January 13th, 2020

My younger brother’s journey

Mo Bro William Johnson on his brother's journey with depression.
Men's Health | Mental Health | In the Barber Chair
1 MIN READ
 

I grew up with two brothers—one three years younger than me and one three years older. Yes, I was the middle child, but I didn’t suffer any sort of middle child syndrome. No, I had a virtually perfect upbringing: lots of friends, good at sports, excelled in school, went to university, got a job right away, then moved to the west coast (Vancouver), and by any measure, I am living a wonderful life.
 
My younger brother’s journey wasn’t as smooth as mine. He suffered from major mental health issues, struggling throughout high school, and then ultimately having to abandon his first shot at post-secondary studies. His challenges also put significant stress on our family, especially my mother, though we did our best to support him throughout this turbulent time in his life.
 
Fast forward to today, however, and fortunately, he is doing great. In fact, a few months ago I had the pleasure of attending his convocation in Ottawa where he received a diploma from Algonquin College. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
 
My brother and I have had very different experiences, but throughout all of it, I learned a lot from him. First, I learned that people suffering from mental illness are regular people. They’re fun, intelligent, and incredibly resilient. I know this because I know my brother, and I’ve seen what he’s capable of.
 
Second, I realized that people like me, who haven’t suffered through any major mental illness, actually gain a lot from being a part of the lives of people who have. I know this because growing up with my brother has taught me many things—skills and insights—that have benefitted me in my life and in my work. The two that have helped me the most are: being able to listen and being empathetic.

I attribute many of my professional achievements to my ability to communicate; but what I think has been even more critical has been my ability and willingness to listen. Everyone knows the proverb: “You have two ears and only one mouth. Therefore, we should listen twice as much as we speak.” There’s a reason why this is so powerful—it’s true!

 
“Growing up with my brother has taught me many things—skills and insights—that have benefitted me in my life and in my work. The two that have helped me the most are: being able to listen and being empathetic.”
 

When someone is struggling, and they’re sharing their thoughts with you, you can be tempted to want to respond with an answer that will solve their problems. You might feel like you have to do something about what they’re saying. But I’ve learned that people actually appreciate it when you just continue to listen—when you actually hear the words they’re saying and acknowledge them. My brother would say, “heed” and “don’t try to fix it.”
 
However, he would also stress the importance of empathy. It’s something I had to learn about, and I’m very grateful that I did.
 
Empathy is a superpower. It’s how you establish a relationship with someone. It’s how you build a connection with them. You try to see things from their perspective; you find something inside yourself that you can link to their point of view; you then share that with them; and in doing so, you bring each other closer. This is one of the ways I’ve learned to be there for people in my life that have struggled with mental illness.
 
I’ve also found that empathy is important for any situation where you need to bring people together to achieve a common goal. For me empathy has been critical to my career success and leading my team at work. Seriously, it just might be the ultimate management skill. And while I call it a superpower, I believe it’s one that we all have inside of ourselves and that we can make stronger, like a muscle, by exercising it.
 
If it weren’t for my family and brother’s experiences growing up, I’m not sure I would’ve ever appreciated the importance of active listening and empathy. Which means I would’ve been missing an important part of who I am, and I may not actually be where I am today. So, thank you brother for your role in shaping who I am. I can only hope that I’ve had a positive impact on who you’ve become.