The public attitude around mental health isn’t exactly positive, especially when you step into an office where you’re expected to keep your personal life a secret. As one young professional writes in an article published in The Atlantic, “The stigma that surrounds mental health is suffocating, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with most of my friends and family, and certainly not my boss or colleagues.” Yet it’s still a part of their daily life, so the pressure to hide it or the notion that it’s a source of shame often comes at the expense of one’s health.
So when public figures and successful business leaders are willing to publicly share their stories to destigmatize mental health in the workplace, we should listen. One such advocate is Jen Gotch, the founder of the nostalgic, stylish, and endlessly upbeat brand Ban.do. Indeed, Gotch doesn’t frame her mental health as a weakness. Instead, she’s creating a culture of transparency, authenticity, and empowerment by showing others what it’s like to live with anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADD, both the ups and the downs, all while running a flourishing brand.
We spoke with Gotch to learn more about why it’s important to break down the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace and were left feeling inspired by her bold optimism and the way she channels vulnerability into empowerment, growth, and creativity. Read on to hear from her and to get a sense of her killer attitude and sense of humor.
What sort of barriers have you have overcome so far in your career?
Well, you know, the personal barriers are the biggest ones. I feel like I’ve had it pretty easy in my life—there weren’t huge financial things. I mean, obviously, entering into business without having any prior experience with what I’m doing I’m sure was a barrier, but I didn’t recognize it as one, so it didn’t feel like one. I’m pretty keen on problem-solving and not focusing on barriers or obstacles. I’m always looking for a workaround. But I would certainly say that the whole mental health thing has gotten in my way. You could pretty much draw a straight line to some emotional issue or ADD or whatever that is, and again, somehow I’ve been able to still do it. When I get to place where I feel really good, I’m like, How was I doing that? I honestly feel like that’s been the only barrier, and I don’t even know that I would look at it that way.
That’s an interesting perspective—that the word “barrier” isn’t an accurate descriptor. It’s also interesting that you say the biggest obstacles are in your personal life because I don’t know if you can separate my private and professional life so neatly. When one’s bad, the other doesn’t feel great either.
It’s been interesting because when you grow a company and you hire employees, some of those employees are strangers. So you sort of move out of your intimate comfort zone and come to realize a lot more about yourself as you’re exposed to all sorts of different people. And I feel like the one thing that I learned about myself is that I just don’t focus on obstacles. I’m just not that kind of person. I know a lot of people like that. I have family members—my ex-husband is like that—and it’s just not my way. I don’t know why I’m like that, but I feel grateful.
So I was looking at one of your Instagram posts from your birthday, and you posted two images, one of your birthday cake that looked celebratory and another one about how you woke up feeling depressed. So on those days when you’re in that headspace, is your mindset still as optimistic or does it change?
You know, there are certainly times where it’s hard to find hope and gratitude and optimism when you’re feeling super shitty. There have been a couple really low lows in my life when I lost all sense of that, but I feel like I have a really good life in so many ways. I try to keep that as a touchstone and know that even if the downs last a long time, there is an up. The pendulum always swings for me. And it helps to talk about it. It’s helped me a lot to be able to talk about it in a public way.
Do you have any advice for people under different circumstances? You know, if there’s no booming career or a passion or a support system, something like that.
I definitely had all that too. To me, the biggest thing is I didn’t have to struggle with a broken home and total financial instability. I mean, there was definitely a point in my 20s when my parents were like, we’re cutting you off, this is crazy, but they weren’t going to have me live off the street. I definitely ate ramen for six months, but I knew there was a safety net even if they said there wasn’t.
But that being said, I went a very long time without any idea of what a career would be. I couldn’t keep a job. I was very sad. It breaks my heart when I think about people like that because, like you mentioned, there are people who have way worse situations. At its core, finding something, anything, each day to be grateful for has always helped me. Even if it’s a trivial thing, there’s always something. And if you can’t find anything, you’ve got to find someone to talk to professionally.
You mentioned that it’s been really helpful for you to talk about this publicly. What has it been like opening up to the world? What about it has been good for your process?
It’s been mostly positive. It’s funny—I was asked a question about it yesterday, and they framed it as “Are you worried about losing vendors or people not wanting to work with you?” And I’m not really worried about it. I think that the people who will go away would just go away quietly. And it’s a personal story, but it doesn’t feel super controversial to me.
Although I advocate for mental health awareness, I don’t feel like it’s preachy. I just think it’s about exposing my story because people find it relatable and the amount of positive feedback I get—which is mostly private, like DMs—would be enough to make me want to quit my job and do it all the time. So I feel like it’s not only been important to my process—it’s almost like a diary now. It’s like my life is being chronicled in a really effective way, so it helps me. And then to be lucky enough to have positive reinforcement helps too.
Sometimes it feels a little awkward to come into the office after I know I’ve been really public about something and know that some people are worried and some people might feel a little uncomfortable, or I might have triggered something with their own lives. We’re a primarily female business here, but we have a parent company, and it has a lot of men working there. My boss is a man. He’s really worked hard to understand what it means for me and my job and our business, and I couldn’t be luckier in the fact that they’ve never made me feel threatened in any way.
And I know that a lot of people don’t have that, which is why it’s important. I feel like it would be crazy for me not to, because I’m in a super-advantageous position where I’m a founder of a company, thus far my creativity hasn’t really been compromised, and that’s my job. So I’m valuable at this point—people will figure out a workaround for the days where I can’t get out of bed. So I don’t know—that could change tomorrow, and sometimes I worry about it, but I try not to let it stand in the way.
Okay, so two-pronged question. On one hand, how do you draw boundaries that create a professional and productive environment and then at the same time make it a place where people who work for you can feel validated on a more human level and also understood if they too are having days where they can’t get out of bed?
Boundaries have never been my strong suit. I feel like it’s changed a lot over the last year and a half, which was also a really rough time personally and professionally. We were a team of five for many years, and it was very intimate. I mean, we weren’t having sex with each other, but you know, it felt familial and very safe. And then we moved to 10 and that still felt great, and I think we’re at about 40 now. And so I did have to kind of learn a little bit about what that was going to look like. It felt scary for me to be super emotional at work because it’s not people I know and love. It was a like a real loss of intimacy.
I remember a day shortly after my husband (who’s from Australia, so not only did we separate, but he moved to another hemisphere), something happened on a conference call, and I just lost it. Something just triggered me, and I was in the stairwell just a mess. One of the girls who’s been here for a long time said “I think you have to go home.” She sort of picked me up and put me in the car. Whereas before I feel like I would’ve just walked around the office sobbing. So I feel like as far as the way I operate in the office, I have to tone some of that down. Now a lot of the girls follow me on social media, and I feel like the girls who are going through something similar or feel like they can relate will usually just talk to me through Instagram so their privacy is protected.
I’m curious about that balance because I work in a completely different office environment where real raw expressions of emotion aren’t something we see. I mean, I’m sure we all have access to them, but it’s monitored in the office setting. So it’s interesting to think about the difference between those two atmospheres. You know, you have this thriving company, but you also ditched most of the stereotypical expectations of what it means to be business appropriate.
I think part of it is that I didn’t study business. I never intended to be a businessperson. I’m a creative, so the ideas behind the business were always very human even before that became popular, and then when we eventually sold the company—it wasn’t like a big corporate merger or anything—the couple who bought it are very similar to me. They say what they’re feeling, and their boundaries are similar to mine. And so it was almost like a bit of a reinforcement that it’s okay to act this way at work. And unless I’m really compromised, I think I know when I’m pushing the limit of appropriateness. I don’t know—we’re about to get an HR person next week, and she can probably tell me.
So switching gears a little bit about where you find inspiration, do you have any role models or figures you look up to in your life?
I would be remiss if I didn’t say Oprah, since she’s everybody’s inspiration. But outside of that, every time someone asks me this question, I just don’t know because it’s all over the place, and it’s all sorts of people. I know people who are like “My inspiration is Audrey Hepburn,” but I just don’t operate that way. I have friends who have helped pave the way for using their position of power to be transparent and real in a way that makes people feel really good. Even watching the girls here get better at things and take over things I used to do is super inspiring. You wouldn’t know who the people who inspire me were if I told you their names. Maybe the answer is just everyone, one way or another.
Have you ever received any advice that just stuck with you?
It’s funny—my mom will be flattered if we can mention her because feels like I pay too much attention to my dad. But when I was young, she told me “Dare to be different.” Of course, I was like, “Mom, I don’t want to do that.” But I find myself coming back to that a lot throughout my life. And I probably take it to an extreme a lot of times because I just feel like different is good, not bad, and it’s helped me because a lot of what I’ve done in my life, and even in Ban.do has been counter to what was popular. And I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing, and for a lot of people, if they’re not with the grain, it’s too scary. So that was really good advice, even though I resisted it for a huge chunk of my life because you know, advice from your mom is sometimes annoying.
And finally, what quality in yourself do admire an value the most?
My cool dance moves. No, I think I like my sense of humor. It’s helped me out a lot, and I kind of like the part where I don’t have boundaries at times. It gets me in trouble sometimes too. But when people say, “Oh, I could never do or say that,” and I think, like, Oh, I’m grateful that doesn’t weigh on me. But we may flash forward a year and I’ll be in prison or something because of something I said because of my lack of boundaries, so that isn’t lost on me either.
Why I Keep My Bipolar Disorder Secret at Work. The Atlantic. August 22, 2013.