It all started with an email from Madalyn Parker, a web developer in Michigan. “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” Parker recently wrote to a few members of her office. “Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”
Here’s how Ben Congleton, her boss and the company’s CEO, replied:
Hey Madalyn, I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.
Depending on where you live or what you do, this correspondence might not seem like anything remarkable. However, after Parker tweeted out her exchange with her boss, it quickly went viral, garnering over 16,000 retweets. The emails inspired responses from CEOs, human resources professionals, and people who admitted to facing depression in the workplace. Others just simply chimed in to ask if the company was hiring. The story eventually became national news, getting coverage from outlets like The Washington Post, CNN, and USA Today.
The stigma of mental health
Part of why Parker’s email with her boss became such a touchstone has to do with the stigma surrounding mental health and mental well-being. At the heart of it, many people often think of mental health in terms of extreme illness. But consider the World Health Organization‘s definition of the term:
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
By this description, even the small-seeming obstacles that block us from a full sense of emotional well-being are worthy of our time and special effort.
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health estimate that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder; they also emphasize that the majority of these disorders don’t qualify as disabilities. In other words, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we should think about depression or anxiety in the same way that we might think about a physical ailment like the flu, an ankle strain, or something more serious.
Being open about our struggles
Think about the times you’ve been asked “How are you?” and you’ve responded with “I’m fine,” even when you haven’t felt your best. While you’re certainly not obligated to tell everyone when you’re feeling anxious or untethered (although it can help!), it’s crucial to admit these emotions to yourself.
Once you have acknowledged something difficult, be it a sense of gloom or a feeling of being stuck, it’s easier to take a step forward. That is what Parker’s email to her office was all about. And while you may not always be able to take a mental health day when you’re feeling depressed and burned out, being open about what you need will push you to make it a priority.