Maybe It’s the Weather, Maybe Not: Mental Health for Leaders in a Season of Uncertainty

by Janetta Cravens, vice president of programs, OKCNP

Let’s be clear from the start of this post: I’m not a mental health professional. But, I do have a mind and sometimes use it. I’ve been to my fair share of counselors and therapists over the years, and a part of my divinity school graduate courses included intensive training in counseling so that I might be prepared for all those parishioners who might walk in my office one day and say, “Hey, do you have a minute?”

Depression and anxiety is a complex topic, and I’m qualified only to write about my own searches to understand it and my own experiences with it. A colleague shared with me their observation the other day that, “we’re all living with a little low-grade depression right now.” Which felt like a fair diagnosis upon reflecting my own 3-cups of coffee morning I’d just had so that I could feel “with it” enough to focus on work. It is no surprise to me that our nation’s infatuation with this legal stimulant was capitalized on by Seattle – one of the cloudiest and weatheriest places in the nation.

Maybe it’s the weather. Unusually raining and grey for this time of July and August which usually boasts double-digit degrees. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because we’re realizing as a collective society that COVID-19 isn’t a flash in the pan epidemic and there is still a ton of work to do to be an anti-racist society in which Black, Hispanic and Indigenous lives matter as much as white ones.

I heard Erin Engelke, Executive Director of Calm Waters, say last week on our sector-wide Wednesday call that “we’re all grieving the life we used to have.” We’re realizing that it’s still going to be awhile before we can give a round of hugs at a family reunion or meet up with friends in a restaurant or bar, or put our kid into school or daycare. We’re forging ahead knowing that it takes more than good intentions to be more inclusive and equitable – and do all of this while worrying about whether we can make payroll and continue our programs in one of the strangest economic climates we’ve had to face in a very long time.

Our routines are being reimagined and we’re all feeling a little stressed right now. Grief is a normal human response to uncertainty and unfamiliarity. So is depression. And, anxiety.

Parker Palmer is a well-known author who has written a lot about his journey with depression. Part of his story is that thirty years ago, one of his therapists said, “You seem to image depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as the hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it’s safe to stand?” He says, his first thought was “I need a new therapist.” But then, he realized that so much of our motivation is driven by being “up” – higher altitude was better than low altitude. We’re afraid if we don’t live up to expectations (see, there, how much we use the word “up”?) that we’re missing out on the inflated expectations that we and others have set for ourselves.

Palmer also writes about the importance of medication, to which he has also benefited. But he also talks about depression as “realism inviting us to take it down a notch.” It’s like we’ve put life on a pedestal and when we’re exhausted from living largely in our head, or swinging between thinking more of ourselves than we should and or the self-doubt that we are less than we should have been, or trying to live an out-reach-ethic framed by other people’s images of who we ought to be and what we ought to do – we get pressed to the ground so that we will stop doing ourselves such great harm.

For some of us, coming down off the pedestal of our inflated expectations may feel unfamiliar – like a “funk” that we just can’t seem to get out of. We might feel like we “just can’t get back to our usual self.” And by that we mean happy, or at least unencumbered by worries. For others of us, depression is an all-too-familiar feeling whose highs and lows have been a ride we’ve been on for a significant portion of our life. Depression in the light of the last couple of months, might also be seen as an opportunity to consider what is the “right action” for us to take – not the action we wish we could take, or think someone else might want us to take – but how we can live more fully into our potential. A potential that is based in reality and fully capable of seeing the steps before us that we need to take. That is, if we want to take a from Parker Palmer’s way of thinking about it, it also becomes an opportunity to us to build ourselves and our organizations towards something more sustainable, more authentic, more true.

This week on our sector-wide call, I heard us talk about the support we receive from our network – our colleagues and each other. Yes. We need a support system, whether that is in the form of spouses and partners and close friends, or colleagues with whom we can share ideas, or professional support from Executive Coaches or counseling services like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Without this support we’re risk of being carried away by our feelings of being out of control, or uncertainty of next steps, or oversized heroism that can singlehandedly hold it all together. What I do know from my own journey is that pushing these feelings down or away just makes them bubble back up and usually not in a pleasant way, and our clients, our staff, our board, our families – and ourselves – deserve better than that.

I also know is that depression isn’t something that will cure itself with enough positive thinking and we need to find a way to survive as leaders in this challenging season. We either need to go “in” and embrace and examine what a new reality might look like a little closer to the earth or go “out” to a trusted partner who will see these not as something to avoid on our way to flying high, but as an invitation to walk a little closer to the ground of our being. Or, perhaps, do a little bit of both.

Stay strong out there, everyone.

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