Removing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Posted on August 31, 2012.

I’m on the board of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County. They’re a wonderful organization that in addition to providing direct services works to eliminate the stigma of mental illness.  So I read with interest a recent WSJ article about managing mental health at work. When you think about the fact that “more than 1 in 4 American adults have a diagnosable mental disorder”, you wonder how companies have managed to ignore this issue for so long.

Even with open-minded companies that provide employee assistance programs, divulging your mental health issues to your boss can prove fatal to your career.  While mental illness is just as real as physical illness, the empathy gene seems to be missing in the workplace.  Someone who misses days or weeks because of cancer treatment is supported wholeheartedly, while another who misses days or weeks due to severe depression is ignored at best, and fired at worse. What can companies do to help remove the stigma of mental illness and create the kind of culture that is supportive, not judgmental?

·      Make public some role models who had mental illness.  Some of our greatest leaders and brilliant minds suffered from depression and other mental illnesses, including Churchill, Lincoln, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name a few. Instead of posters like “teamwork” and sports heroes, put up some posters of some of these great people.  Maybe dedicate a wall to people you know have succeeded despite their illness.

·      Communicate what’s really important. By making sure everyone understands that what’s important is results, you’re also letting them know that any personal issues they may have will not impede their ability to move up in the organization. Be clear that you’ll support them 100% as long as they produce.  And if they need time off, you need to treat them the same way you would anyone who needed time off for other reasons, like a pregnancy or an operation.

I don’t know if movie director, Tony Scott, sought he help he needed before his suicide, but I suspect if he was in a more accepting and supportive environment, he might be alive today.