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By Tracey D. Rauh

New Hampshire Business Review, July 4, 1997, p.17

Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review

There’s a national silence about depression — and Hampton’s Odyssey House Foundation hopes to break it here in New Hampshire.

Clinical depression costs America $44 billion a year. In the workplace, the illness accounts for 213 million lost workdays, with an annual price tag of $11.7 billion. Lost work productivity due to depression adds up to another $12 billion a year.

Unlike people suffering from heart disease or arthritis, both of which cost America less than depression, those afflicted with clinical, bipolar and other forms of depression often don’t seek help for fear of being stigmatized, said Betsy Leavitt, a certified clinical social worker who is involved with the Odyssey House Foundation’s work site depression project.

In her private practice in Dover and as director of the Internal Employee Assistance Program at Mellon in Boston, Leavitt said she is time and again challenged to correct the misinformation that keeps depressed people from seeking the relief that’s available for them today.

“Treatment through medication, therapy or both offers relief to 80 percent of depressed people,” said Leavitt. “The biggest hurdle is the fear of the unknown — and getting people to talk about it.”

With the help of a grant from the Jeffrey Gutin Fund of the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation, the non-profit Odyssey House Foundation is in the midst of a three-phase project aimed at opening doors for dealing with clinical depression, especially in the workplace.

Odyssey House Foundation is a 25-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to conducting and supporting programs that promote the mental health and well-being of adolescents and families. By addressing depression in the workplace, individuals, families and businesses will benefit, say those in charge of the project.

“It’s time to take the cloak off depression,” said Ellen Zucker, director of program development for the foundation. Zucker, who’s in charge of managing the work site depression project, said her organization has been long eyeing the Jeffrey Gutin Fund as a resource to further its work/family initiatives and to fund a project to help businesses understand the illness and its far-reaching effects.

Symptoms like severe melancholy, agitation, anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbances and poor concentration are a sign of serious chemical imbalances, according to both Leavitt and Zucker. Left untreated, clinical depression can linger for many months and lead to dire consequences, including suicide.

“Businesses will benefit from understanding this,” Zucker said.

She said depression costs corporate America billions in the form of lost productivity, accidents, absenteeism and medical bills. And, she said, the silence surrounding depression exacerbates both the illness and its effects. She hopes the current project will make it easier for people to talk about it.

The Odyssey House Foundation project has three components. The, first was a breakfast workshop for upper-level employees, supervisors, trainers and human resources people. The second will involve on-site depression awareness training at a pilot work site yet to be named. The third will be educational presentations for members of the community at large, to help them identify ways in which depression may be affecting their lives and learn where to seek help.

Held May 28 at the Sheraton Portsmouth, the workshop to educate upper-level employees included key representatives from large companies, including Tyco International Ltd. and Simplex.

Bruce Davidson, manager of Digital Equipment’s employee assistance program and WorkLife programs, explored “The Hidden Cost of Depression and the Workplace.” Ann Whitman and Evie Barkin, both from the Manic Depressive/Depressive Association of Boston, shared insight on the personal experience and costs of depression.

“When I received the invitation to attend the workshop, I was surprised that I hadn’t seen more on this topic,” said Wendy Desmond, vice president of human resources for Tyco International’s corporate headquarters in Exeter.

“That’s why I went — because it’s easy to see how this could really affect a business like Tyco.”

Desmond said she had experience working with someone with serious depression and suicidal tendencies, so she understands the complexities of the issue.

“Given the pressures that people are under — dual career marriages, single-parent families, the increased intensity and competitiveness at work — depression can be a big productivity hit to businesses,” she said.

The second component is to implement an on-site pilot program to tram supervisors, managers and human resources personnel how to recognize and proceed with cases of depression. With more than a decade of experience to draw upon, Leavitt will conduct the on-site training. While the pilot company has yet to be named, the project is expected to be under way by July.

“Clinical depression usually strike during a person’s most productive work years,” said Leavitt. She said she deals with a lot of fear about how talking about one’s personal life may affect his or her career.

“People need to see that confidentiality is the cornerstone of employee assistance programs. As the person in charge of doing the supervisory training for this project, it’s my role to not only help people recognize depression, but to dispel the myths.”

She said that having this kind of resource in place for employees is valuable not only because it promotes wellness and early intervention for current employees, but also because it sends out messages to talented recruits who will see the efforts as a company commitment to its people.

In the current environment, where it’s difficult to recruit and retrain talent, this is an incredibly powerful message about corporate values. It is, and should be, perceived as above and beyond core benefits. “If we can help employees realize this is all fight to talk about and identify resources, they will be more productive and feel better about themselves and perform better in all areas of life,” said Leavitt.

“This whole issue has so much to do with corporate culture,” Zucker explained. “The general openness with such issues varies from place to place. We hope that as more companies begin to realize the business impact, they’ll be more interested in taking action.”

At the completion of the project, Zucker said the Odyssey House Foundation hopes to carry the program to others in the business community and the result will be for clinical depression to ascend from the underground.

“Saying you’re depressed should be like saying, ‘I have diabetes,’ but it’s not,” said Zucker. “Still, if you think back 20 years, people with cancer had to hide that, too. Now we wear pink ribbons for them. I think this means we can be optimistic.”

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