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The darkness was illuminating: On returning to wellness and work

Heather Lackner pic 2014By Heather Lackner
Heather is a Knowledge Exchange lead in EENet’s East Area Kingston office.

Annually, almost three percent of workers take a short-term disability leave related to mental illness. This past year, I joined that statistic. A normally resilient person, I was caught in looping cycles of grief after too many losses in too short a time.

Despite my mental health expertise, built up through a lifetime of being a family caregiver to parents with mental illness, and despite my decades of professional experience in metal health care, I could not stop my downward trajectory into severe depression.

The darkness was illuminating—in feeling my way through depression, I learned more about the illness than I could have ever “intellectually” understood.

Since returning to work at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), I’ve been reflecting on many stories from colleagues about their experiences where illness and career intersect. These are more than stories, of course—life experience is a form of evidence. CAMH is Canada’s largest academic health sciences institute, a generator of high-quality, high-impact mental health and addictions research—the more traditional kind of evidence. In January 2015, Dr. Carolyn Dewa, head of CAMH’s Centre for Research on Employment and Workplace Health, published a study entitled “Worker Attitudes Towards Mental Health Problems and Disclosure.” Talk about timely!

In this survey of 2,219 working adults in Ontario, two key questions were asked: First, would you inform your manager if you had a mental health problem? And second, if a colleague had a mental health problem, would you be concerned about how work would be affected? Researchers then probed more deeply depending on the answers.

Among the 38% who would not tell their manager, more than half were afraid that admitting to mental health problems would affect their careers. Other reasons for not disclosing were the bad experiences of others who came forward, or fear of stigma and losing friends. Three in 10 people said they wouldn’t tell because it wouldn’t affect their work.

A positive relationship with their manager was the key reason given by those who said they would reveal that they had a mental health problem. Working in an organization that has policies was another factor that influenced people’s decision to come forward.

In my case, my mental health problems evolved into a barrier to my workplace productivity; I had to disclose my illness and take time to focus on finding my path to wellness. Many of my own experiences and fears are highlighted in Dr. Dewa’s study.

Chris and Heather

Heather with colleague Chris Sullivan

However, the one piece of research evidence from this workplace health study that especially resonates with me is the knowledge that half of workers said they would want to help a co-worker if they knew about a coworker’s mental health problem. I found this to be true. Both before, and after, my mental health leave, I felt how much my colleagues were concerned for me and how much they wanted to find ways to contribute to my wellness.

My colleague, Chris Sullivan, pondered how he approached my return to work. “I took a deliberate and conscious effort to really check in with you on a daily basis and pay attention to your demeanor, words, and body language as you returned to your regular work schedule,” notes Chris.


Heather with colleague Stephanie Faroldi

Another colleague, Stephanie Faroldi, adds, “As a colleague, I didn’t treat you any differently when you returned to work. I didn’t want to create a stigmatizing workplace by treating you like you were fragile or couldn’t handle your job. I checked in with you and assisted you like always and was prepared to give you extra support if you told me that’s what you needed. But I have to say, having worked with you for seven years, you are more than a colleague, you are my friend. As your friend, I was so excited that you were well enough to return to work and that I would get to enjoy your company again.”

With my return to the office, I am focused forward, out of the darkness and isolation of depression, and back to my colleagues and community at CAMH. I am thankful for my return to wellness and work.

  • Robin Bruce

    Great article, so well written and insightful. I’m pleased to be a part of your team in Kingston. :)

  • Tamar Meyer

    Welcome back Heather :) Great post, thanks for sharing.

  • Christine Kluczynski

    What a wonderful and courageous article, Heather! Thank you for being so candid and sharing your plight with mental illness. This truly speaks to the notion that mental illness knows no boundaries; professional knowledge/training aside.