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5 Ways to Start the Mental Health Conversation in Creative Industries

Justin Gignac
Justin Gignac

You don't have to run a company to advance the conversation around mental health at work.

A globe-trotting chef and a world-renowned fashion designer, both seemingly at the top of their respective industries. Both dead by suicide within a week of each other. For many of us, the shocking and public deaths of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain sent the sobering message that no matter the professional heights people have reached, it's impossible to fully know what they are dealing with in private.

For me, these deaths seemed particularly personal. On my podcast, "Overshare," I've spent the past two years having real, occasionally difficult, and eye-opening conversations on mental health in the creative community.

Most people don't realize that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It's the leading cause of illness and disability in the world, taking more than 800,000 lives each year. I've seen firsthand how creative people are particularly susceptible. After all, creativity thrives off of the highs and the lows of life, and it can be challenging to ride this rollercoaster of emotions.

My goal was to break that silence. So a few months ago, I formed a support group that welcomed creatives from all industries to have a safe space to talk. When I first started, I had 50 chairs. I sent out an email to 2,000 people in my network, asking them, “Hey, does anyone want to talk about their feelings?” I wasn't sure anyone would come. But it sold out in 10 minutes, and I discovered that people in this industry feel a deep, visceral need to be heard — to feel like they're not alone. 

Why Support Is Key to Working Through Struggles

Last year, I realized I was dealing with my own depression. When my therapist told me, I was shocked. I said, “I thought I was just sad and lazy.” But when I talked to others in my field, I was surprised to find dozens of similar experiences. We all felt alone in our struggles. And in those talks, I realized that anything that offers an opportunity to connect with another person about such issues can leave you feeling a little bit less isolated.

Within the work environment, there's a pressure to perform, to excel, and to be perfect. And all of that is simply not realistic. It's not about making excuses; it's about helping people feel supported and safe so they can excel at their jobs. There is a need for a space where you can throw your hand up when something isn't right and get help. And as a leader in a creative industry, I’ve found that every day provides another unique opportunity for me to do that. 

5 Strategies for Starting the Mental Health Conversation in Creative Workspaces

You don't have to run a company to help further the conversation around mental health in the workplace. In fact, anyone at any career level can infiltrate change, the hardest part might be knowing where and how to start. Take note of the following strategies:

1. Show you care

Above all, bring compassion and empathy into the workplace. When co-workers see that you're motivated by profit only, they don't feel like their mental health is valued. On the other hand, when people feel free to be their best selves, profit and productivity are often positive side effects.

Compassion isn't something you can fake. I'll admit, there was a lot of personal growth I had to achieve before I was comfortable expressing it. However, simply sending a clear message of "Hey, it's OK to talk about this stuff" is a great start.

Sebastian Junger, in his book "Tribe," found that there's a low rate of depression and suicide within tribes. This is the case because individuals feel integral to the success of the tribe. But nowadays, it's the loss of community, Junger proposes, that leads to so many mental health issues. As we've become more affluent, we've separated ourselves from one another, building bigger houses and leaning into isolation. It's easy to stay in our bubbles — cubes and offices — and then go home and sit in our apartments alone. But the more we can encourage human connection within the workplace, the more we can regain that healthy tribal mentality.

2. Bring in an expert

Speak up and suggest to invite a guest who can speak to mental health, or someone who has gone through similar issues, whether in a training capacity or on a weekly basis. For example, Jerome Ribot, co-founder of Ribot, engaged a therapist to help his staff through personal issues, noting that the central factor of success at his services company were his employees.

Even the most high-functioning people suffer sometimes, especially in creative industries. And when they do, companies face consequences. To encourage mental health discussions, Ribot calls in a therapist four days a month to hold confidential discussions with employees.

Although this seems like an all-win approach, not everyone will be on board. I worked in advertising for over 10 years, and if there were a therapist on staff, I would have gone out of my way to avoid him or her. But once you get over that gut reaction, the knowledge that there is someone in the building who is open-minded and supportive is a powerful strength to any workplace.

3. Set an example, but be discreet

When talking about mental health in the workplace, it’s important to know that it’s not about airing dirty laundry. For me, it’s about setting an example — simply raising my hand and saying, “I’m struggling, too.”

But remember, because mental health is a sensitive subject, it must be carefully navigated. Some individuals in the mental health community felt the media grossly mishandled the reports of Spade and Bourdain's deaths. Copycat suicides are a real phenomenon; especially when celebrities are involved. Whenever issues like these come up in the workplace, sensitivity is crucial.

For my part, I rarely get into the specifics of depression or suicide. If something pops up that I’m not equipped to handle, I leave it to the professionals. As long as I talk to people and let them know I care and create an environment where others can do the same, I know I’ve made a difference.

4. Let people know about other resources

From the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to apps like Talkspace that provide options for people to discuss mental health issues, there are many additional resources to turn to, and it’s important that employees know about them. At Working Not Working, one of our members created a mental health app-based community called Huddle, where people can post questions and get answers from the community about personal topics.

In addition, I've started some of our work meetings with meditation exercises. It’s an easy thing to mock, but meditation has helped me immensely, and I frequently recommend the practice to others. Take advantage of any opportunity to support your team this way, whether with weekly meditation sessions in the office or even just sponsoring a subscription to a service that encourages a daily practice.

5. Make time to volunteer

Organizations that provide volunteer opportunities reap huge benefits. Studies show that the empathetic response people get from volunteering measurably increases happiness. Working toward a common goal increases social interaction, busting that lonely feeling and decreasing incidences of depression.

Plus, when you volunteer, an organization counts on you. When you get out of bed in the morning knowing that what you do makes a difference to someone else, it can be a great way to raise your spirits. That’s why any effort you make to encourage volunteerism, whether it's on a quarterly, monthly, or weekly basis, will go far.

Culturally, we are raised to be top performers. It’s hard to admit when you're not perfect. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that if co-workers in my workplace feel overwhelmed, I’d much rather they raise their hands and ask for help than try to tough it out on their own. Of course, no matter what you do, people will at first hesitate to open up. It will take time, and there will be trial and error involved. But over and over again, peers have told me that they feel more comfortable being honest and being themselves.

Above all, remember that these are universal struggles. So open up, raise your hand and make the first move, because you’re not alone.

Image Credit: one photo/Shutterstock
Justin Gignac
Justin Gignac Member
Justin Gignac co-founded Working Not Working in 2012 with Adam Tompkins after deciding to address a lack of structure and support for freelance creatives. Working Not Working is an invite-only community of the best talent in the creative industry. To date, there are more than 30,000 creatives on the roster broadcasting their real-time availability, and thousands of the best creative companies in the world use the platform to discover and hire their creative talent, including Apple, Google, Droga5, VICE, Wieden+Kennedy, Airbnb, IDEO, and The New York Times. Prior to Working Not Working, Justin gained notoriety for his man eccentric art and business ventures, including NYC Garbage, Wants for Sale, Needs for Sale, and QRapping Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.