I Faced a Challenge One Out of Every Three Americans Has: Depression and Anxiety

Lenny Mendonca, center, former chief economic and business advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom, discusses trade and tourism with Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, left, and Caroline Beteta, president of Visit California, in March amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Judy Lin / CalMatters

On Friday, April 10, at 5 PM, Californians learned I had resigned as Chief Economic and Business Advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom and chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The press release stated I was leaving “to focus on family and personal business.” In corporate speak, this usually means someone got fired. I was not fired, and I approved this press release, even though I hate 5 PM Friday press releases.

I am sharing additional information because I faced a challenge one of every three people in America has: depression and anxiety.

Far too often, people suffer these illnesses with shame and without support. As our country wrestles with massive unemployment, widespread economic uncertainty, the continuation of coronavirus, and ongoing fights for racial and social justice, it has never been more urgent for business and economic leaders to move beyond platitudes on mental health. Leaders must ensure people can find vital care and acceptance for mental health challenges without punitive professional or personal impact.

That includes me and starts with this column.

Short Hospital Stay

Three weeks before my resignation, I had an emergency overnight stay at the hospital. After a battery of tests, I received a diagnosis of severe depression and anxiety. Against medical advice, I dove right back into coronavirus response. This was late March. The crisis was all-consuming and my local businesses and family also needed attention.

At the time, I told myself and my team that we all have to operate at 120%. For me, this meant 80-hour work weeks and barely sleeping. I realize now that not only did I put my own health at risk, but also I was a bad role model for my team.

It became clear I couldn’t keep serving the people of California with my health challenge. I resigned, and the day after the announcement, my wife and a close friend took me back to the hospital. I was diagnosed with an even deeper depression. It felt like a 350-pound lineman had slammed me to the ground and hit me hard against the head. The doctor told me if I intended to see my granddaughters grow up, I needed to press the restart button.

That is what I’ve done. For the last three months, I’ve been in recovery. This includes hospitalization, individual counseling, medication, and mandatory prioritization of sleep and exercise.

To protect both my family and my own health, I am recovering in place at home. I will reassess next professional steps with my family and doctors after Labor Day (and the birth of my second granddaughter).

Urgency to Destigmatize

I’m sharing my story because we have too few business and public leaders making public space to discuss mental health, destigmatize professional shame, and protect against the resulting economic impact it can have on people’s careers and our economy as a whole. The conversation is overdue and urgent.

Well-meaning friends discouraged me from sharing my diagnosis of anxiety and depression. They said in so many words that it would end my career. While I respect their counsel, I categorically reject it. I talk about my mountain biking injuries and the metal plate in my left leg as a badge of honor. Why should I hide a similar injury to the most important — and yet vulnerable and least understood — organ in my body, my brain? What does it say about me that I have a mental health issue? It says that I am human. As Dr. Brené Brown writes, shame is destructive. Hiding my diagnosis breeds shame.

At the same time, I am the first to say I had the opportunity to get treatment — and can write this column — because of privilege. I have great health care insurance and access to quality care. I have doctors who helped me find treatment that worked for me. I have executive seniority that reduces the potential professional harm of speaking out, and a safety net to take my prescribed medical recovery.

The majority of people suffering with anxiety and depression do not have these privileges.

As 2020 progresses, anxiety and depression are intense and acute national health challenges. In April, nearly half (45%) of adults across the country said worry and stress related to the coronavirus pandemic was hurting their mental health. The murder of George Floyd and our destabilized democracy further increased depression and anxiety. Rates of both have tripled. Black and Asian Americans report outsized impact. Worry about suicide is up. Community mental health services are down. Physicians are calling on Congress to tackle comprehensive mental health care support.

America’s Mental Health Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

Even before 2020, anxiety and depression was endemic in the workplace. As Jeffrey Pfeiffer writes, 61% of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually.

We need executive leadership to walk the talk when it comes to mental health, especially in Type-A hot spots like professional firms and Silicon Valley, in workplaces that have built in expectations of 24/7 availability, and among frontline essential workers and health care professionals. Culture change starts at the top. We must do more than give lip service to eradicate the shame and stigma associated with having and treating mental health.

Historical models and current economic outlooks put America on a trajectory for mental health to get worse before it gets better. Long-term, we need a health care system and policies that protect and prioritize mental health. But business and economic leaders have the ability to step up now, speak up about their own anxiety and depression, and prioritize tangible mental health care support for employees and staff.

My hope is sharing my story here encourages others to do the same. I did resign to focus on family and personal business — and my mental health. Like past biking injuries, I intend to make this recovery process a learning moment, not a lifetime stigma. It will be a lifelong journey. My determination to work for a better future for all of us remains unchanged. I’m privileged to be on the path to recovery. But neither privilege nor luck should have to be part of anyone’s mental health equation.

This article appeared in CalMatters on July 7, 2020, and is reprinted here with permission. 

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