Interview
23/05/2024

The invisible suffering

None

It's a Thursday in September 2023 when everything becomes too much for Lena. Lena actually has another name, is about 40 years old and works for Burda. Lena is a doer. In her job she has always been reliable, committed and mostly happy. She is the one who tackles everything, the one with good ideas and the one who always works. After a series of personal crises, Lena's life changes abruptly: she separates from her husband, moves out of the flat she shares with her daughter and starts all over again.

And it's not easy: childcare, work, a new flat, family, divorce, everyday life – Lena feels increasingly under pressure. She cries a lot and has no energy. Then there are the dizzy spells. "That's the stress," Lena thinks. A few weeks later, she collapses and ends up in hospital. She spends a night in hospital, is examined and nursed back to health. The result: nothing wrong with her. That day marks the beginning of Lena's battle with depression and anxiety.

"You grasp at any straw" 

Lena doesn't realise how bad she is until it's too late. The thought that things will get better keeps her going. "I tried to wait it out. You grasp at any straw," she says. Exercise, meditation, walks, talking to friends – it all helps for now. She feels exhausted, cries a lot, suffers from dizziness and fainting spells. "I was empty inside. Always tired. I couldn't go out for a month, not even to take out the rubbish. And then comes the despair: after all, there is her daughter, who needs her mother. Everyday life to cope with. Friends and family demanding explanations and bills to pay. Lena can't cope with any of it. As her symptoms worsen and she becomes increasingly listless, she makes a decision: I have to change something.

The first step to recovery

"Admitting the thought 'I need help' was difficult at first. Because at first she was just disappointed in herself. And also surprised: "You don't expect it to happen to you". Despite the strokes of fate and periods of stress, she always managed to cope. The support of friends and family also helped her to decide to seek professional help. Most of them are understanding and supportive. But not all of them: "Anyone who gets offended after a few unanswered messages and thinks that advice like 'take a few days off' is the solution is not a friend." Today, Lena is radical and cuts such people out of her life.

"You only know what depression feels like when you're in it. Thinking it would go away with time was my biggest mistake," she says. After Lena's hospital stay, she is referred to a psychotherapist. She is lucky in the waiting list and soon gets a place in therapy. It was the first step towards recovery.

"Everyone in my team knows"

The change is also noticeable in Lena's work environment. Her manager recognizes that Lena needs help and supports her: "She recognized the seriousness of the situation and spoke openly to me. I never felt I had anything to be ashamed of". She is grateful for that. Her boss's response also means that Lena can now be open about her illness. "Everyone in my team knows," she says. More importantly, her colleagues are understanding of her situation. Lena can work from home whenever she wants, and her colleagues bring her lunch to the office if the canteen is too busy for her. If she needs more time to complete tasks, there is no pressure. And Lena appreciates that: "I'm lucky to have a team at Burda. If I had to hide, my symptoms would get worse."

Without fear or shame

And that is why she now advocates total transparency. She also advises her colleagues to do the same when they tell her about their worries, fears and problems. Before her therapy, Lena contacted the Fürstenberg Institute. The professional advice of the experts there helped her. "In the beginning, I needed these conversations, if only to change my perspective and understand that it's okay to accept help. The experts advise Lena to seek therapy. "If I had talked to someone earlier, I would have saved myself a lot of suffering." That's why it's important for her today: not to be afraid or ashamed of needing help. Anyone who has the strength and courage should be open about their mental illness and ask for help.

"What mentally ill people don't need is good advice”

What they do need is the right framework. It is crucial that people respond in the right way. "What mentally ill people don't need is good advice: 'Go to a bar, do sports or go on holiday' – that doesn't help.  Offers of dialogue, a sympathetic ear and understanding do. However, especially in a professional environment, constant questions or offers of help can also be stressful and create pressure, says Lena. That is why it is important to ask first whether the person concerned wants to talk about it or not. I'm here if you want to talk" – a simple sentence that almost always works.

Another insight from Lena's experience: "When I go to the office, I shower, put make-up on and get dressed. I look healthy. People who don't know me don't notice anything at first. Mental illness is invisible – which is why it is so important for people to be able to talk about it and for those around them to be made aware. This also – and perhaps especially – applies to managers.

Lena is feeling better today. She is not well, but she usually manages to get up in the morning, drive to work, talk to people, go shopping and put her daughter to bed at night. "If there's one thing I wish for, it's that we talk more about mental illness. Be sensitive. Ask questions and listen. Show understanding, get informed. Your reaction can be the decisive step for those affected to come to terms with the illness".

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