We should make it easier to talk about hard things

One of our most important roles is to make it easier for people to talk about hard things.  A few weeks ago, we learned of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  I reflected back on my own experience with depression and took the opportunity to talk about it with our team. My theory was, if by telling my own story (which would have terrified me in the past) I could make it a bit easier for someone else to talk about their struggles if necessary.  I shared the letter internally, but also with some friends who also work in HR.  I had a few ask if they could "borrow" the language from my letter to send to their own teams. In the spirit of being open-source, I'm sharing it here with you as well.  Feel free to borrow and modify for your own use.

We don't all have to bare our soul on a regular basis (especially if you have not healed enough to share), but being willing to be vulnerable is critical for leaders. 

Here's the letter:

Sent: June 8, 2018

Dear team,

This is going to be a heavy topic. Hopefully you know by now, that I don’t shy away from the heavy topics. And the news this week has been weighing on me and I think it’s really important to create space to talk about hard things.

This week we saw the announcements of the deaths of two huge icons - Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain - who committed suicide. At the same time, the CDC announced that across the US, suicides are on the rise pretty significantly. These announcements have weighed heavily on me for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is because I personally enjoyed the work of these icons so much.

Perhaps it’s because of what they represented. But it’s also because they are two people who had all the resources in the world and yet still made the choice to end their lives.

In the year before I joined my last company, three people connected to the company committed suicide. One was an employee and two people ran companies that we invested in. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I saw the impact of the company’s response, which was to brush off the hard questions and not to talk about it at all. Afterward, employees felt that it was not okay to ask questions and that it was not okay to discuss how they were feeling about it. They also received the message loud and clear that talking about struggles and certainly mental illness were totally off- limits. I vowed at the time never to allow that kind of iron curtain to be set down in any company I worked for. Life is messy and we have to be willing to wrestle with the messiness sometimes.

I think it’s our job in People + Culture to help make it easier to talk about hard things if that is necessary, so that’s what I hope this email does. If I can make it easier for anyone to talk about their struggles, then I’ve accomplished my goal. So with that, I want to share a few things I’ve learned in my own journey with depression at various points in my career.

I’ve learned that depression manifests itself in ways that are not always obvious. It’s likely that my coworkers would have been shocked at the time I was struggling with depression. That’s part of what made it worse - it took an enormous amount of energy for me to get through the day because I was trying to hide it. I would have been absolutely terrified if any of them had found out that, not only was I struggling with depression, but I was seeing a therapist and was on anti-depressants.

The huge irony that I know now is that those things very likely saved my life.

Here’s something else I learned in my battle with depression: the biggest lie that depression ever told me was that I was alone. Now that the fog has lifted for me, I can see clearly that it was a lie.

But it’s far from obvious while the fog is on the ground. I’ve talked to so many highly accomplished people I respect deeply who have shared similar experiences. Depression can be insidious and it is incredibly isolating. My hope with this email is to send the message that, if you struggle with this now or in the future, you are not alone.

Here’s the last lesson I learned: I thought I was the secret exception to the rule. Even at the time, I would have coached anyone else struggling to reach out and get help and I would absolutely have meant it. But I thought I was different. It was both heartbreaking but also liberating when I finally realized I didn’t have to be the exception to the rule. So many of us are willing to help someone else, and yet are unable or unwilling to ask for that same help when we need it.

Reaching out for help is one of the bravest acts a person can make. So, my ask for everyone here is to honor the courage it takes for someone to reach out. Do everything you can to make it easy for the people you love to ask for help. I’m not asking for any of us to inappropriately take on another person’s burden, but we can definitely be here for each other. We can check in on each other. We can recognize that we as humans are both in need of and capable of providing help to each other.

Brené Brown says that “need is the most beautiful compact between humans."

There are also a ton of completely confidential resources available to each one of us - whether you’re struggling yourself or trying to help someone who is struggling:

Our Employee Assistance Program is a really incredible, totally underutilized resource. It’s completely confidential.

  • (US): 800-311-4327 or guidanceresources.com

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 800-273-8255

  • Crisis Text Line (US): Text START to 741741 about any type of crisis

  • Pieta House (Ireland): 1800 247 247 or pieta.ie

Of course, the People + Culture team is always here to help you find the right resources as well. Let us know how we can help.

Thanks, everyone. I’m proud to be a part of this team that leans in to hard conversations.

Be well and take care of each other,