How to Be a Mental Health Ally in the Era of Mass Layoffs

Right now, the industry is going through something that feels like the beginning of a depressive episode

There are times that I am thankful to work in an industry that, more than others, is comfortable talking about emotions. We have to be. Emotion is our currency.

But even as advertisers, we’re not always comfortable facing our own personal emotions. Especially the tough ones, like depression.

And right now, our industry is going through something that feels like the beginning of a depressive episode. Personally, I’m holding out hope that this world of LinkedIn layoff announcements and living on the edge of our home office chairs is going to be short-lived. But in the meantime, feelings of grief, dread, guilt and despair are floating around among both the employed and the unemployed ad folks you know.

Having just experienced depression, I have been thinking about what advice can be offered to those who want to be helpers, in the Mr. Rogers sense. Here are some things I’ve learned from my own mental health allies.

Be an obvious safe person

It may seem like the first step to help others is to look for signs of depression and reach out. This is great to do, but be aware that many people are very good at hiding their troubles.

You might not recognize their signs of struggle and, if you do, they might withdraw when you approach them. Lay the groundwork now by making it publicly known you are someone who is sympathetic and supportive of people with mental illness, whether chronic or situational.

Normalize talking about mental health at work

Share mental health content on LinkedIn, or comment when you see it. Bring up the subject in meetings and talk openly about your own mood.

I have a coworker who posts all-agency Slacks during times that might be triggering—tragedies or even traditionally happy times that can be tough for some like family holidays. He acknowledges what people might be going through and offers himself as support. Whether or not anyone reaches out on those specific days, his Slacks mark himself as safe to talk to and help build a workplace that feels safe.

Know when to just be there

In most cases, as profoundly as the depressed person you are helping needs you, they actually don’t need that much from you—at least in the way of action. I can tell you firsthand that just knowing you exist and that you’re rooting for them will help them immensely. Just check in often to remind them that they’re not alone.

Know when to do more

There will also be times when your friend needs some practical help. Their brain is repeatedly erecting barriers to their own recovery, and you may be able to help them identify possible solutions—simple stuff like keeping in touch with loved ones, seeking professional help and practicing self-compassion.

On rare occasions, you may find yourself out of your league with someone who is in danger of harming themselves or others, so be ready to take more drastic steps like calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, recently changed to 988. But in all likelihood, you’ll just be called on for your presence and your gentle encouragement.

Have patience

You may experience the following conversation.

You: Hi, how’s it been going?
Depressed person: Oh fine I guess. Same really.
You: Did you try [that brilliant solution we came up with together last time we talked]?
Depressed person: Oh yeah, that … I haven’t had time really. I mean I was going to, it’s just this other thing happened. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. No, I haven’t done it yet.

And you will experience it again. And again. It can be maddening.

But try to remember, it’s just their brain chemistry putting up roadblocks. They’re not trying to brush you off, and you are not throwing stones into a bottomless well. The whole situation just takes time—and the completely unpredictable right set of conditions—to start turning around.

You’ll never know which one of the three dozen instances of that same conversation will line up with their brain being in the right state to internalize the advice, their practical circumstances permitting its execution and their energy levels enabling them to follow through. So just keep trying—always gently, and always looking forward, not to the past.

Take care of yourself, too

You know the whole “put on your oxygen mask first” thing. Thankfully, you don’t have to be in perfect mental health to help others with theirs or we’d all be doomed, but you will be in a better position to pull them up if you’re watching your own footing, too.

It’s tough out there. But the good news for all of us is that we’re not alone.