By: Alison Gutterman
Our society has made amazing strides when it comes to educating the public about mental health issues. Nevertheless, about fifteen million people in the United States struggle with depression, and around 67% of them don’t get the help they need. Despite being the leader of a thriving company, I carry the weight of depression like so many others. And I have for a long time.
My depression started early. I grew up in a very stressful environment due to my mom’s chronic illness. Although that experience didn’t create my depression, it exacerbated it. Like so many depressed kids and adults, I hid my mental health issues well — I got good grades, socialized, and joined clubs. No one would have ever known I was suffering. Inside, though, I felt like I was always under a cloud of malaise.
Over the years, I’ve worked on my mental health. I tried medications, therapies, and other solutions. They worked, but not quite enough. Still, I stuck to them off and on for years. During the pandemic, however, my depression reached a new level of overwhelming sadness. It made me less effective as a mom. It caused me to lose my temper with people. It led me to binge eat. I couldn’t find my sense of humor — or a path out. At least not at first.
Depression in the corner office.
Here’s the amazing kicker: I’m hardly alone in these feelings among corporate leaders. This is both a good and sorrowful realization. It’s nice to know that my struggle isn’t unusual among executives, but at the same time, it’s hard to realize that so many other high-performing professionals in the C-suite are hurting. In fact, CEO depression rates tend to be double the national average.
Unfortunately, executives sometimes cling to the belief that admitting their depression (or any mental health issue) somehow makes them appear less competent. I understand that stigma. Who wants to admit they’re weak or somehow “broken?”
The problem gets worse when you’re a woman in charge. Often, women feel a sense of impostor syndrome, as if they’re not good enough to begin with. Having depression on top of those feelings? That’s a recipe for even higher levels of depression, which can lead to full-blown burnout or other conditions. But there’s hope.
Whether you’re on the top rungs of your company or not, please know that depression isn’t a failing or a mindset you can turn off and on. Rather, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. You can’t wish it away. Instead, you have to take steps to deal with depression one day at a time. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.
1) Name and claim your depression.
The first thing you can do for yourself is admit that you’re dealing with depression. Understand that it’s okay to tell other people you trust about it. Otherwise, you’ll constantly be bombarded with statements like, “Cheer up! Life isn’t that bad,” or, “You’re doing so great. Why would you feel sad?”
Being up front about your depression — right down to telling your team — might have surprising effects. Many others experience this struggle, too, and being open about yours can be inspirational. Don’t be surprised if they get in touch to help support you in your journey.
2) Seek out professional help.
Talk therapy isn’t like what you see on TV or in the movies. It’s not a one-and-done thing where you lay on a couch, talk about your day, and are magically better. It takes time. Find a good therapist and make sure you mesh well. If you do, keep up your appointments to see results. You might even be able to conduct them virtually.
Be sure to also tell your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing depression symptoms such as moodiness or anxiety. Your family physician might want to prescribe medications to help rebalance the chemicals in your brain.
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3) Stay open to experimental treatments.
Some people just don’t get relief from depression by talking to therapists or taking pharmaceuticals. Within months or a year, you’ll know whether or not you need to explore other routes. These could include lesser-tried or new approaches.
Of course, before doing anything new, talk with professionals and your family. Gather advice. Always know what you’re getting into before you move forward with any treatment. Just know that with the right treatment, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
4) Practice extreme levels of self-care.
Imagine that someone you loved had a serious injury. Wouldn’t you try to care for them as best as you could? Of course. So remember that if you have depression or any other mental health issue, you’re the one who’s wounded. So be kind, forgiving, and loving to yourself.
One scientific study revealed that self-compassion exercises had calming effects on participants. Sometimes, allowing yourself to take a day off to get a manicure or just hang out and do nothing could be the solution you need to stave off worsening depression.
5) Create a list of things that make you happy.
It’s tough to feel positive when you’re in the midst of a depressive state. That’s why I encourage you to create a list of things that make you smile.
Why not write down everything that puts you in a better frame of mind? Some list items might include taking a warm bath, rewatching episodes of your favorite TV shows, or listening to the tunes of your youth. Your list will be completely unique to your experiences. Keep it in your phone so it’s handy to remind you of the sun on days where you feel a cloud hanging over you.
Above all else, speak openly about your experience, even if you’re afraid. Being open about depression has helped me tremendously. Quite honestly, people have noticed that I’m a changed person. I think part of the change has been that I’m not hiding — I’m taking care of myself and helping others in the process.
Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007 was named its president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.