'Fall down seven times, stand up eight': How to support peers with mental illness

Jonathan Sanchez rallies the marketing industry to help peers suffering from mental illness.

'Fall down seven times, stand up eight': How to support peers with mental illness

I never set out to change or save the world. But when I was a part of starting Stand two years ago, I thought it would be possible: I have utterly failed, but the company hasn’t.

Depression is a darkness that first fell upon me some 10 years ago. My diagnosis was made while working at Havas in New York. I have learned subsequently that you only know you’ve hit rock bottom once you’ve passed it.

I thought it was over when I moved to Asia, but I was wrong. The black cloud returned shortly before I left Unilever to start my own business. I spent a year denying it, thereby causing untold unhappiness to those around me.

I am incredibly ashamed at how little the marketing industry knows, or does, to help sufferers from mental illness.

My greatest sadness is that the people who gave their time, passion and purpose to be with me during those dark days, never got to see the man I can be, the leader that I was, and will be again. I shan’t name them, but I’d lay down in traffic for them after they stood by me. I am sorry; you have been the most incredible leaders to work with.

Looking back (which is a good signifier that the clouds have dissipated) I am incredibly proud of my small company and the big change it has achieved in Singapore and Thailand. But more importantly I am incredibly ashamed at how little the marketing industry knows, or does, to help sufferers from mental illness. It is a Victorian workshop of idle ignorance, and there are parts of me and my career in it that I know should now, ironically, be ashamed of how little I did to help others.

I have and do work with CEOs at a national and regional level, as part of ‘Asia Style’, building a uniquely private network of politicians, academics and advisers. In doing so however, I buried my depression in the business, working seven days a week, 18 hours a day at times to move my company forward, with scant regard for my own mental wellbeing and the impact that had on those who worked with and for me.

It is amazing how a startup can be the best cover-up for a mental illness that continues to be the world’s biggest killer. It is also amazing how some clients who knew about my condition continued to support me and the business, from the what are perceivably sectors that would hold the condition in scant regard, ‘Big-Agri’ and such like.

One of the biggest thank yous I’ll ever give in my life is for those who chose to stand with me when I felt like I was being trod on, face down in the dirty gutter of depression whilst the rest simply walked by.

One of the biggest triggers of this relapse was a founding principle of my company—to choose our clients not the other way round. Consequently, I lost far more potential revenue than I made and looking back the human toll on me is incalculable.

The company I started operates in diverse sectors, starting off with briefed work, i.e. ‘the traditional stuff’ and rapidly evolved into a company that funds its own innovation and campaigns and remains true to my founding belief and its shared purpose: that business should be pro-social and pro-profit, be it ours or our clients’ and partners’.

It is far easier in this industry to say you have diabetes or even leprosy than admit to the debilitating invisible condition called depression.

This can’t all be too bad for the beginning of the third decade of a career that has incorporated PR, radio, television and business consulting. It can’t be too bad for a boy who grew up in very rural England being told that told getting a job at the local newspaper was the very best I could do. 

That boy, me, ended up in meetings with people from Aung San Suu Kyi to Michael Jackson—and others—across politics and business: being paid to simply fix a problem or just speak my mind.

But it was my mind that failed me, and I learned the hard way that it is far easier in this industry to say you have diabetes or even leprosy than admit to the debilitating invisible condition called depression. But I have now, both to myself and to my family, partners and clients in particular; because to give counsel you have to be authentic. On my journey I have discovered three personal truths:

  1. Never let perfection be the enemy of brilliance.
  2. Give my heart and soul to my purpose, which is to be the rebel with a cause.
  3. Be responsible for all my decisions and protect those who work for and with me.

I’m pleased to say I’m better now. In fact I’ve never been more proud of so many achievements I can say I have either been a part of or led. I have made many mistakes and I am sure have upset a fair amount of people on my journey: I can’t guarantee I won’t repeat the former, but I’ll die trying now to do less of the latter.

My company can now stand on its own feet with a great team we built in Thailand and Singapore and this now now means I can once more more return to the industry that has both held my hand and tripped me up repeatedly, but one that I have never failed to love or give up loving.

I firmly believe that marketing is like no other career; when done right it can be diplomacy of the highest order, be it for brands, businesses or political parties.

The reward and pride of witnessing a consumer, voter or campaigner change their view or open a wallet to support what you do, throughout my whole career, still cannot be beaten.

I cannot tell you where I’ll end up, but a colleague of mine told me whilst working for JWT CEO Bob Jeffrey, ‘Jonathan you always seem to fall up in your career’. So surely falling down seven times can now only mean one thing: I am ready to stand again.

If you think you have depression, see a doctor. It is very treatable. If you think someone you know is suffering, be there for them and do the same.

Jonathan Sanchez is chairman and co-founder of Stand. The views expressed are his own and not that of Stand or any other organisation.

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