I’ll be the first to admit that I have struggled with depression on and off throughout my life. My first taste of it was as a teenager and it was very much a by-product of what was going on in my personal/family life. I was able to recover through therapy, medication, and oodles of hard work. The bouts of depression I experienced as an adult primarily stemmed from career stress – either feeling trapped in a position where I was miserable or being unemployed and fearful about my future. I am fortunate to have a strong support system and lots of resources at my disposal. I always come through harder, better, stronger, faster [insert Daft Punk audio here].
Aside from my personal experience, I have enough of a background in mental health that I can pretty quickly recognize signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and related mood disorders in other people. In my personal life that means I try to be helpful to the people I care about by engaging them in conversation. In my professional life, it’s more tricky. I’m not a licensed therapist. There is absolutely no regulation of the career counseling / coaching profession*. I have a legal responsibility to not engage in any kind of mental health counseling with my clients, but that’s it. But not being one to sit idly by, I let my clients know if they are presenting in a way that makes me concerned. I can’t diagnose or treat, but I can refer. And I do refer. A lot.
I refer at least 50% of my career counseling clients to licensed mental health professionals for assessment. Another 25% come to me by way of their therapists. What I see in my practice isn’t representative of the population at large; although many adults will experience depression in their lifetimes, the stats for current depression sufferers hover at around 10%.
So why are there so many people who are simultaneously depressed and in career transition? Not to be overly simplistic, but this stuff is hard! If you’re a human being with a soul, it’s going to wear on you. Whether it’s a toxic work environment, being long-term unemployed **, financial instability, or any other flavor of angst, these situations takes a heavy toll.
When you’re simultaneously depressed and trying to make a career change – voluntary or involuntary – the combination can be immobilizing. And the longer it drags on, the harder it is to just “bootstap” yourself out of it. (Honestly, most people can’t bootstrap themselves out of it, no matter the circumstances.) So many of my clients are bright, talented, and desperately want to change their situations. By all rational accounts, they are very motivated. But as soon as it’s time for them to do energy-intensive work (i.e. things other than applying for jobs online), they stall out. Often to their own shock and dismay.
Career transition requires a lot of heavy lifting, and in order to do it effectively, you have to be in reasonably good mental health. If you’re depressed, it’s damn near impossible.
Enter THE BIG PROBLEM: for most folks in this situation, their depression isn’t going to really lift until they’re fully employed in a meaningful position. But it’s really friggin’ hard to make a successful transition when depressed. Fortunately, there is some middle ground.
To get to that middle ground, first figure out what’s going on. If you’re experiencing any mood issues that have lasted more than a few weeks, it’s time to seek help. If you’re not sure, there are some great free screening tools available online.
As for what kind of help to get, there’s no one right answer. Most people benefit from a multi-tiered approach. Yes, you can work with a career counselor for help with your career strategy design and implementation. But that can’t be it. You also need to avail yourself of other external resources.
Conventional go-to resources are therapists and/or medication (though I know they aren’t for everyone). When going this route, be sure you see someone who is licensed through a regulatory body. In California, it’s the Board of Behavioral Sciences that oversees psychologists, MFTs, LCSWs, etc. Each state is different. If therapy seems cost prohibitive, look for therapists or clinics that offer sliding scales.
Beyond psychological treatment, a strong support system, exercise, exposure to sunlight (especially this time of year), yoga, acupuncture (my go-to in San Diego), and social/recreational activities are all hugely helpful. There are also other forms of group support, which are beneficial on multiple levels: process groups (usually run by therapists), groups in your spiritual/religious community, and even dedicated career transition support groups. They exist in every community. The Boardroom is one of my local faves.
This probably seems like a daunting list. And it is. You don’t have to do everything all at once. Start by telling a loved one what’s going on and that you’re looking for help. Make a call. Schedule an appointment. Get assessed. Go from there.
Doing these things is not going to transform you overnight. But if you commit to taking care of yourself holistically while going through the incredibly stressful process of career transition, you gain a huge competitive advantage.
I believe that everyone deserves fulfilling and financially sustaining work. It’s still a tough economy, and we all have to fight for what we want. Make sure you’re equipped to handle it by doing everything possible to be in good mental & emotional health. You’re worth it.
* Yes, there are organizations that offer certifications for things like career coaching, resume writing, etc., but those organizations are self appointed “industry experts” and not accountable to any regulatory body, so they’re mostly meaningless. Many of them will gladly hand out a credential if you show minimal skills and fork out hundreds or thousands of dollars. But that’s a rant for another time.
** When I started typing “long term unemployed” Google autocompleted the word “depression” in my search bar. Articles and research are myriad. If this is you, you are not alone!