Is someone in your office suffering from depression?
The odds are good.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as many as 18.8 million American adults – or 8 percent – will suffer from a depressive illness in any given year.
“Depression is one of the most common and most overlooked health problems today,” said Amie Allanson-Dundon, clinical supervisor of Behavioral Health Services at St. Luke’s University Health Network.
The suspected suicide death last week of actor and comedian Robin Williams brought attention to the seriousness of depression.
Williams had been candid about his battle with depression and substance abuse during interviews throughout his career.
“Depression raises the risk for suicide very significantly,” said Kevin Riley, clinical director of the Spruce Pavilion, the inpatient mental health center for the Reading Health System.
Allanson-Dundon said Williams’ tragic death is a good time to highlight the importance of early intervention in helping people with depression, and that often the workplace is the first place where symptoms of depression occur.
According to a study published by the Rand Corp., depression results in more days in bed than any other health ailment.
The study suggested that at any one time “one in 20 employees could be experiencing some level of depression” and that depression accounts for close to $23 billion in lost work days and decreased productivity in the workplace nationally each year.
Dealing with a depressed employee or co-worker can be delicate, Allanson-Dundon said.
Often a supervisor will have to make the first move to see if an employee needs help.
“Because of the stigma involved, many people won’t ask for help,” Riley said.
According to the CDC, only 29 percent of all persons with depression reported contacting a mental health professional in the past year, and among those with severe depression, only 39 percent reported contact.
“Men especially seek help less for depression, and that depression is often masked by drugs or alcohol,” Allanson-Dundon said.
Riley said it’s important for those suffering from depression – or those who suspect a friend, colleague or employee is depressed – to remember that clinical depression is a disease like others such as diabetes or hypertension. Depression also is a disease that is highly treatable.
The important thing is to make sure the person who may be suffering from situational or clinical depression obtains the help he or she needs.
Riley acknowledged that taking that first step can be difficult.
“We don’t want to deal with a lot of this stuff, and we tend to either ignore it or minimize it as being normal,” he said.
Oliver Neith, program director of the Lehigh Valley Health Network-run Preferred Employee Assistance Program, said no supervisor should feel as if he or she has to diagnose an employee as having depression. That is not his or her area of expertise.
Instead, Neith said, an employer or supervisor can look for changes in behavior that indicate there might be some sort of problem.
According to Riley and Allanson-Dundon, signals include arriving late for work, having trouble with concentration and being easily upset.
Often, Riley said, a person suffering from depression will exhibit a “constellation of symptoms.”
Riley said a supervisor should talk to an employee in a caring and genuine fashion.
Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program in place to offer help to employees with any problems that may be affecting their work or personal life.
Neith has suggested language a supervisor can use when approaching an employee suspected of suffering from depression:
“I’ve noticed you don’t seem to be yourself lately. Is there something I can do to help? If it’s work related, maybe there’s something I can do. If it’s not, I’d like to remind you that we have an EAP that can help. Here’s the phone number.”
Usually, people are concerned about the costs of treating depression.
But Allanson-Dundon noted that if a company has an Employee Assistance Program, typically the first three visits are free. And often three visits are all that are needed to get someone back on track.
Even if more help is needed, or an employer doesn’t have an EAP, health insurance covers mental health services, just like doctor’s appointments.
Allanson-Dundon said don’t be afraid to act if you think someone is suffering from severe depression and may be contemplating suicide.
“If someone comes in to work and says ‘I think I’m going to drive my car off a bridge on the way home,’ send them to the ER [emergency room],” she said.
“There are a lot of resources to get people help,” Allanson-Dundon said. “Use them.”