Kevin Dean

Kevin Dean is CEO of the Momentum Nonprofit Partners. His previous positions include executive director of Literacy Mid-South, community services director at Volunteer Memphis and director of development at Hope House. He is currently a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University.

Employees with mental health diagnoses are assets, not liabilities

By Published: April 24, 2019 5:02 PM CT

Hi, I'm Kevin Dean. I am the chief executive officer of a nonprofit in Memphis, and I was diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder nearly 20 years ago.

For me, a typical day revolves around a weighty feeling similar to trudging through the mud with no easy escape route. This feeling often forces me to fake my way through entire days of meetings, lunch appointments and conference calls in order to show up the way people need me to show up.

<strong>Kevin Dean</strong>

Kevin Dean

You’re wondering how I can lead at full capacity battling such a persistent mental challenge. Three things: medication, unwavering purpose and a rigorous schedule. How I experience mental health is stabilized by demanding professional obligations: leading an organization, doctoral studies and teaching at a local university.

Leaning on high productivity to cope is very much a shared sentiment as a recent study conducted by Unum revealed that “employment provides five categories of psychological experience that promote well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort and purpose, social identity and regular activity.” Throughout my professional career, remaining tethered to a strong sense of purpose has allowed me to outperform my diagnosis by remaining in safe, productive and supportive environments, where I can focus on serving others and not my own chemical imbalance. 

Sharing this truth about myself in The Daily Memphian may be deemed brave and/or career-altering, but it shouldn’t be. Public acknowledgement of your mental health state cannot continue to be an anomaly. However, the ingrained stigma surrounding mental illness carries weight in a society that has yet to normalize the conversation.

Depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness are still characterized as a weakness, and some view diagnosis as a disqualifier for employment, let alone leadership positions. I’ll offer a rebuttal: Productively balancing commitment against mental health struggles pushes me to thrive and conquer beyond a diagnosis. People with mental health diagnoses are not liabilities; they are assets.   

Honestly, mental illness and its correlation to empathetic and proactive leadership have a long, quiet history together. Winston Churchill, for instance, referred to bipolar disorder as his “black dog.” Researchers and psychologists now believe leaders with depression demonstrate deeper empathy, and they often provide a more accurate assessment of problematic circumstances. Referred to by psychologists as “depressive realism,” many leaders with depression lead exceptionally well in times of crisis by better addressing problems through a more practical, realistic lens. Perhaps this is the reason Churchill led Great Britain to success when competent and well-regarded Neville Chamberlain could not.  

If you struggle with mental illness, you are not alone. Annually, one in five of us experience one of its many forms. You should know that acknowledging your mental health status is the first step to emerging triumphant and being an instrument of change. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted. But there are some things in our world to which men of good will must be maladjusted.”

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and employers and their board members should use this as an opportunity to start deeper conversations about employee mental health.

If you’re not ready to have the conversation, consider this. On average, $17 billion in lost productivity happens annually in the U.S. workforce due to unaddressed health concerns, according to results revealed in "An Employer’s Guide to Behavioral Health Services."

Now ask yourself a few more questions: Do your insurance policies contain adequate mental health provisions for staff? Do you offer flexible paid time off for both physical and mental health? Does your executive staff know how to handle and make referrals for mental-health issues that show up in the workplace? Is mental health still stigmatized in your workplace? How do we support those with psychological conditions? What policies are in place to ensure a comfortable, safe environment for all? These are questions we must ask ourselves, starting today.

As a leader, understand your role in normalizing the conversation and engage fellow leaders in the process to create safe and neutral spaces for employees to share their mental health experiences and thrive.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at


Mental Health Employment

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