Editor’s note: Jewel Kilcher is a singer, songwriter and author living in the Rockies. She advocates for mental health support and helps provide free resources through NotAloneChallenge.org. Her Inspiring Children Foundation works to transform the lives of at-risk youth struggling with anxiety and depression. And she recently co-founded Innerworld, a virtual peer-to-peer mental health community. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @jewel. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.
A little over two years ago, I lost my dear friend Tony Hsieh, the longtime visionary CEO of Zappos. The company, mainly because of Tony, was renowned for its focus on employee well-being and impeccable customer service.
Losing Tony was a shock to the world. He died of complications from smoke inhalation, after being trapped in a fire. Tragically, the news of his death was accompanied by revelations about his mental health issues.
Tony and I were starting a business together when he died. He aimed to create the next frontier of corporate culture, one that would help deliver lasting happiness by offering mental health tools for the workplace. It was the kind of adventure that I believe could have helped him.
Mental health issues like the ones Tony faced are far too common in today’s society. Mental health is a non-partisan global issue that is not yet widely recognized or acknowledged. Meanwhile, a 2022 CNN-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 90% of American adults think the country is going through a mental health crisis, and one in four adults thinks work is a major source of stress. And according to the World Health Organization, depression costs the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
In our collective rush to embrace the intellect and conquer new territories and frontiers, it seems too many corporate Americans have overlooked mental and emotional health – key ingredients for long-term success.
In the not-too-distant future, every family, organization, college, and business should have a mental health lead or strategic plan for the mental health of those they care for. This is how we can not only invest in people as students and employees, but also as humans with brains and feelings. And that’s how we can recoup the traditional investment that we, as a society, have made in identifying and cultivating rare talent by not only helping them have the resources they need in school or at work to excel, but, more importantly, the resources they need to be happy.
When I was young, I certainly did not have access to these resources. I moved out on my own when I was 15, knowing full well that statistically kids like me end up repeating the cycle of abuse and addiction that caused me to leave home in the first place. To be happy, someone caught in a cycle of misery – whether it’s mental health, addiction, or poverty – must learn a new way of being. I could see that just as I had a genetic heritage that could predispose me to diabetes, I also had an emotional heritage that could predispose me to mental health issues.
I wanted to believe that I could beat the odds. But that meant I needed a plan that could tip the scales in my favor. I needed to learn a new emotional language, but unfortunately I didn’t have the resources for adequate mental health care or a school to teach me. So I set out on my own to see if happiness was indeed a learned skill.
I started developing a practical skill set to train my brain to behave differently – starving old habits, while building new ones. I wrote songs like “Who Will Save Your Soul”, about my life’s mission to learn to be responsible for my own happiness. And I wrote “Hands” in an attempt to stop shoplifting, and when my hands reached out to steal, or my fear of being hungry and homeless set in, I learned put pen to paper and write instead. While I found these skills on my own, I hope that in the near future companies will be able to offer resources that offer a variety of tools to help employees deal with mental health challenges. .
Twenty-one years ago, I established the nonprofit Inspiring Children Foundation to help children who fall through the cracks of mainstream mental health systems. Under the supervision of a clinician, the program offers behavioral health tools and a comprehensive plan to inspire children to discover who they are and who they want to become. And Innerworld, another company I recently co-founded, offers mental health solutions accessible to everyone. People from all walks of life can find effective mental health support for a wide range of issues, from generalized anxiety to social anxiety, stress, grief, and depression, among others.
Turns out, yes, happiness is a learned skill. Regardless of our stories, we can all heal, grow, and be high achievers in healthy ways. But it certainly helps to have the support of an employer.
It’s time for more US business executives to add a new line item to their profit and loss accounts. The mental health and well-being of every employee, from the mailroom to the C-suite, is paramount.