Mental health and wellbeing are firmly on the agenda, with many CEOs responding to the challenges of the past year by championing open conversations and sponsoring initiatives in the workplace. Volt Athletics’ Dan Giuliani is leading by example, by opening up about his personal journey with mental health and his catalyst for long-term change.
Q: Mental health, like physical health, affects all of our lives; however, we may talk or think about it differently. Can you share what mental health means to you?
DG: We think and talk about mental health differently than physical health because we experience them differently. When your leg is broken, you can see it on the x-ray. Your doctor can often communicate a clear and defined definition of the problem and the path towards fixing it. Everyone can see your cast. Even disease or disfunction that is invisible to the human eye often manifests in physical symptoms. We become accustomed to searching for physical causes of physical symptoms and there is some comfort in that.
But mental health isn’t that way. There might be physical symptoms, like persistent chronic pain, that manifest from stress, anxiety, and depression. Or there might not be. There might be a real-world experience that triggers a mental health issue, or it might come out of nowhere and have no root or relationship to the physical world. This makes it challenging, confusing and isolating because your mental health is something only you can experience and it feels like you’re the only one struggling.
For me, mental health is not necessarily about solutions. It’s about management. And it’s about embracing all of life, even the hard parts (which are sometimes REALLY HARD).
Q: What made you want to start opening up more about mental health?
DG: It’s hard to appreciate the importance of mental health until you struggle with it in a material way. I wanted to open up and tell my story to help other people who might be suffering.
Life’s hard, but it’s better together.
So, my story. Looking back, I think I have struggled with mental health most of my life, but it really came sharply into focus when my mother passed away in March 2019 after a 14-year battle with cancer. We were very close and when she died, I was deeply and profoundly shaken from my foundation. I have struggled ever since to regain my footing. Toss in the pandemic, chronic pain, and an inordinate amount of work stress… I was really struggling. I was becoming withdrawn, depressed, and anxious, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
On the recommendation of my sister (who just so happens to be a bad-ass psychology professor at the University of Oregon) and my primary care doctor, I sought help in the form of therapy and psychiatry. These days, I visit with my therapist twice a week and my psychiatrist once a month. I am still working through my challenges, but now I have a strong network of support around me and I’m profoundly grateful for it. The big lesson here? Get the right people around you to give yourself the resources you need. You don’t need to struggle alone.
Until now, I have mostly kept all this private, sharing only with close friends and family. I was concerned that sharing my mental health challenges would be damaging to my company and my professional brand. I wondered if people would treat me differently.
But this feels way too important. It’s too important to help normalize these issues. My hope is that by sharing my struggles, it might enable others who might be struggling in silence to seek help and share their challenges. That’s why I’m opening up now.
Q: As a society, we’re finally starting to address mental health issues. Why is it so important to be doing this specifically in a professional context?
DG: I think it’s critical to bring awareness that people are real and flawed, no matter what they do for a living, or how they seem on social media. We all have fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties. We all have felt imposter syndrome (and often still do!). Sometimes we’re lucky and things break our way and sometimes we’re not and they don’t. Sometimes great processes don’t lead to great outcomes. Sometimes we’re just having really tough days. Life consists of the good and the bad and everything in between.
Q: As an entrepreneur, what do you feel are the consequences of focusing so heavily on success stories?
DG: This is a great question. In startup culture, we are so conditioned to put a positive spin on things and reinforce the ups while sweeping aside the downs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked how things are going over the years. Do you know what I usually say?
“Things are great! Super exciting… xyz just happened and we’re on a great path, etc.” And that’s generally true. But a lot of the time, I’m also muddling through some really difficult problems. Multiple things can be real at the same time. Things can be great and things can be really hard, all at once. That’s the honest experience of building a company. Heck, that’s the honest experience of being human!
Building an amazing business is filled with difficult challenges and sticky problems to solve. Seemingly unlimited fires to put out. Which is, by the way, also what makes it dynamic and fun and totally worthwhile. But that’s not what the public sees. That’s not what LinkedIn shows you. It’s not what Instagram shows you.
You see nothing but success everywhere you look and you wonder why you’re the only one who is struggling. You’re not. We all are, in a myriad of different ways.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on what a new normal—one that addresses mental health more transparently—might look like for entrepreneurs and leaders?
DG: Oh boy, the “new normal.” Since the pandemic hit in 2020, I have been a lot more humble in my approach to predicting the future. So hold this all very lightly, because the new normal is a moving target these days.
But look, I do believe that the toothpaste is out of the tube when it comes to mental health advocacy and awareness. We have all had a really hard couple of years. For real. Like, pretty much everyone, pretty much everywhere, has been materially impacted by this pandemic. Billions of people dealing with fear, illness, isolation, and extraordinary disruption to the world we knew. And many of us have been forced, by the sheer nature of the world slowing down for a while, to reckon with our own mental health in a new way.
For anyone in a leadership position, this means we have a new opportunity to set a standard within our organizations that mental health is of genuine importance. We can lead by example, by prioritizing our own mental health.
We can lead by enacting workplace policies that emphasize balance. And we can lead by demonstrating genuine openness and empathy to others who are struggling. We can lead by being open and honest about the challenges we face in our own lives and by letting our humanity shine through in how we interact with each other.
Q: Do you feel there has been a shift in awareness towards mental health in the sport and physical activity sector more widely?
DG: For sure. I sense it’s mirroring a greater awareness of mental health in society at large. We’re seeing more professional athletes speak openly about their challenges with mental health and we’re seeing more support for them. Athletes are human, just like everyone else, and are working through many of the same issues, plus the extra pressures of competition.
Q: How are you creating a more transparent culture that addresses mental health on your own turf at Volt Athletics?
DG: Well, I’m sharing my story! That’s probably a pretty good place to start. I am not defined by the status of my mental health and neither are you. To me, it’s all about celebrating the whole person in the workplace. We’re all going to have good days, bad days, and everything in between. That’s life. It sucks sometimes. And it’s great sometimes.
Work-life is no different and we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend that everything is always amazing. Sometimes it’s not. And that’s okay. When you truly care about your people, you can ride out the highs and lows together.
Q: Any closing thoughts for us?
DG: In case it’s helpful to anyone who is struggling, I’d like to share some things that have helped me out over the last couple of years.
Find a therapist if you don’t have one already. I resisted this for two decades but trust me, it’s important to have someone in your life who has no interest or agenda other than helping you manage your mental health. This is a huge step down a better path. If you can overcome your own resistance to getting help, you’ll start developing the skills and acquiring the tools to overcome resistance in other parts of your life. Do it. It’s worth it.
Remember that you are bigger than your challenges. Nothing is as bad as it seems and you will get through this.
If you want to read a book that hits the sweet spot of being relevant to mental health without being overtly self-help, check out BREATHE by James Nestor (I prefer the audiobook, but you do you).
Last one: just be gentle with yourself. This stuff is hard and you’re doing the best you can.
If you are struggling, please know that you are not alone. There are free resources available to you, in whatever communication method you feel most comfortable using:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255). If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will work to ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.
Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741. Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
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