I wish it were just a fascination with psyc. If only it were that simple.
Really, it’s a deep fear about the impact of this pandemic. I’m seeing the strain on my coaching clients. I’m seeing the signs of distress in my healthcare clients (in fact research is substantiating early signs of PTSD from COVID-19 just like we saw with SARS.) My teens have felt the isolation as we respect tight bubbles and physical distancing as a family. And full disclosure, for me, the severity of of two bouts of PPD (postpartum depression) close together makes me always at risk of a relapse, and some very early signs I’m monitoring closely are showing up for even me, a normally positive, jokey, greatness-is-everywhere oriented person.
One of the books that I devoured like a hungry person was Stephane Grenier’s After the War: Surviving PTSD and Changing Mental Health Culture. So I decided to ask Stephane to sit down with me to chat about it (you can watch the interview if you prefer here).
Here is what I learned from Stephane, Order of Canada inductee, retired Lieutenant Colonel who served in multiple peacekeeping missions, and founder of Mental Health Innovations (MHI) about how he’s seeing the pandemic impacting people’s mental health and ability to see the greatness in themselves and others.
Sarah: Stephane, thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. What are you seeing about what people are going through right now?
Stephane: The pandemic hit at a time where society, workplaces, organizations, governments had not yet realized that the mental health topic has been over-medicalized. Mental health is on a wide spectrum and it’s not only about a medical diagnosis and treatment. Mental health problems occur over time. Right now, people just don’t know how to be, how to support, what to do, what to say, and what not to say. We need to start rapidly understanding how to not abdicate responsibility to fellow co-workers, neighbours, families, and play an active role in supporting people, well before they need clinical help.
Sarah: Agreed it’s everyone’s responsibility. So what can people do now, especially given how much more anxiety many people are feeling themselves?
Stephane: Well, I think one of the instincts that people will have when facing someone who is struggling is to want to fix the problem. As Brene Brown says, “It’s not the words you say to somebody who is struggling that will help. It is the relationship.” The relationship of trust and empathy that you build with someone, that is what truly helps.
So, you may not have solutions. Your presence helps. And recently I got involved with somebody who’s really struggling. And the family reached out to me and I said, “Listen, I can’t promise you that what I’m going to try is going to work, but I can promise you, I’m going to try.” And when somebody listens and is truly present (virtual or not) it creates a connection. We undervalue human connections. I think that’s the number one take home right now.
Sarah: That’s really empowering. We may have no lived experience with mental illness, however we can all connect. I’m hearing it’s about shared humanity.
Stephane: I think everybody, I don’t care who you are and how perfect you think your life is, at one point in your life there was a point where things were not that great. And you don’t want to remember that to dwell on it or create a pity party around yourself that’s, oh, poor me. But going back to that moment, grounding yourself, remembering a little bit how you were at that point in time is essential. That will probably steer you away from falling into traps of judging the person; the minute judgment starts, connection breaks down. People who are struggling from mental health challenges, however large or small, have a really good “I’m being judged” radar; you can see it, feel it, hear it the minute that starts appearing into the conversation.
Ground yourself. You may be on top of your game right now, but be humble. Go back to a time in your life that was tough on you or someone you really cared about. This lowers those power differential. It makes us less likely to think, let alone say, some version of “suck it up and pull up your socks.”
Sarah: What’s coming to mind is what fascinated me when I interviewed people about their greatness for a book, and the only theme that arose in every interview was that they failed or struggled, yet it was the way they managed through it and leaned on other people that allowed them to flip that failure as fuel. Challenges allowed them to realize something that they didn’t think was possible, not only in themselves; also in others too. I can imagine this mindset helps meet people where they are at in mental health struggles.
Stephane: We use this platform that allows anyone in the organization to ask, are you okay? Because we expect there are times when every one of us won’t be okay. Then, when the person says, “No, I’m not” it allows the person asking to not just walk or look away feeling unsure what to do or embarrassed. It equips them to continue the discussion in a non awkward way. Micro moments are very important.
I’ve compared it to an employee coming into a workplace, seeing another employee who has crutches. You would probably open the door for that employee, right?
We know what to do when it’s something physical.
It’s not so evident when there’s a mental health challenge. We want to cultivate an ability for every Canadian employee and leader to be able to figuratively open the door for somebody who’s struggling before a small problem becomes bigger.
Sarah: Some organizations have a low tolerance for people not being okay in general? Not performing okay, not doing their work okay, not being mentally okay. It’s evident in how many workplaces blame when failure happens versus encouraging learning from it. Have you found such lack of tolerance in cultures to be linked to lack of mental health support?
Stephane: Oh, we have. Some organizations wonder why their disability rates don’t lower, facility costs keep increasing and turnover is high. When there’s a mental health issue, it’s considered a clinical issue and not to do with the workplace. We suggest adding in what we call social support. Changing that culture of that organization, where everybody in the organization is capable of now opening the door, is key to mental health and getting your disability costs under control.
Imagine if somebody can’t open the door in the office and somebody says, “Hold on, I’ll call 911 to come and help you!” How useful is that? We don’t do that in the physical injury space. We don’t need a doctor to open somebody’s door. But for some reason, people think from a mental health perspective, unless you’re a doctor or therapist, you can’t help.
Organizations who have created cultures where anyone can open the door have seen improvements in their bottomline, reduced short and long-term disability, increased usage of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) Services, which is a good thing by the way, right? Organizations pay top dollar for EAP services, which are usually underutilized.
All we do is we crowdsource the human benevolence that exists right now in the organization. Somehow people are a little weary about drawing that, however there’s a lot of skills in every organization; bring the desire and ability to help to life through peer support.
Sarah: I liken what you say about wanting to see EAP rates go up to what we see in hospitals. We want near misses reported as that’s how we get at root causes to patient safety so we can fix them before major events happen; those with no support or fear reprisal won’t report and therefore it goes unaddressed.
Stephane: That’s right. Mental health is an issue in every organization. Your data is telling you this even if your people or peers aren’t. We need to have a culture where people can talk about it.
When social support programs were implemented inside the inpatient mental health units, patients recovered better and faster. Relapse rates diminished.
Workplaces need to play catch up. Social support is as important as that clinical care. Do not abdicate your responsibility; create a social support environment within your team, your organization, your university, your community. Add social support and it is transformational, anytime but particularly in such challenging times as we’re experiencing today.
Sarah: Stephane, I’m so grateful for sharing your experience – from recovering from war to helping thousands of Canadians on home soil. You are greatness personified.
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