Depression at Work

Depression is a major mental health issue in America. But it is also, increasingly, a major workplace issue. A landmark 2003 study draws the sobering conclusion that depression costs employers $44 billion a year in lost productivity alone. Those are strictly indirect costs; they don’t even begin to reflect medical costs.

The vast majority of that $44 billion loss in productivity comes not from absenteeism due to the disorder. It’s the product of so-called presenteeism, the many people with depression showing up for work but not functioning at anywhere near full capacity—failing to return phone calls, turning in poor-quality work, missing deadlines altogether, not following up on new business leads, being paralyzed with indecision, inability to face work at all, coming in late, leaving early, or not even returning from lunch, difficulty getting along with coworkers, withdrawing from the social environment at work.

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Absenteeism, presenteeism, $44 billion—these are all abstractions. Depression, however, always wears a human face—the face of Mary Jo West, for example. A broadcast journalist, West became the first TV anchorwoman in Phoenix, in 1976. She produced award-winning features. She was a celebrity around town, instantly recognizable to everyone. Within a year, the pressure of breaking barriers along with her perfectionist professionalism collided with a deep vein of vulnerability.

West’s story is perhaps unusual because of the visibility. But in many ways it is business at its most usual. Depression affects 5 million American working women—21 percent of women in the workplace.

Shortly after college, I began working for KOOL Television, a CBS affiliate that was the number one station in Phoenix. In 1976, the longtime solo anchor—who had one of the highest ratings in the country, because his time slot was right after Walter Cronkite—was suddenly told that this young blonde woman was going to sit next to him. There was hell for me to pay. He made my life difficult. For six years I sat next to a man who despised my being next to him. At an anniversary party a couple of months ago he even admitted, “I didn’t need her; I had a fifty share!” I don’t think he ever got over it. But when I left, he said goodbye to me on the air: “This is the hardest-working person I’ve ever met, and she’s earned my respect.”

I was very visible. When Arizona State University did a survey asking: “What person do you trust most in TV news?” Walter Cronkite came in first, and I came in second. I was so proud of that, because I was everywhere, doing a lot of groundbreaking work. I did a series on rape in which my co-anchor didn’t even want to say the word, because he didn’t like it. I actually went into a prison and interviewed rapists, something that had never been done before. I did the first series on incest, the first on domestic violence.

In 1980, satellite technology evolved to the point where a local anchor could cover a national story and send back reports. I was sent with a cameraperson to the Democratic Convention in Detroit. That was exciting. But because the station was trying to get the biggest bang for its buck, I was asked to feed reports to KOOL radio as well as to KOOL TV several times a day, including late at night and early in the morning. I was working against a three-hour time difference. The only way to get everything done was not sleep.

Perhaps another person in a different mindset might have said this was a little too much. But I didn’t know how to tell them no. And then the same thing repeated itself two weeks later when we went to Madison Square Garden in New York, when Reagan was anointed.

Terrible things happen as a result of sleep deprivation. It kicked off the only episode of mania I ever had. It was a nightmare. I got back to Phoenix, left my husband and lived in the Biltmore Hotel. From September through November, I was a totally different person in a totally different lifestyle. It was frightening, not only for me but for my colleagues. I went from being this girl from Georgia who was very Baptist to a kind of wild woman. I bought another house. Sometimes I was driving around at 4 a.m. and getting to see a whole other side of Phoenix. I remember meeting new friends at 4 am at a coffee shop.

To this day, when I run into people who were in my life during that time, I feel great shame. The other day, a woman said, “Mary Jo, I remember you were kind of living out of your car, we were riding at 1,000 miles an hour, you opened up your trunk and there were all these clothes there. We just didn’t know what to do with you. We’re just so glad you survived.”

At the same time I was anchoring three newscasts a day. When the red light went on, I was totally professional. The mania gave me energy and ideas, some of which were good and some of which were off the wall. I was having delusions. I had done a series with the Air Force. I thought they were spying on me. My work in some ways was suffering. I remember putting together a behind-the-scenes piece on the Democratic convention. Afterward, the producer was embarrassed; it was too personal.

The mania made me picky. Normally I’m very easy to work with, but now I was yelling a lot. One young producer actually had the courage to call me on my behavior. I want to contact her now, 22 years later, and thank her. She said, “This is not my fault, Mary Jo, this is you. Can you see how you’ve been behaving recently? You’re yelling; you’re not yourself. I don’t understand what’s going on. Don’t make me the villain here.” She was right.

Thirty percent of working women suffering from depression either quit or lose a job as a result of symptoms.

Some people did the obvious; they dropped out of my life. I’ll never forget November 12, 1980. I was totally alone on my birthday. No one called. My husband was with another woman because I’d left him. There was no happy birthday. It was horrible. The illness makes you feel unloved anyway. You can’t feel love, even though people are probably right there.

The first of December, my husband and I got back together. Then I started becoming a zombie. Eventually, I stopped functioning. I was hosting a big series on Vietnam vets for the February ratings book. I came to work on a Friday night, stayed 18 hours a day, and at midnight on Sunday, there was still nothing on the page. For the first time in my life, I had to go to my boss and say, “I can’t write this piece.” They had to get someone else to write it, and to do stand-ups and voice it. I was humiliated. I didn’t have a reason. If I had said, “I’m mentally ill and I have this illness,” that would have been easier.

They sent me on a story, a simple voiceover on Nicaragua. I couldn’t write it. I erased the tape. I blamed it on technical problems. I feel pretty terrible; you don’t blame it on some poor videographer. It goes back to being unable to say to your boss: “My brain is broken.”

The television station sent me to the top psychiatrist in Arizona. I remember Dr. McGrath reaching out across the desk and saying, “I promise you with all my heart, you’re going to feel better, and you’re going to get your life back again.” I believed him. He gave me various medications. None worked.

One day I did the five o’clock newscast, called my husband, and said, “I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t act one more second. I can’t pretend one more minute to be healthy. I can’t get this face out anymore.” I couldn’t write a check, I couldn’t read a newspaper. In March of ’81, the same day President Reagan was shot, I was secreted into Camelback Hospital for two weeks to get shock treatment—I wasn’t forced, I signed the papers. The station circled the wagons and protected me. It was beautiful. Most stations would have fired me. The station owners felt I was worth the investment.

I was back on the air in two weeks. I was not completely out of the depression, but I was functioning. I didn’t start feeling normal again until January of ’82, when I remember smiling frankly for the first time and feeling it.

A year and a half after I had shock treatment, in October 1982, I was hired by CBS network news. I moved to New York and went on the air in December ’82, on a show called Nightwatch.

I anchored from 2 to 6 a.m. My husband had just divorced me. I didn’t know anyone. And I worked in the middle of the night. Unlike Phoenix, it was cold. The darkness came back ten-fold. There was no way I was going to go to CBS and say “I’m ill.” They would have never hired me if I had told them the truth.

By March I knew that I couldn’t stay. The depression kept getting worse. I thought it was New York. That might be a pattern with people with the illness. There was a 12-year period where I lived in 11 different houses. I have two ex-husbands. You think if you change houses or change husbands or change jobs you’re going to feel better, but it’s the illness.

Only 47% of women diagnosed with depression seek help right away. Most think they can deal with the symptoms on their own. Further, they do not know where to go for help.

I wasn’t bombing professionally in New York. It was the struggle inside. I couldn’t handle the cold. I couldn’t handle anything about New York. But I somehow managed to get to work on time, do my job and perform. But that was all I could do.

I came back to Phoenix to work for the competition, a local station that was last in the ratings. They had heard that I wasn’t happy in New York. They flew up and asked me to come back to Phoenix and make them number one. They offered me more money than I was making at the network, which was unheard of.

It was a disaster professionally. A local anchor is seen as the girl next door and the people let you in their homes each night. When I went to New York, my look totally changed. I went from wearing my hair in a pageboy to a new, short, chic haircut. I dressed differently, and the local people hated that. An ex-friend betrayed me, went to the press, and told them about my salary. I was portrayed as making big salary demands.

The station’s promotional campaign was all about me, so my old station developed an award-winning campaign called, “we’re the team” and showed all these team people playing together to play off the prima donna. The ratings got worse. I went to the owners and told them I couldn’t do it alone, that I needed a really good captain to head the ship.

After three years of my asking, they finally went across the street and hired my former boss to build a new team. He brought a lot of my old friends with him, and built the new station into a powerhouse. Within a month or so of his arriving, he took me out to lunch and said, “We’ve done some focus groups, and we can’ t keep you.” So, they fired me, or, they didn’t renew my contract. That was devastating, especially because I had become my job. I thought other people got fired, not me. During that three years, I kept winning awards, I was doing really good work, it’s just that no one wanted to watch, and that’s kind of important!

I was remarried to a lovely man. The depression just kept getting worse. Fortunately, I had saved enough money to take a year off. I went back to the psychiatrist and from August 1986 through 1987, nothing worked.

No one in Phoenix would hire me, so I started my own video production company. In 1989, I landed a wonderful job with the city of Phoenix, running their television station. Again, I lied on my employee form, when they asked, “Have you been treated for mental illness?”

I got to do a documentary on Mother Teresa, which led to the adoption of my daughter, Molly. There came a period when I was adopting a child, getting a new job and then getting a divorce, and entering into a new relationship. A lot was going on. I was performing like you wouldn’t believe, but going home and dying. I had many lost weekends that I just slept through when Molly was with her grandparents, aunts or Dad.

In 1992, the man in my life left. I dropped 30 pounds. Here I am running a TV station and I’m walking the streets because I can’t sit at my desk. A colleague at work would cover for me at meetings. Finally I went to my boss and said, “I have an illness. I lied about it. I had shock treatment in ’81. Will you help me?” He was wonderful.

I couldn’t fake it anymore. It wasn’t fair to my staff, to my daughter, to me, to anybody. A friend said, “I want you to drive to the University of Arizona in Tucson. I want you to go to the top psychiatrist there, because I went to him. He’s $300 an hour, insurance won’t pay for it, but you’ve got to go.”

I went for one session and he wanted me to go on Prozac. I said I had tried Prozac and it didn’t work, it made me crazy. He taught me how to take it, putting a little bit of the powder in cranberry juice, over a month building up the amount to one pill. The lights came on, and I became the girl I was as a senior in high school. The relaxation came back, the humor. It was like taking off dark sunglasses. Prozac gave me my life back. After seven years it stopped working. A new doctor gave me Effexor. It’s given me even more wellness than Prozac, maybe because it was developed later and there are fewer side effects.

Forty percent of working women with depressive symptoms remain undiagnosed.

While the experiences in the workplace were very stressful, my illness started a lot earlier, during my freshman year at college. I didn’t know what it was called, I just knew that there was something going on in my brain, a great sadness that I accepted as the way I have to live. I didn’t realize it was truly a brain disorder.

I was at Florida State University. I was active socially and academically and involved in community projects. I was a music major, performing in college shows. And one summer I was paralyzed. I would go to bed at 7 in the evening, stay in bed the next day, and barely make it to a 4 p.m. class. I was so ashamed. Those of us with this illness don’t want people to think that we’re lazy. But you feel like you’re paralyzed when these chemicals shut down.

Women see depression as the number one barrier to success in the workplace—an impediment greater than sexism, child- and elder-care responsibilities, pregnancy, the glass ceiling, sexual harassment.

There was always a darkness and a sadness inside me, but I’m truly a professional actress with a Protestant work ethic—you carry on. We can be functional and achieve. On one hand, I was an overachiever with tremendous drive, but on the other hand, I had a darkness. I got really good at lying. Being with people is work for me when I’m ill. I would lie about why I couldn’t come to a party, or come to class. I was afraid if I told people that I wanted was stay in bed, they would accuse me of being lazy. And I knew it wasn’t about that.

While I was in school, I won the Miss Atlanta pageant, and was runner up in the Miss Georgia contest, which I believe is tied in with the depression. I also had an eating disorder. After a while, everything is related. My father died an alcoholic homeless person at the height of my career in Phoenix; nothing could save him. It’s a horrible sadness in my life. He was crossing a street and was hit by a car. He had been thrown out of the family years earlier, because of the drinking. He would call me from a phone booth in 10-degree weather asking me to wire him money.

I was always out there, whether it was the Miss Atlanta contest, or trying to get scholarship money, or wanting to get into network TV. One psychiatrist told me, if you want the depression to go away, you’ve got to change your profession—but it was my life.

Even while I was achieving, this illness kept me from being satisfied. People would say, “My God, Mary Jo, you’ve got this wonderful husband, you’re attractive, you’re making a good salary, why aren’t you happy?” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be happy; I just couldn’t, because the chemicals weren’t going to the right place. That was a cause for shame.

There was a tremendous cosmetic burden of being a broadcast journalist. I wasn’t ugly, but I wasn’t perfect looking. Today most of the people hired have model-perfect looks. I remember being so proud of becoming a broadcast journalist and one day while covering a fire I heard one police officer yelling to another a few feet away, “Yeah, Joe, you’re right, she does have fat legs!” I was a journalist, but that was allowed to matter. I was bright and I worked around the clock. The number one pressure for me was getting the story right, because the worst thing a journalist can do is get the facts wrong.

The combination of getting the facts right, being the first woman, and being under a magnifying glass and not ever feeling pretty enough were the pressures that triggered my depression.

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