I cannot actually remember the moment I decided to talk about my own mental health issue in the workplace. I do know why it happened and the environment that made it possible. I was working for the Canadian Mental Health Association, and a significant part of my job was talking about stigma. I realized that this was my real opportunity to lead by example. The first time I talked about living with an anxiety disorder, as a part of my job, was to a reporter, and it was simply because they asked me. I had not been lying in the past, it was just that no one had asked, and frankly I hoped they would continue to not ask.
For the 1 in 5 Canadians living with a mental health issue the reality is that stigma is often as likely to impact their lives as the symptoms they experience. Here are my personal top 3 terrifying experiences (many I have heard echoed by others):
-telling a doctor or medical professional who is treating you for the first time, especially if this is in an emergency situation where you want to be taken seriously
-telling someone you are starting a relationship with
-telling a colleague or employer
What is it that we are afraid of? Not being taken seriously, not being heard, judgment of weakness or inferiority. If you live with a mental health issue, chances are you have had following experiences:
-a medical professional has told you that what is happening is all in your head or you are wasting their time (in my case this happened while I had an artery closing- so that was embarrassing I guess)
-someone you care about has been exasperated about how to help you
-you have had your employment threatened
Health. Love. The ability to support yourself. These are key determinants of a healthy life that can all be undermined by a mental health issue and the stigma and self-stigma that come with it.
Last week, as part of Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada, our Manitoba Association of Community Health (MACH) partners hosted a one day workshop facilitated by ACHIEVE for managers to talk about supporting mental health in the workplace, and, in particular, what to do when a staff person is experiencing an issue or requires time off or accommodation. This links to the work we are doing across MACH and at Klinic and SERC in adopting the national standard for psychological health in the workplace.
These situations can often be very difficult and create angst in the workplace when other staff see changes being made as part of an accommodation, but management is unable to share a significant amount of information. Accommodations can be complex and include all kinds of things, like changes to hours, location, work duties etc. Complicating the issue is that at times this can affect other employees whose support is key to a successful workplace re-entry.
So what can you do when you see a colleague struggling? Or returning from time off?
-treat them as you would any colleague who has been experiencing a health issue
-ask what you can do to help, if that seems appropriate
-do not avoid conversation; welcome them back, take the time to check in
-be empathetic, not sympathetic
-do not question or complain to your colleague about the possible impact of their absence
I was 16 when I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That was more than half my life ago. Here are things that I would want others to know about my life since:
-being diagnosed was empowering for me and allowed me to learn about myself and what might help
-medication changed my life; that is not true for everyone, but taking medication can be and often is the most stigmatizing experience (which is why that did not happen until I was 22)
-a supportive health team, counsellor, family, and employer can also be life changing when required
I no longer feel defined by this issue and it has very little impact on my day-to-day life; however, the experiences of my late teens and early twenties will likely stay with me forever, particularly every time I had to disclose to someone who perpetuated my own self stigma.
I also want to share why I am writing about this today: it is because in that workshop, one of the discussions that came up is how the culture of silence in a workplace perpetuates stigma, and the role of leadership. During this discussion a member of our team asked me if I would write about my own experiences, so I am, because once again, I was asked.