Let’s Talk About Mental Health: An Interview With Tamara M. Rasberry, SHRM-CP, PHR

May is Mental Health Month.

In recognition of this, I decided to start a blog series called, “Let’s Talk About Mental Health!” —which is my way of advocating for and driving conversations around mental health. The goal is to raise awareness, and hopefully, make people know that they are not alone. 

Of course, I couldn’t raise this awareness on my own. I decided to tap into the expertise of some experienced mental health advocates whose work I admire.

I first noticed my guest on Twitter—where I saw her tweets and blog posts about mental health. After some online interaction, we met in real life, though briefly, at the 2018 SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Atlanta. 

I decided to interview her for this blog series because I respect her courage and openness in talking about her mental health story.

My guest is Tamara M. Rasberry, SHRM-CP, PHR.

Tamara (she/her) heads Rasberry Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in developing strategies for inclusion, diversity, equity and belonging with a focus on addressing mental health in the workplace. She also currently serves as the HR Manager (a Department of One) for a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. Her nearly 20 years in the HR field have included in-house and consulting roles for nonprofit organizations of all sizes in the DC Metropolitan area. 

Tamara is an active member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and holds the SHRM Inclusive Workplace Culture Specialty Credential. She is also a member of the National Diversity Council. She is passionate about going beyond representational diversity to creating inclusive and psychologically safe workplaces that put people first while still reaching strategic goals. Tamara’s thoughts on mental health and diversity & inclusion have been sought and shared by multiple mainstream media outlets including, Forbes, SHRM HR Magazine, WorkHuman Radio, and the New York Times. 

When she’s not busy advocating for others, Tamara decompresses by reading memoirs or watching true crime and reality tv shows. She is also very active on social media and can often be found in the middle of some thought-provoking conversation on Twitter or LinkedIn.

In this interview with Tamara, she shares her story about living with Major Depressive Disorder (Clinical Depression).

What is it like living with depression?

Tamara: I’ve lived with some form of depression for all of my adult life, if not longer. I didn’t always know what it was, though. There are some aspects of my personality that correlate with symptoms of depression, so I don’t always know if I feel a certain way because that’s “just how I am” versus it being a sign of depression. I was initially diagnosed with dysthymia, also called Persistent Depressive Disorder, which is a “mild but long term” form of depression. Later, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, also called clinical depression, which is a significant medical condition that impacts mood, behavior, and various physical functions. I can have very low lows, but I never really have high highs. Or, highs at all, for that matter. But most days, I’m OK.

Is there a stigma associated with depression, and what is the stigma? 

Tamara: There are stigmas associated with mental illness in general, as well as misconceptions surrounding depression specifically. Stigmas associated with mental illness are that the person is “crazy,” violent, or lazy. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about depression is that it presents the same way for everyone. A lot of people also don’t understand the difference between being sad, even very sad, and being depressed. People don’t understand that depression doesn’t always look like not being able to get out of bed or not being able to work. It can look like that, but it doesn’t always. There are peaks, valleys, and plateaus. 

As a mental health advocate, what do you wish people knew about mental health? 

Tamara: I wish people knew that everyone has mental health, but not everyone has a mental illness. That said, mental illness is not as uncommon as people would like to believe. Statistics show that 18.1% of Americans have an anxiety disorder. 6.9% of Americans have a depressive disorder. 1 in 5 Americans will deal with some type of mental health disorder (chronic or acute) in their lifetime. It’s time to normalize the conversation around mental health. I wish more people understood that various factors lead to having a mental illness/mental health disorder, including genetics and trauma.

What would you say to someone who feels ashamed to speak up or ask for help?

Tamara: This is a good question. Regarding the shame, I would say to remember that having a mental illness is not your fault. You didn’t ask for it, and you’re not to blame for it. There is not a single cause of mental illness that is brought on by something a person can control.
As far as asking for help, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I am not a fan of the movement to force people into asking for help. I believe we should make people aware of what’s available, if they need it or wish to access it—presuming they can find the type of help they need. In my opinion, the whole “just get help” mantra is tantamount to telling the person that it’s their fault they feel the way they feel. Because of course, if they would “just get help,” they wouldn’t feel that way, right? Not a fan.

How can readers support loved ones or colleagues who are living with depression?

Tamara: Ask them what type of support they need and, if possible, provide it. Don’t ever assume the type of support a person needs. Don’t give them unsolicited advice such as, “just get over it,” or “think positive,” or “pray.” If you truly care about the person, do some research on the condition, but primarily, listen to them and do what they say their needs are.

Mental health and the workplace

What are some tips for looking after your mental health at work, especially when you’re in a toxic work environment? 

Tamara: Another good question. Some jobs are more mentally taxing, and some environments are more toxic than others. Not to mention dealing with microaggressions, racism, sexism, and other -isms.

When it comes to microaggressions, it is usually a good idea to confront the microaggressor directly. Let them know the specific words or behaviors that were offensive. In general, I’m not a fan of the idea that the onus of teaching the oppressor should fall on the oppressed. However, addressing the issue directly allows you to let it go. Holding it in just leads to additional stress, which can lead to a whole host of other mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and burnout, as well as physical health concerns like high blood pressure, obesity, and heart attacks.

I would also stress the importance of separating your self from your job. Remember that your job does not determine your worth; neither do the opinions of your coworkers. Know thyself. I would never say that there is a definite way to avoid toxic work environments, but the more you understand the organizational culture and the players you’re dealing with, the better place you’re in to decide how much energy to give to the environment.

I believe in not giving more than you get. Whether it’s time, energy, respect—whatever it is—don’t give more than you get. Take breaks when you need to. Talk to someone if you need to. Take a real lunch break! Contact your employer’s Employee Assistance Program, if they have one. And last, but certainly not least, if you need to start looking for another job, try to start looking before you have a full-on breakdown.

What do you think employers can do to create a mentally healthy workplace? OR What can employers do to reduce the stigma around mental health conditions in the workplace?

Tamara: Both questions go hand in hand because creating a mentally healthy workplace reduces the stigma around mental health conditions in the workplace. Employers can create mentally healthy workplaces by creating and maintaining an organizational culture that values and respects everyone, embraces recognition, and pays equitably. If employers provide sufficient staff and resources, offer an Employee Assistance Program, openly discuss mental health (including stress and burnout), and do not discriminate or even overwork people, they will be creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Mental Health and COVID-19

Given the current COVID-19 crisis, what are some of your tips for coping with everyday living, especially for people living with depression?

Tamara: The COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of people under levels of stress they’ve never experienced before. I would advise you to take a break from the news, take care of your physical health (eat, sleep, exercise), reach out to people via phone/video/social media, meditate and breathe—whatever works. These tips, of course, do not take into account the additional stress of being forced into situations such as being quarantined with an abusive mate, losing your job, or having to take care of elderly parents. Most of all, don’t feel like there is a certain way you “should” be dealing with this situation. This is not life as usual, so the usual ways of dealing do not apply. Just do whatever you need to do to make it.

*****

I want to close out by thanking Tamara for taking part in this interview series about mental health, and for sharing her story and advice on this platform.

I hope that more people can create awareness about the importance of maintaining our mental health, especially during this COVID-19 crisis.

Also, if there’s anything you’d like to tell Tamara, please feel free to leave her a comment or connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram.

You can also check out Tamara’s blog post, Managing #MentalHealth During the #COVID19 Pandemic, where she has shared several resources for managing mental health.

*****

Be sure to look out for the next post in this blog series: Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Please share this conversation with your friends, colleagues, and loved ones. That’s how we can educate others and reduce the stigma around mental health.

Did you enjoy reading this blog post? What were your biggest takeaways from this interview?

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