One leader’s story with mental illness
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, Jeff Horvath, MBA, SHRM-SCP, shares his battle with severe anxiety and acute panic disorder.
Content submitted by BluePearl Speciality and Emergency Pet Hospital, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner
What role does mental illness play in some peoples’ ability to lead or climb the leadership ladder? And how often do these people seek and actually obtain effective treatment? For me, mental illness holds both the power to debilitate and empower. It all depends on how one manages it.
For many years, I turned down opportunities to lead in fear that my mental disorder would ultimately cause me to fail. Like many others confronted with a mental disorder or illness, I feared the stigma associated with it and figured I would be better off suffering in silence. I self-sabotaged, putting limitations on my personal and professional growth, and chose not to seek help. Now, as I reflect on those years, I see that a key contributor to the challenges that many leaders have in reaching out for help is that they find it difficult or simply cannot accept that they may be suffering from a mental disorder or illness at all. As I now know, acceptance is the first step to recovery, one which took me a long time to take.
In addition to self-acceptance, there are many challenges to effectively helping professionals with emerging mental health issues. A lack of resources available, closed communications channels, and a poor workplace culture play a huge role in people's willingness to seek the help they need and become the leaders they were born to be. Having an open discussion about mental illness at every level of an organization can lessen the stigma behind mental health issues, conditions, and illnesses, and it makes treatment possible.
In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month, I am sharing my journey battling a mental health disorder, how I worked through it, and how I finally found the courage to speak out.
What mental health means to me
Mental health is a broad term that includes psychological, emotional, and social components—and each of these have many factors connected to them. Mental health is how we relate to ourselves, what we experience, and how we connect to others. Many people who experience poor mental health can have moments of happiness, and vice versa; people who have good mental health can experience periods of sadness. Happiness and its counterpart, sadness, tends to be more connected to an individual circumstance. When things are going well—family, job, children, school, and so on—those with poor mental health may experience happiness, but not feel things like “joy” or “contentment.”
Luckily, I have been able to go through tough times and still experience joy, but I would not classify myself as “happy” during those times. The opposite is true as well. There have been times when I should have been happy by all reasonable measures, but instead, found myself feeling anxious, depressed, helpless, hopeless, and alone. So, to be clear, one can have periods of good or bad mental health and still have a mental illness.
I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and acute panic disorder 15 years ago. Prior to this, I did not know the experiences I was having were abnormal. When you never talk about it with anyone, it is hard to know it is not something others do not experience. For most of my life (up until I sought help from a professional), I remember the only times I ever felt good was for those first few seconds when I woke up in the morning. Before becoming fully conscious, I would be anxiety- and worry-free. But in a snap, I was again aware, and engulfed by a series of dreadful and overwhelming thoughts.
I still remember the first panic attack I ever had: the shaking, the sweating, the inability to take a deep breath, the intense internal heat. Often these attacks would climax in me vomiting, and much to my dismay, would happen in front of others. I would make excuses (illness, food, sensitive gag reflex). I hated that I could not control it. This eventually led me to hating myself and withdrawing from people and social situations, including most opportunities to advance professionally in leadership. This cycle of anxiety—feeding my self-hatred, then turning into depression—was something from which I could not seem to break free.
A few years after getting married, my anxiety peaked. I could no longer see friends or family, was barely functioning at work, and had lost a dangerous amount of weight. Recognizing my behaviors were not normal, my wife (who I am thankful for each day) went on our Employee Assistance Program website, found a psychologist near us, and booked an appointment for me. She came with me and stayed during the first appointment. It was both a crushing and amazing experience all at once to finally stop pretending and be honest about what was going on inside, while breaking down into tears and admitting something I was long ashamed of. But to have the psychologist on the other side of the table listen without judgment and explain to me how I was not alone, then talk through different options for treatment, was such a relief. This was the start of my journey back to a positive state of mental health.
Ironically, the man who once shied away from most people and social situations, now leads the People & Organization (P&O) function of a company with nearly 8,000 veterinary professionals across the US. Today, I embrace my diagnosis and allow it to make me be a better leader, one who can relate to others in a very human way. I have a better, more accurate view of myself, and have stopped telling myself the story of how “I am a failure” or “will inevitably fail.” I still have bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, but I now know and understand my triggers and can (mostly) engage in regular life activities. Becoming more self-aware, talking about it openly, understanding that I am not alone on this journey and continuing to use what I learned in therapy has been exceptionally helpful both in my personal and professional life.
Here are a few tips for others struggling with mental illness:
- Get help as soon as you can. Going to a psychologist or mental health expert is not a sign of weakness and does not make you a failure (or “broken” as I used to describe myself so affectionately). If there is something you are experiencing that you think may not be what everyone else experiences (e.g. “normal”), talk to a close friend or family member about it. It is hard to open up about these things, so if you are not comfortable with someone you know, find a local mental health expert to help you. I was fortunate to have my wife compel me to go by making an appointment for me to start my journey of healing and being able to cope with daily life.
- Surround yourself with the right people.When I started to be more open with my closest friends about my diagnosis and experience, most were surprisingly understanding, supportive, and accommodating. There were people who did not understand and demonstrated no empathy (“have you tried just not worrying about things?”), but I did not take it personally. How could they understand the depth of my experience without them experiencing it themselves?
- Don’t be afraid to try different options.When I first started my journey, I was adamant against taking any medication in connection with my diagnosis. It was not until an incredibly wise person asked me, “If you had a broken leg, would you seek medical attention and use medication to help with healing?”Of course I would, and their reply was, “So, tell me how this is different?” It was a highly effective reframe for me, removing the idea that I was weak for using medication as an aid, whether permanently or only temporarily. My personal condition has to do with an abnormality in my body’s production of serotonin, so it made sense for me to use medication to help regulate this chemical. Do what makes sense for you.
- Be an ally. It is important to not judge, listen actively, be empathetic, and encourage someone towards available resources. Then follow up with that person later to ask if they did. This will say to the person that someone truly does care for them. I know for me, there were times that I thought I was a burden to others, and it would be better if I was not around. Having others in my life in those times of having the darkest thoughts would have made all the difference.
My path forward
I have often thought about what could have been, why I did not get help while struggling, why my wife needed to be the one to take this step for me. When I think about what would have made the difference, I keep coming back to the same thing: one person—a friend, family member, colleague, or anyone—asking me if I was okay and telling me that that I was loved and was valuable even with this part of me. The problem was that I never felt safe to talk about it for fear of rejection. In my mind, if I spoke out about what I was experiencing (and eventual diagnosis), I would lose my job, my friends, my wife, and would be forever alone . . . just me and my anxiety for the rest of my life. This is the funny thing about anxiety. Despite how real you may believe your thoughts to be, the stories you create in your head are just that: fictional stories with no real implication for your reality.
What I found was that the more I started sharing my mental health diagnosis with others, the more people opened up with their own experiences. Anxiety, and mental illness in general, is much more common than I realized. In my role in P&O, I get to play a small part in working towards creating a culture where people are loved and valued and are able to demonstrate empathy toward one another. I like to think that by continuing to share my story with others, I am in turn helping to build this culture.
If there is hope for me, there is hope for anyone going through the same thing. With the right support and resources, we all can make it back to a positive state of mental health.