Far from home and alone in his Austin motel room in 2014, Aaron Harvey raised a chef's knife to his neck, his internal monologue daring him to shove it upward an inch, or more: Just f***king do it already.
SXSW Interactive, the hectic and relentless business conference and festival, has a way of pushing even the most resilient peoples' bodies and minds to their lanyard-yoked brink. The gratuitous panels, keynote speeches, and parties; the endless bladder-testing lines; guest list upon humiliating guest list.
Ever since he was a teenager, Harvey's mind swirled with gruesome, violent thoughts. Until that night, the then 33-year-old entrepreneur kept these hideous urges secret and tried to control them. Back in New York City, he was a partner and co-founder in a thriving digital ad agency, Ready Set Rocket, which created web ads and mobile apps for brands ranging from Seagram's Gin to the NBA to the Museum of Natural History. He was married, successful, and stylishly dressed in Converse sneakers and streetwear: a modern-day Dr. Jekyll. Here, in the midst of this punishing conference, he felt like his true self was about to explode into the open.
But before he finished himself with the knife, he tried something he'd long found even scarier: He typed the phrase "violent thoughts" into Google.
It was an epiphany. Psychology and mental health sites came up: He wasn't destined for violence. Rather his mind was caught in a vicious cycle: anxiety, violent impulses, anxiety about the violence. These were intrusive thoughts, part of a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder sometimes referred to as "pure O."
Harvey's feelings of great relief--soon a combination of therapy, medication, meditation, and surfing all provided a great source of help--gave way to disbelief. How had this taken him so long to discover?
"I am educated, from an upper-middle-class family, my parents are nurses, and I am unaware that you can have unwanted thoughts and that they don't mean you're a homicidal psychopath. How is that possible? How do I not know this information?" he says. "That was my moment of like personal reckoning and my rally cry to be like 'OK, I'm going to work on solving this.'"
For the next two years, he worked on building a website that became MadeofMillions.com, a nonprofit online resource dedicated to helping educate people who are afraid, confused, and in need of reliable unbiased mental health information, just like he was that night in Austin--and to help reduce the stigmas around how people perceive mental health disorders. Soon he was pouring in all of his share of the profits from Ready Set Rocket, which he and a friend had started with $6,000 in 2009.
He developed a workplace manual, "Beautiful Brains," now available for download on the Made Academy site, that provides advice on how companies can best assist in employees' struggles with mental health. He also launched "Dear Manager," a campaign meant to make employers aware of what their staff may be coping with and drive them to the Made of Millions site. The campaign, which cost Harvey less than $500 to produce, was covered in AdAge, Adweek, and Bloomberg Businessweek, and drove thousands of downloads of "Beautiful Brains" in the weeks that followed.
The numbers associated with mental health issues in the U.S. are stunning: Nearly one in five Americans--46 million--live with some kind of mental illness. Yet two-thirds of people who suffer from a mental health issue never receive any treatment whatsoever. And while the Americans With Disability Act includes provisions that protect sufferers of mental disorders including depression, obsessive-compulsive order, and ADHD from discrimination, many employees don't know their rights. Meanwhile, business owners may not be aware that their management practices are making the workplace more difficult for suffering employees and hampering overall productivity, even if they do comply with the law.
Harvey's latest endeavor, Made Academy, aims to improve awareness and conditions in American workplaces--and make money that supports his nonprofit in the process. It's a series of lessons and videos that companies can use as part of diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment training; Verizon Media, the inaugural partner, made its 57-minute introductory video mandatory viewing for its more than 10,000 employees this month. Verizon agreed to fund production of the series after one of its executives saw Harvey speak at a symposium in New York.
"At Verizon Media, we prioritize the well-being of our workforce because we recognize the value of a mindful, resilient, and innovative culture," Guru Gowrappan, CEO of Verizon Media, said in a statement provided to Inc. "Our efforts to support Made of Millions and Made Academy aligned with our commitment to shifting the perception of mental health in the workplace and the global community, which made for an impactful partnership and unique opportunity to drive change together. The mental health effects of Covid-19 are just as important as the physical ones."
Starting in January, Harvey plans to bring the program to other large companies, which will pay per-employee licenses to use the content in company training.
Harvey sees this kind of corporate education as a way to bring much needed awareness and help to many people at once, including those who might be afraid to seek out the information themselves, as he once was. "People are suffering in silence," he says. "If the workplace can be the vehicle to educate them, then I've got a captive audience, pre-crisis."
Here are three takeaways from Made Academy's training that any leader can implement right now:
Watch out for warning signs.
While often emotional and mental issues go unnoticed, colleagues and employees can pay attention to symptoms that signal distress, such as a dramatic change in work quality or appearance, erratic behavior, increased absences from work, or noticeable increases in coffee, food, or alcohol consumption.
Accommodating isn't coddling; it's hard-nosed business.
All employees sometimes feel stress from their work; those suffering from mental health disorders find certain work arrangements debilitating. Sometimes, making allowances that might sound "soft" or doting--allowing for more frequent breaks than for others, removing non-essential tasks, providing more personalized feedback and encouragement--result in outsize increases in productivity for those in need of them.
Your employees are individuals; manage them that way.
Everyone, whether they have a protected disability or not, has strengths and weaknesses, and things that motivate them more than others, or hurdles they find unusually hobbling. Smart managers know their employees' individual quirks, and figure out how to maximize the potential of each person. Enacting tough, uniform standards may feel like the right way to promote fairness and excellence at work--but often they undermine those goals, demoralizing the very people they're supposed to inspire.