"The question 'Are you okay?' can mean a lot to someone. Those three words were huge in my life."

In this episode, Megan McCloskey, Global Communications Specialist, sits down with Andrew Onimus for an enlightening conversation about his work in mental health advocacy. Andrew is a Director of Corporate Programs and speaker with Minding Your Mind, a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing mental health education and resources to adolescents, teens, young adults and their parents. In partnership with this organization, Andrew’s goal is to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and help others who may be suffering know that they are not alone and that it gets better. Andrew shares resources for and insights into coping with mental health issues, particularly in a time of isolation, and provides tips for starting conversations about mental health with colleagues, friends and family.

Please enjoy Episode 7: World Mental Health Day

Transcript

Megan McCloskey: Hi everyone. I'm Megan McCloskey, and I wanted to welcome you back to The Intersection. A podcast that brings you candid conversations with members of our community and leaders in our industry. We're excited to bring you a special episode today in honor of World Mental Health Day celebrated on October 10.

Joining me today is Andrew Onimus, a mental health advocate and director of corporate programs and speaker with Minding Your Mind, a non-profit organization with the mission of providing mental health education to adolescents, teens, young adults, and their parents, in addition to teachers and school administrators. In partnership with this organization, Andrew's goal is to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and help others who may be suffering to know that they're not alone and that it gets better. Andrew and I had an important conversation about his work in mental health advocacy. He shares resources and insights into coping with mental health issues, particularly in a time of isolation and provides tips for starting conversations about mental health with colleagues, friends, and family. I'm excited for you to take a listen.

Hi, Andrew. Thank you so much for joining us today. It's really awesome to have you with us at The Intersection.

Andrew Onimus: Thanks Megan. I'm happy to join. Thanks for all the listeners for tuning in.

Megan McCloskey: Obviously, mental health is a priority every single day of the year, but it's special to have you with us today and on our World Mental Health Day, which we're going to celebrate on October 10th. So we've lots to talk about today, but I was hoping that we could start by learning a little bit more about your past mental health advocacy and if you could share just a little bit about how you got started in this profession and your background, that would be awesome.

Andrew Onimus: Sure. My past was maybe a little different than where some people might find themselves in mental health services or counseling. Not that I'm a counselor, but I grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. I went to good schools, I went to Muhlenberg College for undergrad and was an athlete and an accounting major. And my senior year is where things went different than I thought. I started to struggle with insomnia after a minor injury, which turned into a little bit of stress, anxiety, depression. And then I got thrown into a cycle and went down a hole of a pretty severe depression. I'm really lucky that I reached out for help after hitting rock bottom. I recovered after a few months of trying to find out the right recipe for recovery and what will get me healthy, and treatment. I'm sure we'll talk a little bit about that, but I got out of that hole and got to a peaceful place and was able to manage my depression and anxiety in a healthy way.

After about two, three or four years of going back and forth in accounting jobs in the Philadelphia area. It's funny that I'm on your podcast right now 'cause when I was at KPMG, SEI was one of my clients. So I've been on your campus, quite a few times back in 2014, 2015. I was really healthy and I knew that the impact that I had of my recovery and talking to friends and family after I was getting better, really made a difference and gave me a purpose. So I just pretty much found Minding Your Mind, because my mom saw a presentation at her school. My mom's a teacher in the area and Minding Your Mind does programs in the area. So I reached out to Minding Your Mind, they're a local non-profit. I'll talk a little bit more about them, but founded about 12 years ago and they do mental health education programs through a real unique way.

They had young adults speakers that shared their own personal stories of struggle, many times crisis with mental health issues, but more importantly, the hopeful recovery side signs and symptoms. So when I saw that and my mom told me that, I was like, "All right, I want to see what they do." I was lucky enough to reach out to someone there and trained to become a part-time speaker. And that's what I did for about two years while I was still full-time accounting. And then two years ago with the growth of the organization, they offered me full time. So I was brought on board to be a speaker mostly. I speak a good amount in schools, companies, adult groups, usually middle school through college age, but I also do a lot of other outreach corporate program director.

I coordinate a lot of workshops, some of the conversations we're going to have today, but more geared for employees, what to look out for, for colleagues and then families, and then support like internally with the companies, whether that's an EAP program or what kind of resources for mental health that they have there. That's a little bit of background. I would never expect me to be in the mental health field when I was growing up 'cause I never really had depression until I hit it when I was a senior. But I love what I do and I'm really lucky to be part of this organization because it's been really fun and really cool.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah. It's really interesting to hear how your path took a turn, the way it did. But I think that is what mental health is all about. It could hit people out of the blue and struggling with issues like depression and anxiety can come out of nowhere and really just being able to have those resources is what helped you out of that hole and brought you up from rock bottom. So it's really cool for you to share that story with us and share that story with the listeners. I definitely appreciate your vulnerability with that. You talked a little bit about when you were experiencing those symptoms, you felt isolated and you felt alone a little bit. Obviously right now the mental health is a big topic of conversation, given the global pandemic and isolation is ever present for a lot of people right now. Could you talk a little bit about how isolation does affect our mental health?

Andrew Onimus: Yeah. I think with all the changes that's going on, a lot of our normal coping skills that we might turn to without even calling them that like it just everyday things that make us feel better are different now. I know a big part or a lot of people's coping and stress relief might be working out or going to a gym. Maybe it's going to the movies on a Friday night, maybe it's going to social settings. A lot of those have been temporarily taken away from us or at least changed. And that's a big, big outlet for not only adults, but kids too. Certainly isolation is something. One of the biggest symptoms that I experienced is when I was struggling with a little bit of anxiety and depression. It's almost like I felt more comfortable being alone, even though that wasn't a healthy thing for me and it's safe and healthy to be by ourselves sometimes, but I think I was just doing it consistently and more frequently.

I wasn't going out and being social. I was in my room or I was avoiding things and that avoidance is something that might be okay on a tough night, a tough day, a tough weekend. But over time it can really become a cycle where we start removing ourselves from our everyday lives and what brings us joy. That's when it can become a problem. I think definitely the COVID-19 pandemic has spiked that up as we can see in stats and studies, we're definitely worried about the school year. We work mostly in schools, we're worried about families and adults. I'm sure there are people listening to this who are wearing 17 different hats right now, doing your job the best you can obviously, but also a teacher, a tutor, a coach, it's tough. So doing your best to try to keep normalcy and your normal structure will help prevent some of that isolation, but it's a big, big thing that's going on right now.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, a lot of our coworkers and a lot of the global workforce is working remotely right now like you said, and definitely balancing lots of jobs and wearing 17 hats like you said, people are balancing work and trying to separate and to have a work-life balance, and some are even trying to teach their children while they're on all of their Zoom meetings, which is crazy. And it can be a lot to do it. How can our listeners, without being in the office, look for signs of distress in their coworkers or in their colleagues? And I know you said isolation and spending time alone can be one of those things and not being social. But without that option right now to have that social interaction, what are some of the things that we can be looking out for?

Andrew Onimus: Really good question. I think it's much more difficult when you're not in person, but doing your best to stay connected in different ways. I'm sure your organization, your teams are doing some things at least to stay connected, whether that's meeting over lunch non-work-related and talking about normal everyday things and being that person sometimes that might shoot that email or shoot that text and even admitting like, "This is really hard, this isn't really ideal." There's some things I like about working from home. Like the flexibility of being around my kids more maybe, but I miss my colleagues and friends and that friendship in a workplace and those connections and relationships that you have are a big part of your life. And then it's just the structure too. So I think it's tough to say, and there's not really one answer that will bring you to be connected to everyone.

But if you are concerned, if someone seems a little bit more removed, or if someone on your team isn't maybe as productive as normal, that might be a sign that there is something going on. And that doesn't mean that they're going to need to go to a counselor or something like that. But that could be a sign that shooting that friendship email, or that kind of removed from this is what you need to do for work email is a safe thing. Just saying, "Hey, just checking in, non-work-related, seeing how you're doing. I'm always here if you need to talk to someone as a colleague, as a friend, is a really safe thing." And they may never need that. They may never respond to that. They might sound fine, but I think that, that's something that is a door opener, which can keep that door open for the future. And that's a safe thing for anyone.

Megan McCloskey: I think that's interesting. One of the global campaigns that we're sharing with our employees at SEI on World Mental Health Day, is showing that we're in each other's corner. And it's talking about just making sure that you know that one person you have in your corner. And I think having that conversation and just reaching out and saying, "Hi." And letting them know that you're struggling to maybe saying like, "I am here, and I don't love working from home sometimes. Sometimes It feels lonely and whatnot, but I'm here for you. If you need someone to talk to, like you're here for me and that's a really cool, important thing."

In addition to just checking in on our colleagues and our coworkers, like we mentioned, a lot of parents are watching their children stay home from school and not get that normal socialization that you would get in a grade school or in a high school, or maybe playing sports. Is there any specific signs that we can look for in kids or ways that we can talk to them about mental health, maybe have conversations that they haven't been exposed to before, but might be more important now that they are in these different environments?

Andrew Onimus: Yeah. Talking about mental health as a parent, I'm not one yet, but it's a scary thing. You want to make sure that they know that if something's going on, they can talk to you, and I think there still exists sometimes that stigma that if you talk about it, it will bring about it. And that's just not the case. There's been thousands of studies that go against that. It is a really weird time right now, trying to keep your best, to keep boundaries from the news and those kinds of things I think is important for your kids too. A lot of times kids not copycat, but they see what's going on in their parents' life and they learn from that. And now they're not in school physically, maybe, or maybe they are, maybe they're hybrid. It will be a transition back to that normalcy where they're seeing other people's lives.

So doing your best to keep normalcy, if that's going out for walks at night or going on a lunch break or having a little recess, depending on how old the kids are in your life, but really just trying your best to let kids know that they're safe, this is a weird time, there's a lot going on, political stuff. And then there's the pandemic and then there's racial and job. There's just a lot going on right now, and just bringing that positivity and hope can help.

I'm not a parent yet, but I think starting conversations early are a preventative way. So saying, "Hey, mom and dad, right now are struggling, this isn't easy, we're stressed out much more than normal and that's okay if you are too." I think is something that could help.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah. I am looking at Minding Your Mind website and reading a little bit more about remission. I know one of the goals that you have in Minding Your Mind is to normalize the conversation and de-stigmatize the conversation. Would you recommend having conversations about mental health without seeing signs of distress and just making it a normal conversation?

Andrew Onimus: What we usually say to parents when we do our trainings or parent nights, or really anyone is, saying it pretty much like this, "I know it's a different conversation." You might be talking about what's going on in your school day, or, how's your night going, but at some point in the conversation with us over dinner or any time say, "If there's anything that's going on outside of what we normally talk about, or, If you see a friend or yourself as having a tough time, we're here, we will listen to you."

And as a parent, we always want to fix things right away, or you might want to fix things. That's something we hear right away. A lot of times you don't have to fix things right away. Just making sure that you're talking about what's going on is a really safe thing. So as an adult, telling that to people in your life or friends and colleagues, saying that too, will create a little bit of an easier time for that person, your son or daughter, whoever that might be to reach out that hand and say, ""Hey, something's going on? I have a friend or a classmate that doesn't seem okay, what can I do? What should I say?" And that's how those conversations start.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah, definitely. A few times you mentioned the word safe and having a safe space. And I think just being able to start a conversation and tell people that you're there, if they ever need to talk, even if things are okay is really important, it sounds like. So I know that Minding Your Mind provide resources by going to campuses and going to corporations and speaking. But where would you recommend that people can find these resources? Or what should we be looking for, if you are noticing declining mental health in your kids, or you're looking to reach out to someone, what are the resources that you point people to, is the first step to have those conversations, or maybe get in touch with counselors or people to talk to?

Andrew Onimus: All the time we say whoever the resources are in your life. So if we're in a school, if we're talking to parents in a school, we're saying go to the counselors and it doesn't need to be a crisis. It's really important to talk about these things before crisis. Crisis, I would say, needs to be addressed. We'll treat it but little things too. I think there's a lot of it, especially in our area, in the Philadelphia area, there's a lot of resources, which is great. On our website, we have a lot of local community resources that we work with. There's Pennsylvania resources, suicide prevention, the text hotlines are always things that we always push out, especially 'cause that might be an adult too. It doesn't need to be a kid who might utilize those things. And then for adults, many who are employed and insured to have enormous benefits that they may not even be aware of.

We work with so many companies and that's my job now, it's coordinating these programs and prevention, mental health education, and a lot of people including some human resources, people I've spoken to don't even really know what an EAP is, which is an Employee Assistance Program. A lot of those programs through benefits have at least three to four, if not more free sessions. And that might be just a conversation about "My son or daughter is struggling, or this college process is more difficult financially, I'm worried." And having someone who is, non-biased, just listening and supporting you and giving you steps for help is a really safe thing. So I think there's so many out there, sometimes taking that first step is the hardest step, it's admitting or acknowledging that something is difficult right now.

And that's okay. I think we want to relate it this, it's like if my son or daughter, if I had a broken bone or if I had diabetes or if I had something going on with my skin, I would go to my primary care physician and I would get it checked out. If something's impacting my life, my work, my school, my enjoyment, my peace. And it's going on for a while. It's not just a bad day, a bad week. Why not try to talk to your primary care physician or talk to that EAP program, because that's a safe preventative step to take. I don't have any specific resources now, but I know there's a lot on our website, a lot that SEI, I'm sure shares all the time, but there they are out there. Just keep looking and there'll be much more as the culture of health care gets more aware and more resources for mental health, which is great.

Megan McCloskey: That's awesome. And I know we do have these resources at SEI and we'll definitely share the resources on our webpage and different places where we're promoting this podcast to make sure that we can promote this resources if people need them. Something that you had mentioned, it was important to have friends and family in your corner when you did hit rock bottom, and we are talking about having people in your corner and something else we're also following is the Ask Twice Campaign to show people that we are in their corner. And the concept behind this initiative is to ask a friend how they're doing. And then maybe ask again for a second time to emphasize your interest and your concern if you suspect they are struggling with their mental health. Sometimes we say, we're fine and we're not. And we know that's just an easy answer. So what did it mean to you to have that friend who helped you out when you're at your lowest point or to have that family member and why is this so important?

Andrew Onimus: I'll share two quick stories to paint a picture of what this can look like for you or someone else, family member. I remember one of the first people I went up to, this was about two months of a pretty severe insomnia. I wasn't sleeping, which was one of the main symptoms of my depression. And I was really, really not enjoying anything. I was isolating, I was becoming very depressed. And I went up to my football coach at that time, who most of them were so supportive in the whole process. But like I said, "I'm depressed." And it all happened because he said like, "What's going on?" He didn't know what to say, he didn't know what to fix, how to fix it or really go 'cause he didn't really understand was the sign, I wouldn't have either.

But one of the things he did is he sat down with me at the end of the practice and he said, "Tell me more." He didn't say like, "You'll be fine. We'll get a snap out of it." Anything like that. He said, "Tell me more." And that door really just stayed open. And we sat down, we talked for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, which led me to going to that real help, which was my mom going to a hospital, going to professionals that got me to recovery. So again, the people in our life and many people who will listen to this are colleagues. You don't need to be a counselor. You don't need to fix things, but saying, "Are you okay?" Those three words can mean a lot. And they have a lot in my life.

I also had a professor in my life who said before the class started, and this is someone I went to when I was struggling. "I am your teacher. I'm supposed to educate you. I hope you do well in this class. I hope you learned something, but if there's anything else going on in your life, whether you got in trouble or you just broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or you're struggling with your identity, I will be here. You can shoot an email to me. I'll be here after class."

And I'd never really thought I would need that when that class started that fall. But I remember that I was like, "I haven't heard that before." Like I've never heard a professor or coach or anyone, a teacher say that. And who do you think was one of the first people that I went to when I was struggling? It was that guy. And I just went up to him at the end of class. And I was like, "Dude, what you said I'm not doing okay." And that sparked another conversation. And he had resources and people to talk to. So again, he didn't know how to fix things, but just being that human person and keeping that door open, just like, I love this campaign you're doing. Twice say, "Are you okay?" And then even if they say, "I'm fine." Say things like, "If you're not okay ever, I'm here." That can just open up another door.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah. That's so cool. And we really do appreciate you sharing those stories with us and that those personal anecdotes are helpful for people who are feeling the same way. And again, it's always just about making sure that people don't feel like they're alone and knowing that there are probably more people dealing with mental health issues than they think. And it's something we just don't always talk about. Like you said, it's not a broken arm, you can't see it, but it's there. And it's nice to be able to share those stories with people. So before we wrap up today, I was wondering if there was one takeaway you could leave our listeners with today, what would that be?

Andrew Onimus: To end on a really positive note, humans are really resilient and we all are. You should be proud of where you are right now, whether you're sitting at home, whether you're listening to this at night or you're working through something, you're stressed out, keep plugin one step at a time. Something that I held on to during my struggles and when I still do struggle, occasionally, it's just keep on keeping on, one day at a time. I really believe that we're almost through this difficult time of isolation and being different. And we can get back to the normal swing of things, one step at a time, but just keep plugging one step at a time. There are better days ahead.

Megan McCloskey: Yeah. That's awesome advice. And that really is positive and it's cool to see the resilient side of humans and see where you are now after struggling with what you did and to be able to use that passion you have for the subject to help others is really cool. So thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today. This was a really important conversation for us to have now and for us to continue to have as mental health just continues to become a more pertinent topic in the news and in society. I think it's really cool to be able to sit down and share these stories and share your resources.

Andrew Onimus: Of course, and thanks to you and SEI, and your team for doing this 'cause this is important stuff, and you may never hear of one person impacted by this, but I guarantee you there's people out there as these issues are in our lives, ourselves, family, friends, and it's always important to address them and in a preventative hopeful way.

Megan McCloskey: Awesome. Well, thank you, Andrew. And maybe we'll have you back again sometime to share more resources.

Andrew Onimus: Thanks, Meghan.

Megan McCloskey: Thanks, for joining us again on this week's episode of The Intersection and on our World Mental Health Day. For a list of mental health resources mentioned in this podcast, as well as additional global resources, please make sure to visit www.seic.com/intersection. Stay tuned for more conversations with members of our community. And until next time, stay well and take care of yourself and one another. We hope you'll meet us back at The Intersection soon.

Please see a list of mental health resources, some of which are mentioned in this podcast.

U.S. mental health resources:

Source: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml

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