“Most c-suite executives do not trade a corner office for a room at the psych ward” reads the headline on Michael Stutts’s new memoir, There’s No Room Service at the Psych Ward. This unique take on corporate culture and its impact on mental health tells the unflinchingly honest and, at times, humorous story of his dogged pursuit of success and what led him to check into a mental hospital to reset his life.
This Ballast Books author is making a splash, so we caught up with him to hear more about the message behind his book and what he hopes it will do for readers.
Ballast Books: What do you want others to know about the experience of being in a mental hospital?
Michael Stutts: I want them to know three things:
At first, it really is not fun to lose your personal freedom and disconnect from the world. One week in, you realize that everyone should have an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and give up control in the way that it happens in a psych ward.
You learn quickly that you are not alone and that there are brilliant, kind, and successful people going through the same experiences you are in different forms.
You find out everything you ever wanted to know about yourself, whether you like it or not. Either way, you learn how to rely on yourself to be your own best friend and no longer be an enemy to yourself.
BB: What do you think employers get wrong when it comes to supporting their team members' mental health?
MS: There seems to be a belief in an “invisible wall” between people who need help and those who want to help. That feels very true in the workplace, especially with managers who see a detailed, longitudinal view of our daily lives.
Managers and teammates need to know how to ask the questions that get underneath subtle changes in behavior and appearance that indicate that something may not be okay with a peer or direct report. As someone who has been in the position to ask if a colleague was okay and didn’t, only later to be present for that person’s in-office suicide, take it from me: it’s better to be rebuked for asking a question than to be left wondering if interference would have saved a life.
BB: What resources would you recommend for someone experiencing a dark period in their life or career? Or what advice would you give?
MS: Ask. For. Help. Nobody should go through a difficult season alone. Studies show that our inner circles—friends, family members, teachers, or coworkers—are highly likely to want to help. You don’t have to jump straight to therapy and medication; for a huge number of people, just getting feelings into another person’s ear can ease pain. Learning we aren’t alone in our feelings is a massive liberator.
If you do determine that you need professional help, don’t be afraid. Millions of people, including those who fit a very similar profile to our own, are getting treatment. While it’s nice to know that professional athletes and Hollywood actors are in touch with mental health, it’s even better to know that people whose lives look just like ours are getting help too.
BB: What’s one key takeaway from your time in the mental hospital that you’ll always carry with you in your life?
MS: You never know who around you—in your workplace, in your social circles, in your families—is going through something serious enough to warrant inpatient mental health help. For six weeks, I lived among doctors, business owners, and CEOs, each with thriving lives and debilitating crises. Back in the real world, my level of empathy has grown immensely, and I am no longer surprised when I hear that someone is having a tough time. Instead, I try to use my experience to offer as much support as they’ll let me provide.
BB: There’s a big stigma around mental hospitals. How do you recommend someone approaches signing themself into one, especially if they’re hesitant to?
MS: Nobody should want or be excited to go to a place like I went. I wish I didn’t have to go, but I did, and I am thankful that I went. I evaluated the costs of disconnection, lack of freedom, and dollars against the opportunity cost of not going. That analysis took about three minutes once I laid it out properly. You can’t look at the decision to commit yourself to a place like that in a vacuum. Think about your own future and those of your friends and families. If you feel compelled to go, then you know you’re making the right decision for everyone.
BB: What are some warning signs in a company’s culture that show they don’t prioritize the mental health of their employees?
MS: It’s increasingly rare that there is no recognition of mental health as an important part of company culture. However, the bridge between the employee experience and the employer’s words, resources, and promises is rarely built. The most critical connectivity is between manager and direct report. When there is a lack of openness upward and downward about mental health challenges at work, no amount of yoga sessions or puppy visits will solve the deeper issues. Training people managers to look for signs and ask the right questions can go a long way toward building trust and effectiveness in driving a sustainable workplace.
BB: What are your top tips for creating healthy work-life balance and managing your mental health and workload simultaneously?
MS: Steps one, two, and three are to put work in perspective with overall life. When I’m pushing hours and building anxiety about a work project, I always ask myself, “Will I be worried about this 1) tomorrow, 2) next year, 3) on my death bed?” Sometimes, it’s yes to the first, but rarely is it yes to the second and never to the third. There’s no way to completely avoid stress related to work, but balancing the stakes and the strain makes everything more manageable. It acts as a cap to my anxiety and a light at the end of the tunnel that makes the hard work more bearable.
BB: What’s your response to people who say that work should be your priority?
MS: I tell them that I agree. I do not believe that mental health management is mutually exclusive from working hard and succeeding. I am very driven and competitive. I want to win and advance professionally and personally. Keeping my mind at peak performance and overcoming my own limitations is critical in making this happen. A lack of prioritization and productivity from an unfocused mind can kill progress. CEOs need workforces that have this proper balance of drive and self-care to outplay the competition and drive shareholder value.
It’s clear that Michael’s message is one that needs to be widely spread. With plenty of self-care tips and takeaways, lots of room for laughs, and a big dose of nostalgia, There’s No Room Service at the Psych Ward is bound to make those following a similar path feel hopeful and extremely seen. Michael Stutts’s memoir is available now and can be purchased through Ballast Books’ virtual bookstore and everywhere books are sold.