Is it Okay to Talk About Mental Health at Work? - Johnny Crowder (Podcast Episode 17)

We have an honest conversation about what it's like to struggle with mental health at work. With guest Johnny Crowder, CEO of Cope Notes.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Hunt

Scripture References​

2 Corinthians 12:6-10
​But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Ephesians 6:10-17
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Additional Resources Referenced​

Cope Notes:

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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Are you okay? No, I mean, are you really okay? This is a conversation that we rarely have at work. Even though one in five Americans struggles with symptoms of mental illness according to the CDC. For those who deal with depression, compulsive behaviors or other mental health challenges, the workplace is the last place that you wanna admit you have a problem. And yet work might be the place where you have the most resources to get help. It's also a place where an increase in mental health makes a big impact, both on you, and on the people around you.

Today on the podcast, we're having an honest conversation about what it's like to struggle with the mental illness at work and what help the Bible can offer us. Our guest is Johnny Crowder, CEO of Cope Notes, which provides daily mental health support via text messages. Cope Notes partners with businesses to boost the mental health of their employees and individuals can also try out the service at Johnny, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Johnny Crowder: Thank you guys so much for having me. I'm pumped up.

LA: We're pumped, were totally pumped to have you. So, just to start off this conversation with a hard question, could you tell me about your personal experience with mental health in the workplace?

JC: Yes, so quick back story on my personal experience with mental health issues as a whole. I grew up in an abusive household, lots of drugs and alcohol in the home, so I'm very fortunate to be sober. And a lot of my symptoms of mental illness started manifesting when I was very, very young... As a toddler and throughout school, I started developing more pronounced symptoms of bipolar I, schizophrenia, OCD. And so, of course, those things are difficult enough in school, but once you get into a workplace where you have legitimate responsibilities and people are depending on you, there were definitely times when I felt like my OCD, specifically my OCD, was a hindrance.

LA: Can you give me specific examples? What did it feel like to be at work with those symptoms?

JC: Well, you know what, I actually am having a flashback to something that I totally forgot. I don't know if my brain blocked it out or what, but, it was the night before I started working at this advertising agency. I was gonna be a copywriter, and I was so nervous because I was so used to freelancing. And when you freelance, you work at home, and all of my OCD tendencies were pretty much contained in my own living space, so I didn't have to worry about someone looking at me or thinking I was weird or having to explain to someone what one of my compulsions or one of my rituals was about. And I remember being so afraid the day before I started work there, that I went over to my buddy's house who's a youth pastor and I literally asked him and his wife to pray over me that my symptoms wouldn't disturb the people that I worked with. So, I think a big part of my concern was, I know how painful it is for me to experience these symptoms. The last thing I want is for it to spill out on the people I work with.

LA: Wow. And did it help going to your youth pastor's house and getting that prayer?

JC: Yeah, I think 'cause he was like, "Think about it, Johnny. If you got this job and God wants you to stay there, then he's not gonna allow the thorn in your side to prevent you from the work he wants you to do there." So he really helped me frame it in a way that... took some of the pressure off of me. Like, if God wants me here the people I work with will understand and this won't get in the way of my work, and then if God wants me to have another job, he'll pluck me out of it.

LA: Now, you mentioned the phrase "Thorn in your side" that's a reference from the Bible. Flesh it out for us a little bit more Johnny, what does this phrase thorn in my side mean to you?

JC: To me, and I've done a lot about this verse recently, actually 'cause I'm doing a mission trip with my church and we're focusing a lot on mental and emotional health, suicide prevention and alcoholism and drug abuse and we had all the leaders get together and talk about really what we're trying to accomplish. And this verse came up and we were just talking about how sometimes we pray and pray and pray to be relieved of something and it's not a guarantee that that... I don't wanna use too negative of a word but it really is like a thorn in my side, is like a pain in my butt, for real how many times have I prayed to God to be rid of OCD or to be rid of schizophrenia or to be rid of bipolar any of the other things I've been diagnosed with or even for example I have an involuntary movement disorder called Tardive dyskinesia and that's something that I worry about a lot when I'm speaking, I'm on stage in front of a lot of people I don't wanna be rocking back and forth or have facial tics or something and I think God has his strategic way of saying no. And I'm pretty sure that verse talks about humility and it's pretty hard to think you're the coolest dude in the world when you can't keep yourself from rocking back and forth, you know.

MR: You know I love your using that passage it's one that I've also thought a lot about in my life. For those who are out there and saying now where do I find this? It's actually in 2 Corinthians and it's in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians in the 12th chapter and he's talking about all the hard things in his life and how he's managed to bear up in all those hard things but then he says that there is this thorn he calls it a thorn in his side, a thorn in his flesh that has given him... And it says, to keep me from becoming proud--so Johnny your connection with humility is exactly right-- and what's beneath that I'm quite sure is Paul's own natural human inclination to be proud and yet he got this thing. Now scholars debate on and on endlessly what it was, he never explained whether it was a physical condition or a mental emotional condition we honestly don't know but what we know is that it was a really painful and hard thing, and then Paul says he begged God three times to take it away. And the answer he got is kind of mind-blowing so God didn't take it away.

God says, first of all my grace is all you need or my grace is sufficient for you so in this hard thing even though I'm not taking it away I'm with you and my grace is there for you and then he goes even further and says, and my power works best or my power is made perfect in weakness so in that struggle, in that pain, in that thing you really wish God would take away actually God is present, God is at work and God's power is often made known through our weakness which is just... It's astounding.

Now that doesn't mean it's fun to be weak or the thorn, thorns gonna hurt, it really will, it's hard and yet in that hardness we experience God's presence and through our humanity and our struggles God's power is actually made known. And that's just an amazing thing because I think most of us, I know I'd certainly say, well look, God actually it would be much better if you would just heal me and then it will be so awesome and everybody would know how powerful you are... And sometimes God does that and that is awesome. But it is also awesome that in the midst of our weakness and our struggle and our pain and the things we really wish God would take away sometimes God is just saying I'm there my grace is here for you and I'm working even in that. And that is a great encouragement to those of us who didn't get the healing and we're still struggling.

JC: Dude, I'm having a trip over here right now based on what you just said because there's something in there that hit different just now, which is like my grace is sufficient. I have this mentality for some reason, but I always wanna help God, He needs me to do something for Him so I'm very... I fall into that favor trap to where I'll say something to God, dude think about how much more we could do together if I was strong and then you were strong and then together we'd get twice as much done and we'd help twice as many people and I forget that like my grace is sufficient.

LA: And the workplace is a place where God throws together a lot of weak people. The workplace really is a place where however healthy or weak we are, we rub up against other people, What's your plan of attack or piece of advice for people who are experiencing mental health issues in the workplace, or who may be working with people who they think might have a mental health issue?

JC: Man, first of all, let me just say this, and this is gonna be controversial, but oh well, I'm pretty sure that everyone on the whole planet has a mental health issue. So let's put that out there right now and just say that none of us are normal, so definitely do your best to not draw that line between us and them. There really is... I mean one of the great equalizing factors of the whole Jesus story is that you're either perfect or you're not, like the moment you made your first mistake, you were on our side of that line, and the only person on the other side is Jesus, and I think that when it comes to mental and emotional health, we like to make it this gradient and there are all these different categories and we're like, "Oh, well, my depressive tendencies aren't nearly as pronounced as my girlfriend's, and she's the one who needs the help or whatever."

So, I would just... I would caution everyone to go ahead and include yourself in the group of people who could benefit from a little bit more focus on mental and emotional health.

And with that being said, I am a firm believer in advocacy. I travel all over and I'll speak at schools, and prisons, and conferences, and churches, and just anywhere I can about mental and emotional health because people see me and they're like, "Oh, that's not what I thought schizophrenia looked like." and I'm like, "Exactly. It doesn't look like any sort of thing." So, I think if you are experiencing any sort of mental health disturbance, or condition, or issue in the workplace, the greatest thing you could do, what would literally make you a hero is being honest about it. And you would be shocked the type of compassion, and love, and support that you might see from people when you don't hide it, when you're authentic, and genuine, and honest.

MR: Well, I know for some, it may be kind of bracing to be told, "You know, you probably have mental issues too." but I actually think there's tremendous both truth and freedom in that. And it's also true that some of the greatest people in history have been people who really have struggled. And most people would say if you say, "Who's our greatest president in United States?" Many would go for Lincoln. He's struggled terribly with what he called melancholy, now we would say clinical depression. At the same time, he was an extraordinary leader, and a great man of faith.

JC: Dude, and... You are... I'm getting all fired up. We're gonna do... Have to do jumping jacks after this recording. 'Cause I think what people need to be free from is the idea that someone expects them to be perfect and flawless. There is no... Like literally, the gospel is written freedom from that expectation, that we are made perfect. We were not born perfect, we like... And I think especially when it comes to mental and emotional health, if we could just give ourselves a break, cut ourselves some slack, and understand that... I mean if you're listening right now, hear me say this, I do not expect you to be perfect. That I think true friends and family don't expect that of you either.

MR: Well, I so appreciate, Johnny, your willingness to put this out there. Some years ago, and Leah knows this part, but I have the privilege of working at Laity Lodge in Texas, part of the HE Butt Foundation. The founder of Laity Lodge was a man named Howard Butt who was an extraordinary bible teacher, preacher, business person, leader, an amazing man. And in the mid-50s, he struggled with serious depression. And out of that experience, a couple of things happened. One is God used him powerfully. And founding Laity Lodge which is this extraordinary place of renewal and faith, a retreat center in the hill country of Texas, but also Howard had the courage to tell his story just to be honest.

And this was in a time when most like Christians believed if you had mental health issues, it must be your problem, your sin, your whatever. And Howard lost friends, lost influence, but he steadfastly told the truth about his life and God's grace. And one of the things that that did is it opened up the possibility for others to say what was true, for others to say what they struggled with. And in my time at Lady Lodge, it was a place of just exceptional honesty, still affirming God's grace and love, but that came because, seriously, one man had the courage to stand up, and say, "Okay, this is true about me,” and that gave people the freedom.

LA: Mark, that's the power, the power that a boss has over a whole organization, that a manager has to set the tone of what is acceptable for employees. I know a lot of times, workplace can be a place where we do the most hiding of what's really going on with ourselves 'cause we're nervous. I'm nervous particularly. I'm nervous about seeing... Being seen as less than, or I'm super nervous about my boss thinking, "Oh, if something was wrong with me, me but I couldn't do my work, maybe that would show poorly on my performance." So, that's such a powerful example, Mark, of what a boss can do for an organization by leading with vulnerability.

JC: Dude, here's something, too, like you mentioned something earlier about the possibility of potentially losing influence, or losing favor because you share some sort of truth about yourself, and I would argue that you are guaranteed to lose favor and influence regardless. There's never been a human, there's actually a Cope Notes text that says this, there's never been a human that everyone unanimously liked. It's impossible. So, the way I see it is, if you're going to lose influence and favor no matter what, isn't it worth losing influence and favor for telling the truth, or for sticking up for somebody, or for being honest, or for sharing your heart? Because the potential, no matter what you say, no matter what you say, you have a chance of alienating someone, or bridging a gap and connecting with someone on a deeper level.

MR: Leah knows this, but Johnny, I was a pastor for many, many years and people share things with pastors that are their secrets. And I remember time after time, there'd be somebody in my church who was just a beautiful successful human being. When I don't know them very well, I'm kind of envisioning their perfect life.

JC: Oh, yeah.

MR: And then these people would come in, and they would share with me the reality of their lives, and they're failing. At first, it was sort of mind-blowing to me because I'm thinking all these incredibly beautiful, successful people have issues, and then after a while, it's like, of course, we've all got issues. I remember one time, two men came in to see me one day, and then the next day, both are very successful business people. And what they needed to share with me in great confidence 'cause they felt huge shame was that they both had serious depression issues. One that even attempted suicide. They were medicated. They'd never told anybody. And so I was so glad they could tell me because I could reassure them and pray for them. And anyway, next Sunday at church, I'm preaching. I look out there, and those guys are sitting next to each other literally. And I remember thinking "Oh, I wish I could just out them to each other."

JC: Yeah.

MR: That would be inappropriate, but if they only knew 'cause I'm sure they're both sitting there thinking, "I'm the only guy in here like this," and I'm thinking, "No, actually the guy next to you is almost exactly the same going with through the same stuff." But we're so afraid to say those things, and sometimes the church is not a safe place, of course, to share the real stuff of our lives.

LA: Mark, do you think being truthful about mental health struggles has a place in secular workplaces?

MR: Well, I could say it should. There's a reality that we have to be wise about what we share with people. I mean let's face it, there are places where if you were completely open about some of your struggles, you might be in trouble. When I was working in Texas, I had this young woman, just out of college, work for me. And it was like her second or third day, and she says something to me like, "Sometimes I have a hard time 'cause I really struggle with depression, I'm on medication." And I thought, "Oh my gosh, you're safe here."

JC: Yeah.

MR: But that might not be the best thing to say in your new job everywhere. So, I do know of secular work places that really are committed to health for their people, and that includes mental and emotional health. I also know that there are work places of all different kinds that are not safe places for people to share certain things and I think people do need to be wise about that, but all of us need at least one place, where we can finally let it down and say who we are and in that place know God's love and grace and acceptance. And there are churches that do that. Some of our churches don't do that, but we need to be that kind of people together.

JC: So from my perspective, someone asked me, "What is your lifelong goal with Cope Notes?” And my answer was, "By the time I die, I want the health conversation to include equal parts of every category." So mental and emotional health will be viewed as an equal part of that pie to physical health. And something that I'm actively trying to combat with my advocacy is... So you said three days into a job, you might not wanna mention that you're struggling with depression, and I think it's interesting that three days into a job, you could say that you sprained your ankle, or three days into a job, you could mention to someone that you are pre-diabetic, but for some reason the mental and emotional health aspect, there's still this element of shame, and I think all of us... Basically the only way that you can eradicate stigma is if every time someone heard a diagnosis, they could immediately think of someone else who has the diagnosis. So then you're not the only one.

So if I told someone I was diagnosed with bipolar I, they might think, "Wow, that guy is crazy." But if their aunt was diagnosed with bipolar I and he knew that, then I wouldn't be so crazy after all. So part of the problem of stigma is that it's going to take a ton of people telling the truth for stigma to be eradicated. So the only way for us to face that stigma is to be those brave few who talk about it like any other physical ailment, and that is gonna hurt. And I've been fired for... I put out a big essay about suicide awareness and I actually was fired from a job the next day and looking back I'm so glad I don't work for someone who thinks that way, and I think in a weird way truth can save us from unhealthy work environments in the first place. So I'd say there's definitely a way to share responsibly and I'm not saying you can say anything and everything always. We all have a gauge regarding what's appropriate and what's not, but I do think that a level of honesty should pervade a workplace, whether it's secular or not.

MR: Yeah, that's so good. And you know we need Christians of influence, who are willing to be open. I mean, I think in recent years, you may remember Rick Warren's son, took his own life, and he had struggled with depression for many years. And Rick and Kay, they have been so open about this thing and I know it's cost them and they've been criticized, but they're putting their integrity and their reputation out and that is having a huge impact but it's not just one or two. We need more folk to risk sharing what's real in their life and the pain in their life, and in particular, I think you're absolutely right, Johnny. There's this weirdness in some places, about mental health, emotional health stuff, but it will be broken down as people have more knowledge to be sure, but then especially as people we respect and love and honor are open about their lives.

MR: Say, Johnny, you mentioned Cope Notes, and Leah and I know about that, but would love to have you share about that because it's really, it's such a creative and just a grace-filled thing that you've created. So, you wanna talk a little bit about Cope Notes and kind of where it came from and what it is, and how people can connect to it if they need to.

JC: Yeah, definitely. So, this is gonna sound like a cop-out, but it's the truth. God made me do it, [chuckle] for real, top to bottom. The whole idea came from prayer, and I'm very lucky to even be a part of it. So, long story short, we send people one text message a day at a random time, and it could be advice or encouragement, or a psychology fact, or a prompt that people can respond and journal back to. And over time, it's a brain training tool that will help you think in healthier patterns over time.

MR: And if somebody listening says, "Oh my gosh, I need that," so what should they do?

JC: Well, if they live in America, they can text Cope, C-O-P-E to the number 33222, and you'll get two weeks for free, no strings attached. And then if you live outside of America, or you live in America and you don't feel like doing the text thing, you can go to, and there's a button right there at the top that can let you try it for free.

MR: I gotta tell you, I honestly didn't know about Cope Notes until I learned that we were gonna talk to you and I went and I visited, and I did in fact sign up, and I love the simplicity of it, but it's also, and I think it's worth saying, there's real research behind it, there's research that actually shows that this kind of input into our brains actually makes a real difference, and what you're doing has real substance even though it's very simple.

LA: So, Mark, what does it feel like to be a new user of Cope Notes? Tell us. You're case study number one.

MR: Well, it is kind of funny, 'cause in the day, usually texts, sometimes texts are from my family and I like those texts, but a lot of times texts are, "Okay, this is a problem, this is work, this is adding to the craziness of my life," which by the way, if I struggle with anything in mental health, it's anxiety. But here is something that I can trust that's a positive input. It can sort of break me out of my mode. And so, it feels like this gift of grace that somebody out there has sent my way.

LA: And Mark, in your recent daily devotionals, you've been writing about the armor of God as it's written in Ephesians. And there's this... I don't know how much it relates to what we're talking about today, but I'm thinking of the negative thought patterns that arise internally and the negative stimulus that comes from the outside of us as assaults on our mental health. And Mark, you've been writing about building up this armor of God, as Ephesians talks about. And I hear Johnny's ministry through Cope Notes as another way to do this, that people could put on the armor of not only positive thoughts, but of a network of people outside themselves who are adding to these positive comments.

MR: Well, amen to that. And one other piece of armor we put on is the belt of truth. Now, clearly, that's the truth of God revealed in Scripture, but it's not only that. There's other truth. There's truth that we need and truth is part of what protects us and prepares us. And so it can be the truth that’s in Cope Notes. It's also the truth of saying who we really are, right? So, it's the openness to say, "Yeah, I'm a broken and fallen human being, but by God's grace, here I am, and God is better than I could ever imagine, but I'm still... I'm not perfect." [chuckle] And so, again, the truth of honest confession. So, what Johnny's talking about and just his life is a whole lot about the belt of truth.

LA: This is a really fantastic conversation today. I wonder Johnny, do you have last words of encouragement or advice for people who are listening to this podcast at work or on their lunch break and struggling within themselves?

JC: Yeah. So, a couple of real quick points. So, we hear at the beginning of the episode, you mentioned that one in five adults are experiencing symptoms of mental illness. But another statistic that I think is even more compelling is nearly half, so over 46%, of Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime. So, it goes from one in five to one in two. And then my favorite statistic of all, so let's say one in five adults experience symptoms of mental illness today, but five in five adults have mental health. Literally, everyone with a brain inside of their body, the topic of mental health applies to you. So, I just want anyone who may be listening who's actively trying to exclude themselves, you don't have to. You and your best friends and your worst enemies and your family and your co-workers and the people you look up to and your heroes and the celebrities you see on TV, everybody experiences some variation, some flavor of the things that you experience.

And we like to put ourselves in categories. But truthfully, that's the freedom of the Gospel is that we don't need categories anymore. We're all on one level playing field. And I think the sooner you can embrace the fact that you have a brain and that things can misfire in there sometimes, you are completely free of condemnation, you are completely free of self-stigma and self-judgment, and you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I have room to improve and so does everybody else." So just love yourself because Leah and Mark and I all love you already, so you need to catch up.

LA: Amen to that. We second that.

MR: Yes.

LA: We sure do. Mark, do you have any last words in this topic?

MR: Well, I just really wanna say to you, Johnny, thank you for your openness and your wisdom and your courage because you are one of those that's opening this up for others in a way that I know is costly to you. And yet, it's costly in the way that incarnational love is costly. And so, I would just wanna thank you for your honesty and your love for people and your faithful testimony to the Lord's grace in the midst of real life. It's a real gift to all of us.

JC: Thank you guys so much for having me. I would still have to do those jumping jacks. Either way, you can do them with me or not, but I'm pumped up still.

LA: Thank you so much, Johnny. It's been our great pleasure. Thank you.

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