In search of sanity: a candid tale of battling mental health in adland
A view from Graeme Douglas

In search of sanity: a candid tale of battling mental health in adland

The ad industry is a Petri dish for breeding mental-health issues, says the strategy partner at Bountiful Cow.

Last year, my best friend betrayed me. It wasn’t a spontaneous betrayal; quietly yet deliberately, it had been going on for quite some time. It was insidious. In fact, I should really have seen it coming. Others did. Looking back now, there had been rumblings for a long time, a lifetime perhaps – but, as the old blues songs testify, you’re always the last to know. But know I eventually did, and it wasn’t to be something I can ever, nor should ever, forget.

Last year, my brain turned against me. Last year, I almost died.

In June 2016, I was diagnosed as having full bipolar affective disorder – or manic depression in old money. I was in the Priory wondering what on Earth was happening to me. I didn’t really know where I was, who I was or what was going on. All I knew was that I wanted it to stop. All of it. 

So I tried to turn it all off.

Bipolar is a potentially life-defining mental-health disorder – a disability, defined by UK and US law – that, undiagnosed, untreated and unmanaged (me in 2016: check, check and check), renders the sufferer vulnerable to periods of extreme, uncontrollable mania that are followed, or preceded, by devastating, debilitating periods of depression. These can be accompanied by psychosis. Such can be the crushing effect of these cycles, both psychological and social (in part due to the attached stigma that comes neatly packaged with mental-health issues), that around one in five bipolar sufferers will "successfully" commit suicide. Some studies estimate life expectancy of sufferers per se to be almost a decade shorter on average than it is for non-sufferers. In short, when it’s in full flow, it’s an unmitigated and unrelenting living hell; a thought-prison created by a misfiring of the most powerful thing in your body. It’s the definition of a waking nightmare.

That was a year ago. Today, however, I’m better than I have ever been. I am beyond fortunate, and even more grateful. Thanks to a combination of incredible care from my partner and family, plus my psychiatric team, psychotherapists, friends, many within the industry and a whole lot of love, I survived. I have an awareness of my condition that means I can manage it. As well as being on medication, I don’t drink any more and won’t ever again. While reaching for the bottle to help adjust mood is something society, and our business, doesn’t just normalise but actively advocates, it’s potentially a very dangerous thing for someone with a mental-health condition and, frankly, I value my renewed clarity, sanity and life way too much. I have promised not to become a puritanical ex-drinker but sometimes I can’t help myself – so know your limits, folks. (Protip: if you ever find yourself wondering if you drink too much, you probably do.)

Our industry is a Petri dish for breeding mental-health issues. Not only do we have the usual pressures that come with a high-intensity, fast-paced competitive commercial environment, we’re a business built around thousands of creative individuals, who, studies show, are far more likely to suffer from mental-health issues than their "less creative" counterparts. In fact, the archetype of the "mad" or "manic" creative is perhaps the most enduring of the modern age. We, rightly, celebrate brains that walk a fine tightrope. But we need to put a safety net underneath.

Some of the people you interact with day in, day out – you, perhaps – will be battling one of the hidden afflictions that tear people’s lives apart on an all-too-regular basis. But it shouldn’t be like this. People say you can’t "see" mental-health conditions. I say that’s bollocks. You can see it in the way people act. The way they talk. The way they move. You can see it in their eyes. (This is why "management via Twitter" just isn’t enough. It’s our version of clicktivism and it’s dangerous.) You need to look for it. You might even need to be told what to look for. But you can definitely see it. Sure, you can choose not to see it. But that’s an extremely different thing.

To bosses: an offer of hope and empathy, not fear and judgment, is what’s needed. Folks, this is 2017. Aside from being a legal and moral requirement, the commercial benefit is clear: mental-health treatment is available, and does work. If somebody is suffering, their performance will follow. Once they’re better, they will be a renewed member of the team. It’s really simple. 

Also, stop banging on via hashtags about how great your culture is and spend some time making it great instead. Put your people first. Seriously: a disconnect between what you say in public and what happens privately literally makes people ill. Your externally glossed destructive culture might, as it already has abroad, kill somebody. Stop it. Now.

To everyone else: if it’s a colleague you’re worried about, speak to them. Tell your boss. Make them listen. If you’re the one suffering, my advice is straightforward – it is never, ever too late to get help. It’s clichéd but true: the first step is the hardest but, trust me, it does get better. Whatever the problem.

There’s no shame in this stuff.

We’re building Bountiful Cow – like our sister, the7stars – to understand and embrace the complexities of modern life, to provide a solid foundation for a meaningful work/life balance and to not just extract all the good stuff from the brilliant minds that work with us but to also safeguard their future wellbeing. To us, there’s no other way to do business.

Life is just too important not to.

Graeme Douglas is the strategy partner at Bountiful Cow