I am a medical marketing professional who suffers from mental illness.
I am also a survivor of mental illness. Those are difficult words for me to say within my work world. They have been kept quiet from the majority of my colleagues for the past 15 years. Opening up in this way is difficult, vulnerable and scary — but it’s also my reality. It’s my truth.
The main reason I have been silent is the stigma. What is the actual stigma? It’s most likely your initial reaction to this post.
If I were to have titled this piece “I am a medical marketing professional who suffers from cancer,” you would have reacted differently. THAT is the stigma.
The Jon you know is the one who’s comfortable. It is my exterior. My goal as a working professional and leader is to come off as warm, funny, confident and caring.
My inside is the complete opposite. It feels like a toxic wasteland. THAT is mental illness. A line from therapy that has stuck with me sums it up well: “Jon, we wish you could love yourself the way we love you.” I do too. I’m still working on it.
For me, mental illness is maniacal. It is all-consuming, irrational and constant. My mind never stops racing. I feel the depression and anxiety in every cell of my body at all times. It is around-the-clock dread. I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It continues to win because it gets to grow and strengthen while society forces those with mental illness to be silent — especially at work. PTSD has my nervous system in overdrive at all times. I live in a world of fight or flight. Today, I am attempting to overtake the disease and come clean to my work community.
Among the things I’ve been told over the years: “What do you have to be depressed about?”
“Snap out of it — you have a family to support.” “Get over it — I’ve been sad and unhappy before.” “Do you want me to take you behind the barn and kick your ass?” (Seriously, that happened.)
Would I have heard anything along those lines if I had been diagnosed with cancer or any other debilitating illness? Communities rally around people with cancer. Those who survive are labeled “warriors.”
With mental illness, the exact opposite happens, even though it too is a disease that the individual didn’t ask for. In this case, however, there is limited support and there is shame. You suffer in silence, especially at work, as does your family. If the disease wins and you take your own life, you are thought of as selfish.
Worse, there is no consistent way to achieve relief. In the past 15 years, I’ve participated in two residential treatment programs, three partial hospitalization programs and three intensive outpatient programs. I’ve attended support groups and biweekly therapy, and tried more than 10 medications.
During those occasions when I’ve had the energy to do it, I’ve adjusted my diet and exercise regimens. Example: During a major depressive episode a couple of years ago, I mustered up all the energy I had. I was able to walk for five minutes on a treadmill at the pace of 1.2 miles per hour. Afterwards, I felt like I ran a marathon.
Unfortunately, my disease has returned with a vengeance this year. In 2021, I have endured more than 10 recurrences. It has been nothing short of misery. Heck, maybe I should just snap out of it like people say. If someone does have the superpower to beat it out of me, please let me know. I’m game.
As for what mental illness looks like for me at work, I can lead a champagne toast for a new business win – yet the disease makes me want to slam my car into a tree on the drive home. I feel 5% responsible for good work news but 95% responsible for bad work news.
I owe my professional success to the real-world MBA I received from Cline Davis and Mann, but the start of my mental illness took me away from the company. Normal work stressors became magnified due to my disease and I decided to switch careers. If I didn’t suffer from mental illness, I would most likely still be working there.
The good news is that employers like GSW/Syneos Health and PSL Group couldn’t have been more helpful, understanding and supportive.
Now that I’m back at PSL a second time, the disease is trying to win yet again. I have been open and honest about my struggles to management and continue to receive nothing short of love and kindness.
I have been extremely fortunate to work directly with several industry titans, including Sonja Foster-Storch, Josh Prince, Mike Sheehan, Amy Hutnik, Ken Begasse, Kyle Barich, Chris Boerner, Debbie Renner, Rob Bosley, Ed Wise and Nina Greenberg. I know that if I told them that I have been taken down hard by mental illness and am working relentlessly to overcome it, every one of them would give me an amazing hug. They’d tell me they loved me and to keep fighting. They might even send a pie to the house. Those are the people that matter in my work world, not the ignorant folks who can’t or won’t realize this is an unforgiving and relentless disease.
Now that I have opened up about this irrationally stigmatized secret, the future will be a little brighter and lighter. Something extremely odd has happened to me over the past week: My standard 2-out-of-10 mood has moved up more consistently to a 5.
Maybe my new medicine is working. Maybe I’m excited about the possibility of being accepted into a groundbreaking depression clinical trial. Or maybe it’s simply opening up in all aspects of my life about suffering from mental illness.
If you are suffering, you are not alone. Please don’t suffer in silence. Let people know you are suffering. You will be impressed with the support you receive. I have recently opened up to all of the major pillars in my life: work, friends, family and my coaching community. I have received nothing short of love and kindness in return.
So I call on the medical marketing industry to do the following: Stop the judgment. Educate yourself. Show compassion. Show empathy. Do your part to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. Me, I will dedicate my life to four things: my health, my wife, my kids and destroying the stigma around mental illness.
I will most likely never be at a 10 out of 10. But a 5 is amazing when you know what a 1 feels like.
If you are struggling with your mental health, these organizations can provide support and resources:
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)
Listen to “Mental illness in the medical marketing world,” an episode of the MM+M podcast featuring Jon Nelson in conversation with Larry Dobrow, here.
Do you think the medical marketing industry is supportive of people in the business who suffer from mental illness? Share your thoughts with MM+M.