Monday, December 4, 2017

Job Stress: Mental Health Myths and Facts

This post is a continuation of  my experiences with mental health myths and facts. All the myths I quote in these posts are taken verbatim from Mental Health Myths and Facts on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at

This one is tough for me to write about, so I'll going share some practical tips for managing workplace stress first, and my own thoughts and experiences at the end.

Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.

You've likely said or heard someone say, "I'm taking a mental health day." Any job, from doctor to fry cook, can help or hurt our mental health. Difficult coworkers, supervisors, or expectations we put on ourselves can lead to too much stress and diminished mental health. For those with mental illness, these things can be even more difficult. Part of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness should make a "mental health day" just as valid as a sick day for a cold, headache, or stomach bug.

While mental illness can interfere with employment, people with mental illness are no worse at their jobs than other workers. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) show that workers with mental illness are as productive as other workers. In fact, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, those prone to anxiety can actually have an advantage in workplace performance.

There are many things you can do for yourself, and many things you can do for others, to help manage workplace stress. Keeping stress at a manageable level improves the environment not just for people with mental illness, but for all employees. When there's too much stress, the quality of work suffers. When there's not enough stress, employees can become lethargic and unmotivated.

Supervisors should help employees manage workplace stress, and employees should advocate for themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed -- especially when they are unable to work or their performance is suffering due to symptoms of mental illness.

Tips for Managing Workplace Stress:

  • For employees:
    • Take deep breaths
    • Talk to your supervisor when you're feeling overwhelmed
    • Focus on one thing at a time
    • Resolve conflicts
    • If possible, avoid people who are usually negative or stress you out
  • For employers, supervisors, and coworkers
    • Be approachable and open when an employee says she or he is overwhelmed
    • Try to look for signs that an employee is struggling
    • Show appreciation for employees' work, but try to tailor to individual needs
    • If an employ needs accommodations due to a mental illness, don't be judgmental -- treat them like you would treat someone who needed time off or accommodations is physically sick or injured

Websites for more Detailed Strategies:

If you deal with anxiety at work, don't overwhelm yourself with all the strategies out there -- that can make you more anxious! Instead, pick one to three strategies and try them for a week or two. If they're helping, keep using them. If they're not helping or not helping enough, consider adding a strategy and/or stopping one you started with.

I suggest starting with deep breathing. It takes a lifetime to master, but has be shown to reduce stress for almost anyone.

If work stress is really affecting your mental health, consider the following:
  • Find a therapist who can help you with coping strategies
  • Talk to a coworker who will encourage you and not drag you into further negativity
  • If you don't think your work environment will improve, start looking for a new job
  • If you have a diagnosed mental illness and you and your doctor feel you cannot continue your job, consider taking disability.  Everyone who has paid social security taxes is eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and some employers give disability insurance to supplement SSDI.

My experience with workplace mental health issues:

Mental illness was the primary or secondary factor in my resignation from two teaching positions. In both of those positions, I started feeling very stressed, and as a result my work and my personal life started to suffer.

The positions felt like they were spiraling out of control because I was feeling both overwhelmed while at the same time suffering from symptoms of bipolar disorder -- "cycling" as we call it in bipolar parlance. As things got more difficult, my mental health continued to deteriorate; increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and lack of focus all led to a decrease in performance. In the first instance, several factors led to my resignations.

I knew work was getting unmanageable, but I felt that if I changed jobs I would be letting the students down. I ended up resigning both positions and going to a brief treatment program for bipolar and anxiety (my two mental illness diagnoses are generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar I) after the first resignation, and having a full-blown manic episode right before the second resignation.

I felt awful for leaving both those positions -- especially because I left them abruptly and didn't give them much warning. I wish I could have, but even in retrospect I know I would have left both schools in limbo even longer as I waited to recover from the episodes. In both cases, it took month or more to recover from the episodes, and while I would have liked to give more notice to both the schools, even after I'd recovered I couldn't see myself being able to go back to those positions.

So back to the myth: Although holding down a job can be difficult for those with mental illness, it's not impossible. I'm now in my second year of substitute teaching, and things have been going well. I'm not symptom free every day, and some days symptoms interfere with my performance. I do, however have a number of teachers who contact me when they need a sub, and I haven't missed any work due to mental illness since the school year started.

Thanks for reading. If you have a coping strategy you use to manage your mental health at work, I'd love to hear about it. Comment below or on Facebook.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Destigmatizing Mental Illness: Mental Health Myths and Facts

I'm continuing on writing about my experiences with myths and facts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You can read all of the myths and facts on the article, Mental Health Myths and Facts, from All the myths I quote in these posts are taken verbatim from that article.

Myth: People with mental illness are often violent and unpredictable
This myth is still prevalent. I see it spread often when there is an act of mass violence, and there's also some huge double standards involved. When there is an act of so-called Islamic terrorism, the mass shooting is by and large blamed on radical Islam, and mental illness is barely discussed. However, when the perpetrator of a mass killing is white, all of a sudden we want to blame mental illness, not the fact that the shooter was able to get access to an extremely deadly weapon. Could it be that some people are just plain violent and not mentally ill?

As the U.S Department of Health and Human Services points out, people with mental illnesses are no more likely than the general population to commit violent acts. In fact, they are actually more likely to be victims of violent crimes.

The idea that people with mental illness are prone to unpredictable and/or violent behavior is a major reason why people are afraid to share that they have a mental illness. No one wants to feel like people around them are uncomfortable or on edge because they think their going to do something strange or scary.

Probably the biggest reason I'm not more open about having a mental illness is that I don't want to be treated differently. If people think I might become unpredictable or violent, they're definitely going to treat me differently.

While mental illness can be uncomfortable and even scary at times, people with mental illnesses should still be treated like anyone else. It's important to know that by and large the behavior of people with mental illness is the same as that of those without mental illness. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Running Poem: November

It's been a while since I've posted a running poem, so I thought I'd throw one up here. Although winter does not officially start until December, November kicks off winter weather here in Minnesota. We've already had several days of low temperatures below freezing, and several days when the high temperature didn't reach 40*.

While September and October are my favorite months for running -- cool temperatures, fall foliage, and trails clear of overgrowth -- November definitely is not my favorite. There will be a few nice days to run, but now there'll be more runs in the dark and in cold weather. So, here is my poem, "November."

November is the cloudiest month.
The leaves on the trees are gone,
their lack of foliage leaving them
as skeletons silhouetted by
a grey sky.

A return to long sleeves
and gloves
and running pants
on every run.

Running on the trail along the lake
dead leaves crunch underfoot--
a small, thin crust of ice
on the lake's surface.

Birds fly overhead
leaving for sunshine,
escaping the gloom
and the coming
of winter.

November says,
"The summer is long past
and the color of fall has ended.
Trees and flowers and plants
are past, and nothing will grow
until spring."

November is the cloudiest month.
Blue skies make only brief, short appearances.
The grey days grow shorter and shorter,
the darkness increasing
as winter approaches.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Children's Mental Health: Mental Health Myths and Facts

This post is a continuation of  my experiences with mental health myths and facts, All the myths I quote in these posts are taken verbatim from Mental Health Myths and Facts on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at

Myth: Children don't experience mental health problems 
This myth is becoming less prevalent. Schools especially have created more awareness about signs of mental illness in children and about how to get those children resources. Probably the biggest mental illness issue we hear about in children is ADHD. When I was in elementary school, ADHD wasn't commonly diagnosed, but now it isn't uncommon to have several students in a class with this diagnosis. 

Now, many experts in the field believe that ADHD has been overdiagnosed or mistreated. Numerous scholarly journal articles and research studies suggest that pharmaceutical companies have had undue influence on ADHD diagnosis and treatment. This isn't a post about the overdiagnosis of ADHD, but I do want to suggest that often behavioral issues in children are a mental health issue and not a mental illness.

Just like adults, students experience anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues. And, just like adults, these problems could be mental health issues, or mental illness. If a child is experiencing persistent difficulty with emotions, consulting a physician or therapist is a good idea.

I remember experiencing frequent anxiety in childhood. Often I'd worry excessively, especially when I was alone. In middle school and high school I would frequently experience sleep problems because worry made it nearly impossible to shut off my brain and go to sleep at night.

While I don't think a diagnosis of a mental illness would have been appropriate for me as a child, I probably would have benefited from some kind of therapy. Going to therapy was definitely not as common or accepted when I was young. I think it's getting better today.

Children do experience mental health issues, and as adults in a children's lives, we are in a position to help those children when we see something wrong. Even asking a child if she or he would like to talk or saying something like, "it seems like you've been sad a lot lately," can go a long way. Be aware of when a child in your life may be experiencing a mental health issue, and be ready to offer some help.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Training Limbo

A rare Minnesota winter half marathon - Securian Half Marathon

This is the time of year when training becomes a bit of a no-man's land. Fall marathon season is over for most people, save those running the NYC Marathon and a few others. Granted, that's tens of thousand or runners, but according to Running in the USA there are only two marathons in Minnesota between now and April. Also, in all of our border states there are only four marathons between now and April. Of those six marathons, three are indoors.

There are a few more half marathons in Minnesota between now and April --  seven by Running in the USA's count. Still, even with a good amount of 5k, 10k, and half marathon races, most people shut down their serious training until 12 - 20 weeks from a spring race. That leaves the months of November, December, and some or all of January as a sort of training limbo.

These are months when I sometimes struggle. I do best at getting in a good amount (sometimes too much) of running when I'm training for a race. Even when I don't have a set training plan, I usually get into a routine when I have a race coming up. I like to do a tempo type run, a 5k pace run, and a long run every week, and I usually have an idea of how many miles I'd like to run in a given week.

A big downside to the training limbo of November and December is its timing. Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love Thanksgiving, and I really love Thanksgiving food. Reducing training volume and falling into taking too many days off can mean really putting on pounds over the holidays. I definitely have a little room, but as I get older extra pounds get harder and harder to shed, and that extra weight can throw a wrench in the spring training cycle.

Last year I decided I'd put in a bunch of extra miles over Thanksgiving so I could feel better about eating more than normal. While I was down visiting my family, I did reasonably long runs each day. I think I logged over 10 miles three out of the four days we visiting. I'm planning on doing it again this Thanksgiving break.

One thing I got going for me this year is that I still have two unmet goals -- breaking 17 minutes in the 5k and setting an indoor mile PR. In less than two weeks I'm going to start some real workouts, so that should help keep up the motivation until I start training for the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon.

Coming up I'll be writing more on mental health myths. For those who enjoy reading only about running, thanks for your patience with other types of posts.

Run well.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Destigmatizing Mental Illness: Mental Health Facts and Myths

I never could have predicted what an amazing response I received when I wrote about hospital stays for mental health reasons. Friends, family, and strangers offered words of support, encouragement, and gratitude. It's amazing to hear that my experiences with mental illness and hospitalizations has connected with others.

Reading all those kind words made me feel that we as a society are on the right track when it comes to how we talk about and deal with mental illness. Although there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health, things have definitely improved since my first hospitalization in 1998.

While there is still a long way to go, there are factors that have lead to the destigmatization of mental illness. Schools have taken steps to inform teachers and students about mental health issues. In Minnesota, teachers need to take a class every five years on recognizing early signs of mental illness in students. The internet has also broadened social circles, making it much more likely for individuals to know or read about someone with a mental illness. Additionally, the Web provides an easy opportunity to learn about mental health.

While awareness has improved, there's still a lot of work to do. Even though people may know someone with a mental illness, misconceptions and assumptions about mental illness persist. In my posts about hospitalizations, I linked to Mental Health Myths and Facts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you feel like you don't know much about mental illness, or if you feel like you don't know what to say or do around someone who has a mental illness.

If you, your families, or your friends believe any of these myths, that's OK. It's not until we recognize our beliefs, conscious or unconscious, that we can change them. The article above does a great job at explaining and debunking myths. I've had experience with each of these myths, so I wanted to share my thoughts.

After that long introduction, here's the first myth and my experiences around it (All these myths are quoted directly from

Myth: Mental Health Problems Don't Affect Me

This myth is really two myths rolled into one. First, mental health problems are different than mental illness. We all experience mental health issues. I can remember the first time feeling really guilty as a kid. I'd lied to my parents and started feeling really guilty. The guilt gave me a sick feeling in my stomach as I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep. I finally went to my parents' room and told them what I'd done. They forgave me, and I asked, "Did you ever lie to your parents?" My dad told me about how he'd broken a rake when he was young and lied to his parents about it, and I instantly felt better.

How is that a mental health issue? Guilt can be both a contributing factor and a symptom of depression. While guilt is a healthy emotion that often leads to more ethical or reconcilitory behavior, unresolved, unnecessary, or excess guilt can be a factor in depression.

I've often felt guilty about things out of my control. I can't help having a mental illness. I can't help that I'll be hospitalized at times. I can't help that I have to take medication to keep me stable. These are not things to feel guilty about, and when I do it only puts me in more of a downward spiral.

And guilt is just one of many emotions that can negatively affect mental health. Anxiety, mild depression, loneliness, and anger are things we all experience. When these emotions linger in an unhealthy way, problems with mental health can arise. An extreme, persistent excess of any of these emotions may indicate a mental illness or a need for therapy.

We all deal with mental health problems. It's healthy to recognize this, and to be supportive and encouraging of others who deal with mental health issues or mental illness.

If you're feeling like negative emotions are getting the best of you, tell someone. There's no shame is asking for help. And if you know someone who seems to be suffering, encourage them to find help. Untreated mental illness can lead to a downward spiral,

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Race Schedule: 2017 / 2018

2012 Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon
 I've been waiting for almost two weeks to see if and how the PNC Milwaukee Marathon organizers are going to adjust my marathon time based on the fact that the course was 4200' short. I've sent them an email, but haven't heard back. To take my mind off that debacle of a race, I decided to plan out my next season of races. I haven't finalized my schedule yet, but as of now here are some of the major races I've penciled in:

Eagan Parkrun:
I'm going to keep going at this one. I'm following a little training plan from McMillan Running to try and break that elusive 17 minute barrier. For a while I had the course record and then was tied for the course record at 17:14, but that was recently blown away by a runner who clocked 16:24, so a course record is definitely out of reach for me this season (and, let's be honest, probably ever). I thought about finding a flatter, faster 5k to aim for that sub-17, but the Parkrun is free and it'd be good to break 17 on a tough course.

I don't have dates set in stone for when I'm running this one again, but I'll probably shoot for the end of November and the beginning of December to aim for the sub-17.

Pensacola Beach Run:
My in-laws are renting a condo down in Florida for the month of January, so Laura and I are going to visit for a week and do a half marathon while we're down there. I don't have any set goals at this point, but based on the results of the last few years, it'd be cool to finish in the top five.

MDRA Races:
I'm hoping to get a good gauge of my spring fitness by racing several spring Minnesota Distance Running Association races: The Lake Johanna 4 Mile, the MDRA 7 Mile, the Ron Daws 25k, the Fred Kurz 10 Mile, and the Mudball Classic 4 Mile.  I'm not sure which all of these I'm going to run (I'd love to do all of them, but I doubt that'll happen). There are several that come free with the MDRA membership: The Lake Johanna 4 Mile, the MDRA 7 Mile, and the Mudball Classic 4 Mile. The others are are very reasonable -- the Ron Daws 25k is $5 with an MDRA membership, and the Fred Kurz 10 Mile is only $10 with an MDRA membership.

I'm mainly going to be racing these to stay in race shape and test my fitness, but it'd also be cool to set a PR at a couple of these distances.

Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon:
I've been looking forward to doing this one again. I ran a 3:02 at Wobegon in 2010, my first Boston qualifying time. I've said that this past year was my last try at setting a PR in the marathon, so I'm not going to approach this one as hardcore as I have in the past. This winter I'm going to train for less time -- training for a PR marathon was putting me in the ten hour a week range between runs and core exercises. So, I'm going to be running significantly less, and am going to focus more on supplemental exercises and improving my muscle balance.

Afton 50k:
This will be my third time running this race. As of now I'm planning on camping with some running friends and doing the race the next morning. I'd love to set a PR at this one, but finishing a 50k is a decent accomplishment, PR or not.

Surf the Murph 50 Mile:
If I finish, guaranteed PR. It'll be my first 50 mile, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Since I'm no longer going to try to set a PR in the marathon due to the time it eats up, I'm going to keep my training for the 50 mile reasonable. I'm not going to commit as much time during the week as I did when I was training for a marathon PR. Instead, I'm going to bunch my training on the weekends when we have more free time, and get longer mileage in then.

I'm also planing on doing an indoor mile race this coming December -- I think the only one in the twin cities is the USATF Minnesota All Ages Indoor Track and Field Meet on December 17. I haven't given up my goal of setting a new indoor mile PR, but honestly the odds are not in my favor. I'll be coming out of marathon training where I never did workouts faster than 5k pace, and I'll only have about five weeks to get some mile specific work in before the race.

I'll probably also pace a handful of races. I really enjoy pacing -- not only do I get to help other runners reach their goals, I also get a long run in with the bonus of not having to carry water and/or sports drink with me. I'm thinking I'll probably pace two or three half marathons this year.