Real-life mental health stories: mental health in a leadership position

Mental health in a leadership position
Selina and Baxter

This blog post is part of an interview series for mental health awareness week. In this series, different people give their perspective on living with a mental health condition.

In certain cases as with the interview below, people have had the courage to reveal their identity. This is brave, as it can be difficult and daunting. Congratulations to them!

Who are you, and why did you decide to share your story?

My name is Selina and I work in sales. The reason I want to share is because I have a question in the back of mind I’m trying to answer: how do leaders balance strength vs. vulnerability when dealing with mental illness?

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had strong leaders that have guided me and supported me through my dark days. It’s not a conversation I openly have but the more trust they gained from me, the more I was able to be honest and open about my history.

When I became a manager, there were 1000 things I was worried about getting right. I didn’t think for a moment how I should portray my personal problems because I wanted to always show strength, as I had seen in my managers before me. Unfortunately, I realized that when you only show one side of yourself, it’s hard for others to empathize when you are at your lowest. I still struggle with this now, what is the right balance of vulnerability with any type of mental diversity, particularly when in a position of leadership?

When was the first time you became aware you were suffering from a mental health/wellness issue? 

At the age of 7 I started suffering from alopecia as a result of a traumatic childhood experience. I battled with it for most of my life, essentially unable to open up about my feelings and speak openly about the negatives in life. Even when things were really bad, I would paint a smile on my face and keep going. 

At a certain point, I got into a vicious circle: the alopecia was causing me even more anxiety. I was suffering because I was keeping my illness hidden from others, which was a real burden. For example, I had to wear a wig to hide my alopecia. I would panic on rainy days about it being way too obvious, or during team outings about it falling off. It seems silly but these thoughts were plaguing me, making me anxious and adding to the burden of the illness itself.

It all came to some sort of “tipping point” after a physical illness in 2017. I had taken some sick leave and the road to recovery was harder than I had anticipated. I’d been morbidly obese for a long time and with recovery of my illness, I was unable to eat and found that I no longer had my psychological outlet in overeating. Later that year I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which I took medication for to begin with, before moving into a regular schedule of therapy. 

What were you feeling/what did you experience that made you aware of it? 

I started having panic attacks and was consistently unwell. I would be on a crowded bus and then feel the need to get off. Going back to work after sick leave was extremely difficult because everyone was always asking me how I was, and answering those questions just felt incredibly difficult. 

At first I thought this was the side effects of the physical illness I’d been suffering from, because the symptoms were quite similar to those I experienced pre-surgery. I vividly remember being at a sales kick off in California and having to leave the dinner table because I felt so unwell, but unable to talk to my colleagues about what was going on – they’d paid a lot of money for us to be there, how could I disappear to my hotel room?

What did you do about it?

I started to see a therapist weekly which helped. The hardest thing for me was actually admitting to my closest friends and family that I had a problem. I needed them to be aware of why I was distancing myself.

Having an outlet (in a therapist) has been a struggle. I’m not 100% content but I also think nothing is solved overnight, and for me it’s only been just over a year. The biggest change I made was that I adopted a dog. Finding someone else to care for gave me a sense of rhythm and purpose. When times are rough, he can sense it and jumps up onto my lap for cuddles.

How do you feel now? How did taking those steps make you feel, and have they helped?

I’m proud of taking those steps but I have to admit, not everyone does it. I’m 32 and it’s taken me all these years to want to speak to someone. When you’re suffering from anxiety or depression, it’s very difficult to admit you need help.

When you’re finally ready to go for it, the paperwork and admin of getting it sorted is also quite an off-putting task. I don’t think therapy has completely helped to be honest, but it’s a step in the right direction. What has helped the most, is understanding my issue and being more in control of it.

What are you doing today, to actively manage your mental health?

Regular health and fitness, self care and finding new passions. I set myself a blend of goals that are achievable and also unrealistic. That way I feel rewarded for the small things as well as the big. Caring for my dog has given me a sense of purpose and rhythm, it means that rain or shine I need to be out the door walking him every day 3 times a day.

What are your lessons learned with regards to mental health, and work?

I don’t know if I have an answer to this question at this time. This is still something I am figuring out, but also something I’d like to learn from others, through building community. I would love for others to share their lessons learned with me, so please let me know.

What would you like to say to someone who is suffering in silence from a mental health issue?

It’s easy to suffer in silence, the first step is to find someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. Use the mental health hashtags on Linkedin and reach out to people who are advocates, they’re usually happy to help.

The second step is speaking to a doctor. There has been far too much stigma for many years about anti-depressants. They are not evil and it does not make you strange if you are on these. Therapy doesn’t work for everyone so don’t think of it as a quick fix.

Where can people find you?

On Linkedin I’m happy to receive messages. 

Author’s note: please do not contact this person if you have negative intentions or to share hate messages. This person has been brave in sharing their story and my intent is to spread messages of hope and positivity.

Please be respectful of all the people who shared their story. I will not tolerate any negative behaviour or actions and will report this via the platform you use.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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