Reflections on the importance of mental health from a public service leader
Recently, President Biden signaled his support for mental health by allocating over $5 billion in the American Rescue Plan to address the issue and by issuing a proclamation that established May as National Mental Health Awareness Month.
Federal leaders like Diane Vu, assistant special agent in charge at the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, have been supporting these efforts by prioritizing the mental health of their colleagues and coworkers.
What were the prevalent views of mental health when you were growing up and how did that affect you?
We never talked about mental health. It was never discussed in my home. If we knew somebody that was suffering from mental health problems, my family would just push it aside and say, “They’ll be okay. We’ll pray for them.” It was never viewed as important as physical health.
With mental health, I suffered with living in two separate worlds because at home I was very Vietnamese and very immigrant. I had to speak Vietnamese with my parents because it was their language. I ate primarily Vietnamese food and had to be a Vietnamese kid—meaning [that I had to] work hard, study and never complain. At school, I spoke English. I ate American food like pizza and tater tots. I was not allowed to fail, which caused a lot of anxiety because I had to be at my best. Even when I was, I received no recognition or validation for my efforts.
When I came to HHS, I knew this was the agency I wanted to be at because of the mission. I have been a supervisor for six years, and I am embarrassed to say that [during] the first few years, I never gave anyone validation. I would give my peers appropriate recognition based on their work, and I was like a robot in that way. It wasn’t until my family sought out a therapist for our teenage daughter’s journey with anxiety and depression that I began to realize the importance of this topic.
You mentioned the importance of validation. Could you say a little more about how you practice it at work?
The practice of saying to my peers, “Great effort today. I appreciate you. Thank you.” doesn’t cost me anything, but boy, do people glow when they hear this. As someone who did not receive this kind of praise, I relied on self-validation and positive thinking. My advice to anyone who feels like they need self-validation is to look to meditation. The practice of meditating has helped me navigate moments of anxiety at work over a task I didn’t complete or an upcoming deadline. When I meditate and work on myself, I can validate my team in a way that strengthens our workplace.
How has the evolution of your views on mental health impacted your work?
I feel that when the whole person is recognized, they bring their best self to the table. When my team thanks me for something, I remind them that there wouldn’t be me without them.
There are various approaches to leadership: leading with fear, leading with collaboration and leading by meeting the person where they are—that is the hardest thing to do. You must have that emotional intelligence to see people differently. The challenge of being a supervisor is that you can’t just call up an employee and say, “What are your struggles? How can I help?” You need emotional intelligence to listen to them and pick up cues without asking. This type of management requires trust-building and active listening to create safe workspaces.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raquel Ibarra is a former member of the Partnership’s Federal Workforce team.