Let’s Talk About Mental Health: An Interview With Paul LaLonde, SHRM-CP

We are fast approaching the end of May, which means that we will be closing out this blog series on Mental Health Awareness in a couple of days. 

I’m grateful for all the support that this project has received so far. I’ve had a great time working with some amazing mental health advocates, and I’m so thankful that they agreed to join this cause and lend their voices toward ending the stigma around mental health conditions.

Today, I’ll be featuring an awesome guest, Paul LaLonde. He’s a wonderful friend, and it’s no surprise that he’s shared a funny photo with his son. Haha!

I first connected with Paul on LinkedIn shortly after SHRM announced the bloggers for the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas. After sharing our excitement on social media, all the bloggers made it a duty to connect in real life. So I met Paul at the conference, we found some time to connect and, very importantly, take selfies—which were a must-have for most of us on the team!

Since then, I’ve followed Paul’s social media posts and opinions about mental health awareness, and I thought it would be great to interview him for this blog series.

Paul LaLonde, SHRM-CP, is an enthusiastic HR professional with over 10 years’ experience specializing in leadership, employee learning and development, organizational structure, diversity and inclusion, general nonprofit management, and so much more! Paul enjoys finding ways of building collaborative relationships by knocking down internal silos, and he is particularly passionate about coaching employees to find the best within themselves. 

Currently, Paul serves as the HR Director for CEDA of Cook County in Chicago, the largest Community Action Agency in Illinois, that provides services to low-income families and at-risk individuals throughout the community. He is an avid reader and writer and a proud #SHRMBlogger alumni. He has spoken on various HR topics at numerous conferences and workshops, and he opines on his blog, the HR Philosopher. Paul is a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan, Game of Thrones geek, and heavy metal enthusiast (it’s all about the riff). He is a proud husband, father, and owner of a disobedient cat.

In this interview, Paul shares his story about living with Anxiety and Depression.

Can you help me understand what it’s like to live with Anxiety and Depression?

Paul: I’m glad you asked me this question. I’ve been contemplating writing about my experience—mostly as a way of coming to terms with my inner turmoil and moving in a better direction. When you asked me to be a part of your blog series on mental health awareness, I took it as a sign from Providence that I had to finally “come clean,” so to speak.

I have never talked openly about my struggles, so this is a huge step for me. I have lived with anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. It was something I never fully realized I had or understood as being what it was. There’s a sense of just being and not paying attention to what your body and thoughts are trying to tell you. I just knew that certain things made me shut down, and I refused to process them.

Living with anxiety and depression is an inability to control the mind. Think of it like two pulsing switches. One switch winds you up and makes you obsess over made-up scenarios that are so unlikely to happen. Like if you get water in your basement, your whole house will flood and float away. You know your house won’t float away or get destroyed, but you cannot control those irrational thoughts and the feelings they give you. You feel heart palpitations; you pace back and forth uncontrollably, and you can’t focus. 

The other switch does the opposite but works in the same way. Your mind produces untrue thoughts, or it takes a small grain of truth and builds it into a colossal mountain of pain that feels as if it will never end. Your mind then shuts down. You feel numb. You feel nothing—literally nothing—and that nothing feels painful. You just want it to end.

One lasts momentarily but comes and goes. While the other lasts for weeks, or months, or over a year, and yet, it still comes and goes.

Are there any stereotypical or harmful statements associated with Anxiety and Depression, or mental illnesses in general? 

Paul: Unfortunately, yes. People say a lot of things they shouldn’t say, like “snap out of it!” “Try harder!” “It’s all in your head.” And my personal favorite, “get over it.” Being depressed isn’t the same thing as being sad. People in a depressive state have no energy, no drive, no feelings. They cannot just flip a switch and force themselves to feel better. Sadness is an emotion, but depression is a health condition that affects someone’s physical and mental well-being. Sometimes, people say these things, in their minds, as a way of trying to help. It doesn’t come from a bad place, but these phrases do more harm than good because they help perpetuate, in the person’s mind, that there is something wrong with them. The person goes down the rabbit hole thinking, “Why can’t I just feel normal?” “Why can’t I feel anything?” “What is wrong with me? I just want to feel normal!”

I’ve experienced it personally. The first reason why I never opened up was that I didn’t want to accept myself as having this condition. Out of sight, out of mind. Second, I didn’t want people treating me differently. I was so afraid that others would distance themselves from me, not date me, or not hire or promote me. And then last year, I suffered through one of the worst depressive episodes of my life. When I started opening up little by little, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy—a lot of people whom I thought had my back, turned theirs on me. Instead of coming out of depression, I fell further into it. It was the darkest point in my life.

However, it was also the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned that the only people that truly matter are the ones who stick around. I got better, and here I am today, able to share my story. I made it through. Others can, too.

As a mental health advocate, what do you think people can do to reduce the stigma around mental illness? 

Paul: Stigma is real. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve also made it a point to fight stigma. The first thing we can do to reduce the stigma associated with mental health is to open up and talk about it. That’s one of the reasons you’ve inspired me to talk more openly and directly about my own experiences. I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is. Talking about it normalizes it. And it is normal!

Anxiety and depression have been around since man first stood upright. Some studies actually show they had evolutionary positives, but that’s for another conversation! Talking about mental health helps to educate people. It helps to knock down misconceptions and show people that mental health conditions are not something to be afraid of or ashamed of.

How can I be a better advocate and friend for those struggling with mental illness? 

Paul: This is an amazing question. All you have to do is be a friend. Be a kind, patient, empathetic friend! Show them that they matter, that they are important to you, and they have a place in the world. When a friend is going through a depressive episode or having an anxiety attack, make sure you check in with them. Let them talk, if they want to, and don’t say anything except smile. Or when they sit there not saying anything, just sit there with them not saying anything. Just be there and be supportive. Understand that everyone is different.

At the depths of my darkest depression, my wife would leave me quotes from some of my heroes around the house for me to see. Those little acts really helped me make it through.

MENTAL HEALTH AND the WORKplace

Advocating for your mental health can be difficult in some workplaces. What can employees do to look after their mental health at work? 

Paul: I think it begins with mindfulness. That word has become somewhat of a buzzword over the last decade, which might turn some people off, but that’d be a mistake. Mindfulness is an ancient practice that has survived for thousands of years for a reason. It is a principal tenet in religions, such as Buddhism and practical philosophies like stoicism. 

I did an interview last year with organizational psychologist Dr. Karlyn Borysenko, who described mindfulness as being aware, being non-judgmental, and being in the present moment. I love that definition. To better control how we respond to our internal struggles, we have to be aware that something is going on, not judge our feelings or ourselves, and focus on the here and now. Being aware allows me to notice the physical changes I am experiencing or the feelings and thoughts creeping into my mind. Approaching it in a non-judgmental way reminds me that what I am feeling isn’t wrong—that it’s normal. And staying grounded in the here and now allows me to address my feelings, understand them, and move forward. Anxiety is about fretting over the past or future, neither of which exist. The only place that exists is the present.

Mindfulness is incredibly challenging, and it takes years to master. But I can attest, practicing mindfulness has helped me tremendously in acknowledging and accepting that I can take control if I need to—whether that’s during a contentious employee investigation, a stressful open enrollment season, or during an unprecedented modern pandemic. Being mindful in the workplace allows a sense of awareness, understanding, and control.

Do you think HR has a role to play in creating mental health awareness in the workplace? Why?

Paul: I think HR is the key to creating a friendly, tolerant, and welcoming workplace for individuals with mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5, or 19% of the population, will experience a mental health episode during any given time over a year. That’s a lot of people!

The health of your people is the health of your organization. HR professionals have to realize this, and they have to accept their role in advocating for the mental well-being of employees. To do this, HR cannot be silent. We must speak up and advocate for mental health awareness in the workplace. I am a huge believer in a strong Employee Assistance Program. An EAP is such a beneficial and underutilized resource. 

HR can also push policies that promote mental well-being, such as more personal days and more work from home initiatives that stay post-COVID crisis. HR can also provide more training for direct managers/supervisors, such as mental health first aid.

MENTAL HEALTH AND COVID-19

Given the current COVID-19 crisis, what advice would you give people living with Anxiety and Depression during this pandemic?

Paul: You are not alone. What you are feeling is normal and OK. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out to others. Stay connected. You matter, and people do love you, regardless of what the thoughts in your head say.

RESOURCES

Are there any resources you would like to share?

Paul: For those who read my blog or follow me on social media, it’s no surprise that I am a huge advocate for stoicism. I find so much poetry in its teachings. I encourage others to read The Daily Stoic, a daily blog by Ryan Holiday, an American entrepreneur, author, and stoic advocate. Stoicism helped me come to terms with anxiety and depression and gave me tools to help myself through those dark times.

I am an avid follower for the comic panel The Lunar Baboon, which takes a very open and honest approach in addressing mental health issues directly and humorously. It’s been so relatable in the best possible way. It helps me realize I am not alone. Others feel the same things I do, and that’s OK.

Lastly, I want to give a shout-out to Hope For the Day, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to help advocate for suicide prevention. Their tagline is “It’s OK to Not Be OK.” The tagline is simple, supportive, and it gives hope. 

*****

Paul, thank you for taking part in this interview series about mental health, and for sharing your story on this platform. It takes courage to “come clean,” and I’m happy that you did!

If there’s anything you’d like to tell Paul, please feel free to leave him a comment or connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter at @HRPaul49.

*****

Be sure to look out for the final 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.

How will you support those struggling with mental illness?

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