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Why an NBCU exec decided to open up about his clinical depression

Jimmy Horowitz on pink and yellow background.
NBCU executive Jimmy Horowitz struggled with clinical depression in 2019. In fall of 2020 he became an executive sponsor for NBCU's mental health program and opened up about his diagnosis.
Courtesy of Jimmy Horowitz

Jimmy Horowitz has a big job in Hollywood as the vice chairman of business affairs and operations for NBCUniversal. When you watch your favorite movies, TV shows, or news programs, there’s a chance Jimmy did the deal. He’s a lawyer by training, and he runs the business behind the creative.

In 2019, and for the first time in his life, Horowitz was suffering from clinical depression. He kept it a secret for months. 

“In my job, I’m responsible for the money we spend on films. The creative people get a little more leeway to be who they really are. [But] there’s this expectation of being a straightlaced business person, like you don’t have feelings,” he says.

“So I just dealt with it on my own. I basically worked in my office with the door closed and just tried to avoid interaction with people. When you’re going through something like this, you realize everyone’s so busy and they’re also not equipped. I don’t know how many people noticed.”

He told no one until he was asked to be the executive sponsor of NBC Universal’s new workplace mental health program in the fall of 2020. “I decided I couldn’t lead the initiative without sharing my secret, so I invited my boss, Donna Langley [chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group], to dinner and told her why I was so passionate about the issue and shared my story.” Langley told him, “I knew there was something going on for you. I just didn’t know what it was.” 

“She didn’t know how to ask,” Jimmy says. “And therein lies the dilemma. Because it isn’t easy to notice, and it’s hard to start the conversation. How do you ask in a way that isn’t too personal?”

Horowitz has been open about his depression ever since, and colleagues have expressed gratitude but also disbelief that a leader like him might be suffering. 

“I believe that there are many others like me,” says Horowitz. “We all have challenges. I think how you deal with them is important. Being professional even in spite of those things is paramount.” One of the silver linings of the last few years, Horowitz believes, is an increased premium on leaders who are empathetic, compassionate, and more human.

“Before the pandemic, you never left the office before your boss. It was just how it worked in big companies. But it was not productive. We missed being at home with our families. And I think now everyone on my team knows if they’re not home having dinner with their family, it’s their choice. We are not asking them to sacrifice that.”

Like many who occupy corner offices, Horowitz came up in a different world of work, with different expectations. “It was just: How hard did you work? How tough were you? And certainly in my side of the business, it’s important to be respected. I think that there was a sense that if you showed vulnerability that maybe that would have a negative impact on how you were respected at work and by managers,” he says. 

But things are changing, Horowitz continues. “I think we’ve moved to a place where you can be serious, you can be hardworking, you can be tough, you can be determined and ambitious—all those things—and you can be vulnerable and you can be compassionate toward yourself, toward other people. And I think that’s the balance that we are looking to achieve here. And I do believe that our leadership respects that and endorses it.”

The NBCU team worked with clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt to develop protocols and practice to create more mentally healthy work practices, while also maintaining professional boundaries. 

Dr. Anhalt encouraged the team to be open about taking care of their mental health by stating they were taking a mental health day or that they might be having a tough day. At the same time, Anhalt helped leaders establish the skills to create “boundaried vulnerability.” It’s the idea “that we should share enough of ourselves and what we’re going through that we invite connection and that we get the support that we need, without sharing so much that we ask our colleagues to be our therapists.” 

Horowitz agrees that it’s the leader’s job to set up a space where people can get the help that they need outside of work so that they can show up as their best selves inside of work. It’s the company’s job, he stresses, to provide the benefits and access to care that allows employees to get the support they need.

Once he got the support from a good psychiatrist, Horowitz says it felt like a “miracle” when he found the right medication to treat his depression. After trying an SSRI that didn’t work, his doctor tested his DNA and gave Jimmy a completely different kind of medicine, and he started feeling better in about two weeks. 

“By the middle of February 2020 I was feeling almost back to myself, and the feeling of relief and just the exhale that you can do when that happens is indescribable. I know how lucky I am that I have the resources that I have to go and find a doctor and get a test not covered by insurance. Not everyone has that. These are big challenges that I’m very concerned about; there shouldn’t be access for some of us and not for others.”

Over three years later, Horowitz acknowledged that his experience managing depression and serving as executive sponsor for his company’s mental health awareness program changed how he leads and manages. 

“There’s no question that this work and [NBCU’s] focus on mental health and my engagement with it has allowed people to see me very differently. There’s no question that in any situation that I’m in now, whether it’s a negotiation or or any other part of what I do in my role, I come at things from a place of compassion. And if someone’s going through something and you can tell, or if someone says they can’t be on the phone because they have a family emergency, I think it’s better for everyone.

 “Vulnerability doesn’t have to be a weakness. It’s changed me for the better because people now see me for who I am. All of us should strive for that. How could I not be thoughtful and compassionate toward someone who is having their own struggles?”

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