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How would you know if one of your employees or coworkers was suffering from mental illness?

It’s not as easy as you may think. Take Terrie Williams, for example. Williams has been a social worker by training, a successful public relations professional, an author of business and inspirational books, and an advocate for youth. But only recently has Williams started dealing with the depression that has plagued her for more than 2 decades.

Williams’ story of depression began 24 years ago. She at times felt like she was dying inside, and even the people closest to her had no idea about her struggles. She hid her sickness for years while climbing up the professional ladder. But several years ago, Williams began to recognize her feelings, behavior and physical symptoms for what they were — clinical depression. With the help of medication and a therapist, Williams is now managing her illness. Today she is a self-proclaimed “woman on fire,” committed to telling the truth about the personal, professional and societal consequences of mental illness.

Williams believes leaders need to understand the prevalence of depression and other mental health problems in the workplace. Mental health problems often show up through absenteeism and poor or minimal performance. Williams said that though science and technology have advanced in terms of understanding mental illness, the mindset has not. Limited mental health services, minimal or restricted insurance coverage and the mindset of “being okay” conspire against people who struggle with mental illness.

Even without a diagnosis of chronic depression, bi-polar disorder or other mental illness, people in organizations are suffering. How many employees are on antidepressants? What about chronic stress? What about greater use of prescription medications? Everybody is going though something; everybody has a story; everybody wears the game face, Williams noted. She said that as leaders, we often don’t realize how we affect our people.

Here are 3 ways that leaders can begin to look at mental health issues with greater clarity and compassion:

First, start by looking honestly at yourself. If you don’t deal with your pain, it is going to manifest itself in some way that affects others.

Second, shatter the silence. Speaking up begins to break down the stigma of mental illness. This may be especially important in communities of color, says Williams, where she knows people who would rather admit to knowing people on drugs or in jail than someone with a mental illness.

Third, as leaders, tell the truth. Williams said that we lie all the time to ourselves and others. Make a commitment to honesty. Find people to tell you the truth about yourself (even when it makes you angry) and say “Thank you for telling the truth.”

Williams believes that it is irresponsible for leaders not to understand we are human beings first. As she says, “be the leader that you would want to follow.”

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