co-worker might say: "I notice you're not joining us for lunch anymore. It worries me to see you withdraw."
But there's no one-size-fits-all template for broaching apparent mental health issues.
So that's the impetus behind a tiny but sure-to-grow program named Mental Health First Aid, a training course designed along the lines of familiar CPR and first-aid training.
Theresa Cummings, director of program development for the Jackson County Community Mental Health Fund, is one of a handful of area trainers who can bring a 12-hour training course to workplaces and religious and social services organizations.
"It's really beneficial for human resource departments to help demystify concerns about mental health," Cummings said.
Missouri is among two states (Maryland is the other) in the vanguard of introducing the program, which originated in Australia, in the United States. The Missouri Foundation for Health is funding grants to faith-based organizations to have the training delievered to their congregations, Cummings said.
The course teaches people how to recognize depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and other mental health conditions - and then direct sufferers to appropriate resources.
The program lands on fertile ground in Kansas City, which already has a national reputation for raising public awareness of depression.
"Stress and depression are very hot issues with employers," said Christine Wilson, chief executive of the Mid-America Coalition on Health Care, which in 2000 began an initiative with a couple dozen large employers to understand and deal with depression.
The coalition has developed a "Depression Took Kit" for employees and employers, conducted a work site awareness campaign, presented information sessions to business groups and conducted an employee attitudinal study.
In some workplaces, in-house wellness speacialists or human resource practitioners are trained to give front-line assistance to employees exhibiting mental health disease.
In workplaces without in-house specialists, referrals to Employee Assistance Programs - generally affiliated with employee health insurance plans - are the likely responses.
"Depression can have a major impact beyond the individual. It affects workplace productivity and co-workers," Wilson said. "The more you can bring awareness and remove the taboo about talking about mental illness, the better."
For that to happen, experts agreed, a workplace first has to have an atmosphere of trust among management and employees. Workers have to believe that they can obtain confidential help for mental health conditions and that it won't lead to a pink slip or other punitive measures.
"Even if your workplace doesn't have a formal EAP, one easy, free thing is to have the CEO tell employees that 'we're concerned about you,'" Miller said. "Let employees know that it's OK to seek help if you need it, and here are the resources available to you, whether they're employer provided or not."
To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send an e-mail to Stafford@kcstar.com.