I remember sitting in my psychologist’s office in a Miami high rise a few years ago, gazing out the window at the sunny, South Florida sky—from inside, it was serene—and perfectly quiet.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I’d chosen my therapist in part because she offered weekend appointments, and I always grabbed the first-of-the-day appointment on Saturdays, when I could almost always walk through the lobby, ride in the elevator, and sit in the waiting room without seeing another person. There wasn’t even a receptionist in the office on weekends.
I was a television reporter, working at the top-rated ABC affiliate, and I really, really worried about someone rushing up to me—hey, you’re the guy from the news! Oh my God, are you crazy?—which led me to act like some kind of movie star, wearing a baseball cap and avoiding eye contact. It wasn’t ego, it was fear.
What I was willing to do—after years of flirting with therapy—was to talk about how I felt, which was lousy. In that comfortingly quiet office, I shared all the ways a typical day at work could send me into a spiral of anxiety: being criticized, confronted, judged—even just routinely disrespected. Any reporter will recognize that as a list of indignities that journalists endure pretty much every day of the week.
But for me, a snarky comment on a phone call could carve a track in my brain that would replay over and over and over, and I found it exceptionally difficult to let it go. Often, trying to move on from some slight—large or small—I would change the subject by turning my own hostility on myself.
My face, my hair, my clothes, my teeth, the words I used, the questions I asked—nothing was good enough, and all deserved withering abuse. I didn’t know how to stop, but I had a decent toolbox filled with unhealthy ways of catching my breath.
That Saturday morning, my psychologist looked up from her notes—she’d been fast-scribbling, which was always a worry to me—and asked “how did you ever end up in this line of work, then?” She suggested that someone could write a research paper on my decision to seek out a job on camera that would expose me daily to some of the exact stresses I wanted so badly to avoid.
I did not have an answer—still don’t. All I knew then was that I had gotten to the point where I wanted to feel better. Getting there, however, would take me years.
Back then, I’m fairly sure I would never have considered myself mentally ill. I was in therapy, I had relationship problems, I was isolated, and I drank too much. I laughed a lot, but I was rarely happy.
If I got an angry phone call after a story aired, I’d let the criticisms echo in my head as I drove straight to Bal Harbour, to the men’s shop at Neiman-Marcus, where a reliably fawning salesperson who knew me by name—and knew my taste for expensive French ties—would lavish over me. I was no longer the unbelievable fuckup reporter with the idiot face, but the elegant journalist with exquisite taste and—at least as long as my credit cards would hold—the resources to buy the finest shirts and ties.
I would walk out, carrying that bag with a shirt and some ties, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, and drive home content.
I’ve always felt that lots of people attracted to working on television seemed in person to have thin skins—oversized egos protecting some wild insecurities. They also seemed to drink and drug a lot, and engage in the kinds of risky behaviors that threatened to—and sometimes did—derail their careers.
So I wasn’t really different at all.
I tried antidepressants, and they helped a bit, but I could never come to terms with what the “problem” was, and when I felt a bit more calm, I stopped taking them. And I never, ever talked about it.
Again, I was hardly modest. When, early in my career a boss of mine asked me at a luncheon why I wasn’t eating anything, I said rather matter-of-factly that lately, eating made my stomach hurt. He asked if I’d been bleeding. And I had.
I happily discussed with co-workers the amusing indignity of having a colonoscopy, and how I was recognized while in the procedure room and lying on my side by a nurse. “Aren’t you the reporter from Channel 13?” It was a decent anecdote and the underlying sickness that brought me there—ulcerative colitis—wasn’t anything that I was embarrassed to talk about.
Somehow, a digestive disease was clearly something that “happened” to me, but wasn’t something that could define who I was.
I think a diagnosis of mental illness, if I had thought about it then, would have been dangerous—a threat to my entire personality. I’d learned to be funny in high school by accident, after years of being an outsider in school with few friends. Suddenly, I could make people laugh, and they liked me.
Humor had the side benefit of being a wonderful tool to deflect people when they got too close or too personal. The thought that my sometimes offbeat sense of humor could be interpreted as a sign or symptom of a person with mental illness—well, that was a non-starter.
And God help anyone who would, knowing I was treated for a mental illness, ask me if I was “off my meds.” (If you’re not taking a personal interest in the anti-inflammatory cream my podiatrist prescribed for the bone spur in my foot, or the nasal spray my allergist gave me, you probably shouldn’t be asking me—or anybody—about how well they’re keeping up with their psych meds.)
But either way, that wasn’t going to happen. No way. I wasn’t “sick”, and I had nothing to talk about.
But make no mistake, and I must avoid falling back on one of my favorite defense mechanisms, vagueness: I have a mental illness. Or, if you prefer, I’m a mental patient.
Officially, my diagnosis is obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. It’s a hell of an illness that, for me, has nothing to do with compulsively washing my hands, avoiding cracks on the sidewalk or reciting numbers. Nope, all I’ve got is a brain that offers up thoughts that are annoying, disgusting, or frightening.
The thoughts, which came from inside my own brain, I always considered my thoughts, and for that reason, I buried them deep and piled layers of shame on top to try and silence them. They were secrets that could never be discussed.
At least, until a new doctor, taking a history, asked about my intrusive thoughts and, like a fortune teller, somehow named several of them. I was stunned. Not only did I not have to confess, I didn’t even have to describe them. It was okay. I was understood, and I wasn’t judged to be a sick, horrible person. I had a mental illness, and I was directed to a book that has as one of its coping mechanisms the suggestion that every intrusive thought be followed by “that’s not me, that’s the disease.” And that truly helps.
Admitting that I was not well—and was getting treatment—transformed my life, which I realize now, looking back, was headed down a very lonely and scary path. I kept waiting and waiting for my real life to begin, without making any progress to getting the things that I wanted.
Sitting in a psychiatrist’s office one day in 2008, a wonderful but steely tough doctor gave it to me straight. “Do you want to get married? Have kids?” I said yes on both counts, even though I was living alone, without real furniture or a bed, in a home that I never allowed anyone to visit. I never went anywhere or did anything that wasn’t work-related. But my work allowed me to travel the world, so that felt “normal.”
I had left a promising relationship in another state with a woman who got close enough to me to see how screwed up I really was—and somehow, was okay with me, only to propel myself into an ultimatum: we move forward, or we end it.
“Do you want to be the oldest Dad in preschool”, the doctor asked. No, I said. “Then you need to decide.” Suddenly, my treatment seemed to be clearly connected to my future—either the one where I’m alone, or married, with a family. His swift kick in the ass changed my life.
The doc made the OCD diagnosis and prescribed a medication to help treat it. The drug, Luvox, came with a boatload of baggage—it was taken off the market in the U.S. after it became associated with one of the shooters in the Columbine tragedy, who’d taken the drug—and while it was cleared for use, it had a raft of side effects (the doctor warned me my sex life would be profoundly impacted, and it was) and a “black box warning” of the potential for suicidal thinking. So, fantastic.
But the doctor’s certainty—and his belief that I could, in fact, have a real life to replace the facade I’d been desperately holding together—convinced me to follow his treatment. I took the meds, and went through EMDR treatment with my therapist, which seemed to my cynical mind to be ridiculous until a casual question during treatment about my isolation caused me to break down sobbing. I was not the type to cry in front of anyone, so that caught my attention.
And I got better. I also got engaged. And later, on a wonderful day one May, I became a father. I had somehow found everything that I ever wanted. But telling that part of my story—happy though it was—was just not something I thought wise.
And I’m not the only one.
A report by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand found a direct connection between self-esteem and work among people with mental illness. Not only does having a career boost confidence and self-worth, it also works like medicine. “Paid employment is a “critical component of the pathway to recovery”.
The flip side, however, is the persistent fear of being outed—and for good reason. Rob Lachenauer’s a CEO who wrote in the Harvard Business Review about hiring a candidate who disclosed her mental illness in the interview process: “My reaction to the candidate’s disclosure was, frankly, disbelief — disbelief that she found the courage to make herself so vulnerable before she was hired.” She got the job, but Lachenauer says many do not:
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness. But my experience as a consultant at a very large strategy firm whose clients are giant corporations had been that if someone admitted that he or she struggled with depression or mental illness, that would often be career suicide. Indeed, a former vice president of a major investment banking firm, when told about this blog, warned me against publishing it: ‘Clients are afraid to work with firms that have mentally ill people on the professional staff.’
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 3.3 million adult Americans have OCD. And one in five adults—46 million people—have experienced some form of diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder in the previous year.
But that’s best left off the resume. Research shows hiring managers have plenty of reasons not to hire someone if they know they have a mental illness:
Nearly two-thirds of managers said they believed people with a mental illness would be unpredictable or unstable, 61% of hiring managers said it was a reason not to hire. Respondents could choose multiple answers, and close to half, or 47%, also said they believed workers with a mental illness wouldn’t mix well with other staff, while the same number said they would be unable to do the job.
That leads people to keep quiet, remain isolated, and, for many, to refuse treatment. Isolated, untreated people at best don’t get better—missing out on happier, fuller lives. And at worst, they become sicker, or die. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
As a result, campaigns in several countries seek to break the stigma—and share the facts about mental illness:
More than a year ago, I felt the urge to be one of these courageous people who could step forward and simply talk about my mental illness the way I can talk easily about topics many people don’t necessarily understand—my marathoning training or, especially, my love of the Arsenal Football Club. I reached out to some of the groups fighting against stigma and was given encouragement.
Pamela Harrington, the executive director of Bring Change 2 Mind, raised a point that impacted me deeply: the media often reinforces stigma, and people in the media can do a lot to change that. “I think every person that tells their story helps to debunk misconceptions. When you have the platform as a journalist, your story could help countless people.”
I kept quiet, but others did not.
In 2012, Ken Barlow, a meteorologist at KSTP in Minneapolis, served as emcee at an event organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As he looked out at the crowd, he later told a reporter, he saw a sea of people—many carrying signs that said simply “End Stigma.”
“I thought as I was on that stage two weeks ago, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have this in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.” -Ken Barlow
That day, Barlow revealed his own struggle with bipolar disorder—something he’d kept from friends and even some members of his family for years. He opened up—and it was okay.
As Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, told the Pioneer Press, “the best way to change peoples’ attitudes about mental illnesses is for people to share their personal stories.”
Recently, here in Florida, the main news anchor at another station in town took leave, and was wonderfully frank about why she was stepping down briefly from the anchor desk:
“I am sending you this message because I’m going to be taking a break for a while. I have suffered from depression for many years, and with the help of my doctors, I have been able to manage it. Recently, it has become harder for me to deal with my depression. In consultation with my doctors, I have decided to step away and seek treatment. I know this is the right thing for me to do, and I appreciate your understanding and support. I will miss Local 6 and our viewers. I look forward to returning to work soon.” — Lauren Rowe
No euphemisms, no minced words, just matter-of-fact, as if she were taking time away from work to have treatment for any number of common health issues that people are a lot more comfortable talking about.
Last fall, a majestic blunder by a UK store, Asda, led to a brilliant and spontaneous social media campaign to fight back against the enduring stereotypes surrounding mental illness. The store had advertised a Halloween “mental patient” costume featuring a wild-haired man in torn, blood-covered clothes carrying a meat cleaver.
The response was swift, stunning, and beautiful. People all over the UK responded with photos of their own: drinking tea, walking their dogs, sitting on the couch, along with the hashtag #mental patient.
Finally, I was moved by my own sense of responsibility as a journalist. I believe that the words reporters choose when telling stories matter. We can educate and enlighten, or we can confirm what many already believe: the mental patient is the guy with the bloody axe and crazy hair, not the guy in the sweatshirt at work on casual Friday.
One story stands out in my memory. I didn’t report it, but it ended up included in a newscast that I anchored, and it upset and angered me. The gist was this: a 62 year old man who’d posted videos to YouTube describing himself as “the chosen one” had disappeared. Police had released his name and photo in an appeal to find him. But on TV, it wasn’t reported as a missing persons story. It became a warning—a man who was “delusional” and “possibly armed” had vanished. Clearly, this was a threat to the community.
Police had said the missing man had a mental illness that may have left him “delusional.” But despite the department’s news release noting that the man was not considered dangerous, the story’s tone and substance was clear: there’s a crazy man with a gun out there, and you’d better protect yourself.
The story included an interview with a couple who rented a room to the missing man, who helpfully described sifting through the man’s personal property and seeing “a doctor’s note that diagnosed [him] as schizophrenic, and found an empty gun and ammunition case.” That, to the landlords, was enough for them to “change the locks.”
The husband describes the moment his wife found the “doctor’s note” among the missing man’s property. “I was outside trimming the roses, and my wife says he’s a nut! A schizophrenic with a .45, it’s just not a good mix.”
We’ll just ignore that an empty gun and ammunition case means nothing, and that, as the American Psychological Association reports, “only a small subgroup of people with serious mental illness is at risk of becoming violent, and with treatment and taking medication, this group is no more violent than the general population.”
In fact, people with serious mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence. But that perspective never made it into the story. What did stunned me: a reference to a recent case of a man found shot to death in a laundry room. The story notes that “police don’t believe that [the missing man] is connected to the killing.”
So what the hell is it in the story for? There’s no journalistic merit to connecting an unrelated violent death to a missing person described by police as non-violent. Unless, of course, crazy=dangerous.
The University of Washington recently released A Guide to Reporting on Mental Health, which notes that “negative stereotypes to describe people experiencing mental disorders should be avoided. They sensationalize news stories and contribute to stigma and discrimination towards mental illness in society. Common stereotypes about mental illness pertain to dangerousness, incompetence and the portrayal of people with mental illnesses as anti-social.”
I wrote a long letter to managers, questioning our coverage of the story. I argued our reporting was unnecessarily insensitive to the subject of the story, who was portrayed, essentially, as a dangerous criminal. He was, in fact, a sick man who’d done nothing whatsoever to hurt anyone.
I’m ashamed to say I never sent the email. I thought my passion about the subject betrayed a personal interest in mental health stereotypes that I didn’t want to get into. Reflecting on that, I realize that I was profoundly wrong to remain quiet. That’s what closeted people do. They protect their own privacy by keeping their mouths closed when they could, and should, speak up.
So I’m done keeping quiet. I care about this issue—and how journalists report on mental health—because I know we would never have reported the story that way if the missing man were possibly delusional because he hadn’t taken his diabetes medication. Maybe every newsroom needs a mental patient to simply stand up and say so.
Will coming out impact my career? I’ve just quit my job as a reporter and news anchor in Florida so that my family and I can return home to New York. My wife’s lined up a fantastic job, and I’m looking.
Maybe writing this will cost me an interview, or a job. Maybe it won’t. If someone would decline to hire a journalist because they wrote openly and honestly about themselves, I doubt that’s the kind of newsroom that would support me—in many ways.
The right place will come. In the meantime, I’m going to call out stories that advance stigma, and cheer on those that erase it.
I’m a mental patient with a Twitter feed, so watch out.