Editor’s Note: Jewel Kilcher is a singer, songwriter and author living in the Rockies. She’s an advocate 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 peer-to-peer virtual mental health community. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @jewel. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Just over two years ago now, I lost my dear friend Tony Hsieh, the longtime visionary CEO of Zappos. The company, primarily because of Tony, was renowned for its focus on employee well-being and consummate customer service.
Losing Tony was a shock to the world. He died from complications of smoke inhalation, having been trapped in a fire. Tragically, the news of his death was accompanied by revelations of his mental health struggles.
Tony and I were building a company together when he died. It was aimed at creating the next frontier of corporate culture, one that would help deliver lasting happiness by offering mental health tools for the workplace. It was the sort of venture that, I believe, could have helped him.
Mental health challenges 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 US adults believe the nation is undergoing a mental health crisis, and one out of four adults believes work is a major source of stress. And according to the World Health Organization, depression costs the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity.
In our collective hurry to embrace intellect and conquer new territory and frontiers, it seems too many in corporate America have overlooked mental and emotional health — key ingredients for long-term success.
In the not-so-distant future, every family, organization, college and corporation should have a chief mental health officer, or a strategic plan for the mental health of those in their care. This is how we can not only invest in people as students and employees, but as humans with brains and feelings. And it’s how we can make good on the traditional investment we, as a society, have made in identifying and cultivating rare talents by not only helping them have the resources they need in school or work to excel, but, more importantly, the resources they need to be happy.
When I was growing up, I certainly did not have access to those 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 who is caught up in a cycle of misery — whether it involves mental health, addiction or poverty — has to learn a new way of being. I could see that just as I had a genetic inheritance that might predispose me to diabetes, I also had an emotional inheritance that might predispose me to mental health challenges.
I wanted to believe I could beat the odds. But that meant I needed a plan that might tip the scales in my favor. I needed to learn a new emotional language, but sadly I didn’t have the resources for adequate mental health care or a school to teach me. So I set off on my own to see if happiness was indeed a learnable skill.
I began to develop a set of practicable skills 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 about being responsible for my own happiness. And I wrote “Hands” in an attempt to quit shoplifting, and when my hands reached out to steal, or my fear of going hungry and homeless took hold, I learned to put pen to paper and write instead. Even though I found these skills on my own, I hope that in the near future, companies will be able to offer resources that provide a variety of tools to help employees cope with mental health challenges.
Twenty-one years ago, I created the nonprofit Inspiring Children Foundation to help kids who fall through the cracks of traditional mental health systems. Under the oversight of a clinician, the program offers behavioral health tools and a comprehensive plan to inspire children to figure out 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.
It turns out that, yes, happiness is a learnable skill. No matter our histories, we can all heal, grow and be high-performing people in healthy ways. But it certainly helps to have an employer’s support.
It’s time for more leaders in corporate America to add a new line item to their profit and loss statements. The mental health and well-being of each employee, from the mailroom to the C-suite, is paramount.
Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States. En Español: Linea de Prevencion del Suidio y Crisis: 1-888-628-9454.