A woman walks along a misty mountain ridge.
This piece was written by Kristy Lowther, Strategic Engagement & Belonging Program Manager and shared with RTI staff. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.
 

Trigger Warning: Content includes depression, anxiety, isolation, suicidal thoughts

I have depression—an invisible disability.

Just writing that feels hard; sharing it with everyone I work with feels terrifying. As I write this, my thoughts are racing with worry: Will exposing this part of who I am impact how my colleagues perceive me as a person or the quality of my work? Will they question my ability to do my job effectively? Will sharing this jeopardize my career?

I know from life experience about the consequences of being labeled as “disabled.” My younger sister has a visible disability—Down Syndrome—and I have witnessed other people’s judgment and discrimination against her and by extension, our family, all too often.

Given these potential consequences, I sometimes wonder why I have committed to sharing my disability publicly. At those times, I reflect on two things: 1) how alone and isolated my depression and the associated stigma and shame have made me feel and 2) how empowering it is to find out you’re not alone.

I have always had these feelings—isolation, sadness, anxiety. As a child, I didn’t have the words to describe them or process them. I just knew I was different from my peers, so I tended to keep to myself and observe from the sidelines. To cope, I focused intensely on my schoolwork, keeping my mind busy to avoid sitting with these feelings. I decided that I would achieve perfection and nothing less, perhaps to compensate for my perceived shortfalls. And it worked, at least for a while.

My flawed coping strategy fell apart in college. I felt stuck—stuck in a relationship I didn’t want, stuck under the pressure of perfectionism—and the way I came unstuck was unhealthy. I began drinking and engaging in behaviors that put me at risk. I started skipping class, which would have been previously unthinkable for me. I began sleeping all the time and withdrew from my friends, social activities, and many other things that had once felt very important to me. Eventually, I began experiencing suicidal thoughts.

I don’t remember what finally got me there, but somehow, I found my way to the university counseling center. The counselors diagnosed me with depression and prescribed anti-depressant medication. I wish I could say that my depression was cured by those counselors, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Instead, they started me on my lifelong journey of learning to proactively manage my depression—through medication, regular therapy, and more effective coping strategies—so that I could live the life I wanted, with love, fulfillment, curiosity, and joy.

Mental health challenges are more common than one might expect. According to the 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, 76% of the 1,500 respondents surveyed reported experiencing at least one mental health symptom in the past year. The symptoms reported included anxiety, depression, burnout, disordered eating, and mania, among others. Higher proportions of executives and C-level respondents reported experiencing these symptoms (82% and 78%, respectively), compared to 71% of individual contributors. And lest we think these of issues as affecting “someone else” or “not happening here,” based on research conducted by RTI for NSDUH, it’s possible that 1 in every 3 or 4 RTI staff are experiencing mental health challenges.

I am proud of what I have achieved in the 20 years since I received my diagnosis. I have successfully weathered many challenges and major life events that have triggered depressive episodes, as recently as a few months ago. Always, but particularly during those episodes, I feel incredibly grateful for the investment I’ve made in managing my depression and for the supportive people in my life who help me keep on track.

My Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) colleagues are some of those supportive people. Although the stigma around mental health made it incredibly terrifying to begin to share this part of my life with them, I believed that I could trust them. I started small. This past year, there were times when life and my depression were hitting too hard. The stress of the global pandemic, caring for young children, moving houses, and navigating career shifts pushed my coping strategies to the limit and triggered a major depressive episode. I reached out to my supervisor to share what was going on. And I didn’t just say that I “didn’t feel well,” though that was certainly true—my depression had me feeling absolutely terrible, sick and exhausted. I told her that I was experiencing a depressive episode and needed to have more flexibility in my work schedule. I was overwhelmed with relief when she and my teammate collaborated with me to come up with solutions so that I could continue to do the work I love while taking care of myself. They made me truly feel like I belonged on the team as a whole person, depression and all.

So why am I sharing all this with you? Because the stigma around mental health is massive. Because that stigma has consequences—fear, isolation, persecution. Because I’ve experienced those consequences and tried to hide my mental health struggles in the past. And because I know how powerful it can be to be able to share those struggles and feel accepted and lifted up by the people around me. For me, hearing the experiences of other people with depression, mental health struggles, and other disabilities makes me feel less alone. I’m sharing my story now to pay it forward, acknowledging the stories others have shared with me and sharing my story in turn. I’m not alone, and neither are you.

Therefore, as we continue to face the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in the northern hemisphere enter the winter season, which can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I encourage everyone who might be experiencing mental health symptoms to seek out resources and support: