For the majority of my advertising career, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. Never telling anyone. Not my family, not my best mates, and most definitely not my workmates. I certainly wouldn’t have dreamt of telling you.
For years I have tried to appear confident and charismatic, while at times being crippled with anxiety. Going into a boardroom and presenting an advertising idea, while simultaneously having horrible thoughts – It’s extremely difficult to balance.
Most nights I would finish my day and walk to the park and sit there. Sometimes for hours at a time. I wondered if I was delusional for persisting with this job that I loved, but also exasperated my anxiety and made me feel so alone.
I kept my mental illness to myself, even though I knew on some level that I would benefit from asking for help or opening up. To me, it was a form of weakness that could derail my success. That it might make me seem weird or crazy.
From Van Gogh to Robin Williams, the story of the tortured artist is well told, and while most never rise to the success of the aforementioned creatives, or cut off their own ears for that matter, it’s not hard to find a correlation between creative people and mental illness.
The unfortunate reality is that there are a lot more people like me working in the creative industries that have been suffering in silence. Research has shown that the rate of depression in the creative industries is 20% higher than the rest of the population.
It turns out the predictors for unhappiness are firmly baked into the relentless, over-achieving culture of our industry. Prioritising work over life. Anxiety over unrealistic deadlines. Constant scrutiny of our ideas. All while asking ourselves why we’re not grateful for having a job that we love. I’d tell myself, ‘what do I have to be unhappy about?’ I work in a job where I get paid to make ads. I can’t be that bad.
Depression and anxiety play tricks with your mind. It convinces you to repress your emotions and tricks you into thinking that you shouldn’t be a burden on your mates. Over time, you learn to become a pro at hiding your illness. For most of us, if we haven’t told anyone that we’re struggling, no one would ever guess.
This vicious cycle can lead to us feeling like we are in this on our own. And if we feel like no one understands what we’re going through, then maybe this isn’t for us.
For an industry whose job is to communicate, we need to be better at talking with each other.
I’ve spent the past few years encouraging men to talk about their mental health through my work for Movember.
Eventually, the message I was spreading to other men, worked on myself.
I began to think it was ironic that I was telling Kiwis to talk, but I wasn’t sharing my experience with mental illness with people I worked with every day. So I started opening up to my workmates. In doing so, it made me realise how many people I worked with were struggling with similar challenges.
Talking candidly about my mental health, and the support I received in doing so was the most pivotal point in me accepting my illness. Talking made me feel better.
It created an ongoing dialogue where we began to feel comfortable sharing our experiences with each other. Not everyone experienced the same things. Some of us struggled from mental illness. Some had supported friends and family. But it made an impact on our work. I began to realise the more we discussed our own experiences during the development of our ideas, the more we understood what impacted positive mental health. And the more we understood, the more we could help other people through our work.
This culminated in our most significant example of the behaviour we were looking to shift during suicide prevention month last year where we reframed the practice of a moments silence into A Moment Against Silence. Before the All Blacks send-off game for the Rugby World Cup against Tonga, we asked people not to stand in silence, but to turn around and talk to their mates.
This opened a floodgate of conversation about why it’s important to talk. All Blacks, NZ personalities, and people within the advertising and marketing communities started to talk about their experiences with mental illness, and how talking had positively impacted them.
We need to build greater resilience through talking
Talking openly to our workmates is being advocated by The First Five Rungs, a Comms Council Industry support group for newcomers to the advertising industry.
They are encouraging managers to regularly catch up with their team for coffee to see how they are doing generally in order to build trust and a stronger relationship.
This is a great step in the right direction. But we need to do more.
If we can create a better culture of candid conversations, we’ll remove the stigma attached to mental illness.
Talking to my colleagues about my mental health has helped me reframe my illness from a potential restriction on my career, to something that makes me more relatable and human.
It sounds so simple, and potentially a bit flippant to those who haven’t experienced a mental illness. But I know first-hand how talking to my mates and colleagues allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. That I am not the only crazy one. That we’re all a little bit crazy and that’s why we’re here.
This article originally appeared in New Zealand Marketing Magazine.
Ryan Jordan is the Strategy Director at Dentsu New Zealand. The agency network responsible for creative, advertising, PR and media campaigns on behalf of The Movember Foundation NZ.