Mental illness and work

Given the recent tragedy of the Germanwings flight accident and the belief that this was caused by an individual with an extensive history of mental illness, I was considering how having a mental illness needs to be dealt with in the workplace.  It is surely hard for someone struggling with mental health challenges to speak with their employer regarding their concerns.  Likely they need their employment to survive, to have the health insurance to get treatment, and to have a reason to get out of bed each day.  These realities would make one feel very vulnerable when it comes to expressing challenges related to mental illness.

Yet, if one becomes disabled to the point where they can not preform their job function or, such as happened with this co-pilot, could be a risk to others, it seems that reporting mental illness would be the responsible decision.  From my knowledge of the symptoms of mental illness and the impact that it has in individuals, the relationship that the employee has with the company/management coupled with policies that allow an individual to be able to retain employment and benefits while being responsible for their mental well being seems essential.  

It is my belief that mental illness needs to be treated as any other illness that, when unmanaged or has a severe impact in functioning, must be treated and not looked down upon.  This plays into the importance of removing the stigma associated with mental illness and companies promoting open and safe communication by employees as well as creating an environment that supports the mental wellness of it’s employees.  It is sad to consider that this co-pilot felt a level of desperation in his life that he felt justified in killing so many others to find relief from his struggles.

Until the next marker

I was never an athlete by any measure of the word.  Therefore, signing up to run a half marathon seemed like an idea that may not have a favorable outcome.  I committed to it and, like most other things in life, I decided to just figure it out as I went along.  I was scared yet my expectations were not very high so I was ok with running slowly or walking occasionally.  My mantra, as the number of miles increased, became to tell myself “the first mile is always the hardest.”

This was how I got myself in the correct frame of mind to start each run I did.  Then I found another challenge, after a few miles and my mind started chattering with the “I can not keep going” conversations I created a new trick.  The new trick was I told myself I only had to make it to the next marker.  Instead of 5 more miles the mission was to touch the next tree, stop sign, or the edge of the sidewalk.

This way of thinking is very powerful when dealing with mental health challenges.  The “I can’t” conversation can become overwhelming but can be replaced by small steps and goals to get through the next week, day, even minute.  I found that knowing and seeing where I was going increased my determination.  Sometimes knowing that all you need to do is make it to that next marker makes all the difference.

Holding Hope 

There are many things in life that can not be controlled.  One day life fulfills all of the expectations that you could ever have and the next you feel lost and disappointed.  The ebb and flow of life is continuous and unpredictale.  Dealing with constant change and uncertainty can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burned out.  

Amidst this reality is a central factor that can be controlled and is ever present.  This is having hope for a future that brings you a sense of well being and contentment.  You never know if you have reached rock bottom or if you have farther to fall.  You also do not know if the feelings of joy you are experiencing are the ultimate experience of this positive emotion or if there are joys yet unknown.  

At the end of particularly intense sessions I ask the client if they have hope that there situation will improve.  I am aware that if the answer is no there is an uphill battle because, without hope, how can progress be made?  The reassuring piece is that people that do not have hope do not come to therapy the client comes and continues with the hope that their life can or will get better.  So hope really is the foundation for all of my work and is what I look to offer those that are struggling through a hard time in their life.  

The gift of presence

One of the main reasons I became a therapist is because of the ability it gives me to be present.  When individuals are sharing parts of themselves that are very private and personal I feel a deep level of connection to humanity and the struggle that it can be and that brings a feeling of aliveness.  There are those moments that you can feel somebody releasing pain that has remained stuck inside of them and it is escaping which causes them to become more free. 

It is relaxing for me to be listening to others because my own inside chatter disappears.  I am certainly not perfect, occasionally the voice of inner doubt creeps in, but I recognize it quickly and, with this recognition, it goes away.  That moment is filled with relief that I am back in the world of the client, connecting with another human for another period of time.  This becomes meditative for me, living in the world of another human being that graciously allows me into their sanctuary.

I am grateful for the clients I work with and their bravery and generosity.  Their desire to be healthy and seek support to do so is inspiring.  Living in another person’s world takes me to places I have not known before yet there is a familiarity in the experience of being human that makes me feel at home.

Learning from the darkness

Individuals come to therapy because they are seeking support for some part of their life that is not functioning as they want.  Often they are experiencing a time of darkness, a realization that their life is not giving them the results or the positive emotions that they need.  Often this causes them distress and negative experiences.  However, what if this is the ultimate opportunity for learning and appreciation of life?

Without darkness we would not know light.  Without sorrow, how would we know joy?  Part of the human condition involves times that do not feel easy or good.  These are important.  Think of the last time you felt bad and then consider the lesson that this pain was meant to teach you, how it was designed to protect you.

One of the main lessons I have learned from times that are dark is a deeper sense of compassion.  To know how it feels to feel unwell and without hope allows for you to be able to really be one with others going through challenging moments.  Life is full of light and will have darkness.  Instead of indulging in or hiding from the darkness, see it as a wise teacher whose lesson is love, compassion, and a light towards better life choices

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