Working With Mental Health Stigma

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“I was treated for anxiety a few years ago. I recovered and now manage well with medication.”

Damaged Goods

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Are you mentally totaled out? Automobile accidents occur every day. If the cost for repair approaches half the replacement value, insurance adjusters consider vehicles “totaled.”

Mechanics can purchase these automobiles from auctions and repair them at minimal cost for resale. When this happens, the car’s title from the DMV has a permanent designation as a salvaged vehicle. The full disclosure notifies future purchasers of diminished value and questionable roadworthiness.

Vehicle history reports are similar to medical records. Someone with past or current treatment for anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues carries the stigma of damaged goods. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) legislation can prevent the requirement to disclose medical records. Yet, knowledge of treatment can accelerate into the public.

Public Secret

Jason had a public meltdown at his stressful job. During a subsequent leave of absence he received treatment and now is stable. Details about his diagnosis and treatment are confidential but after his return, everyone in the office treats him differently.

Jason feels the company put the brakes on future promotions. Any time he expresses an objection or raises his voice an octave, co-workers mummer that “He must be off his meds.”

To escape the stigma, Jason applies for a new job. In his profession, there is an expectation for employees to work much overtime. Co-workers frequently go out together for drinks after a shift. Both of these behaviors are adverse triggers for his condition. Jack feels he may receive more compassion by confiding with the interviewer why he prefers regular hours. Would you do it?

Prior to the pandemic, between 20–25% of the adult population had one or more mental health issues. Mental health issues have since risen. Some individuals with tem­por­ary conditions respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy. Many patients require lifelong prescrip­tions.

Within a staff meeting of 20 people, 5 may have clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The popularity of mental health disorders should normalize them. But most patients try to function in secret.

Full Disclosure

This brings us to the opening statement by Jason. The reason for his move was peer knowledge of his condi­tion. But he feels compelled to get ahead of it. So he reveals, “I was treated for anxiety a few years ago. I recovered and now manage well with medication. For this reason, I work hard during my normal shift, avoid overtime and alcohol.” Margaret, the interviewer, pauses at the revelation before thanking Jason for providing emotive clarity.

Psychiatric health impairments can rise to the level of disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This requires employers to make accom­moda­tions for workers with such conditions.

To prevent an appearance of impropriety, Margaret praises the company’s mental health resources for employees. Then she continues with other topics so the interview does not end with a discussion about mental health. If Jason is not hired for any reason, is the company liable for discrimination?

It would automatically place a stigma on them.

Not many people would make the decision to disclose mental health issues. Fewer would handle the situation as well as Jason’s interviewer. Neither HIPPA or the ADA require you at any point during an interview to disclose your illness history. Human nature, not the human resources department, ques­tions mental fitness.

“I would never tell my clients to disclose,” says Los Angeles-based therapist Sarah Schewitz. “I think it would [be a] drawback in getting hired. I think it would automatically place a stigma on them that’s not neces­sary and I just don’t think it’s information an employer needs to know.”

Employee Health Resources

Fearing job loss, many employees feel anxious about coming forward to ask their employer what mental health resources are available. Companies that do not address the stigmatism of mental health risk on-the-job bulling and dis­crimina­tion. Losing employees with valuable training and experi­ence can be costly. A negative environment can also have legal repercussions.

Pump the breaks on the false assumption.

Companies must find ways to make it easy for employees to request psychiatric help from the human resources department. They can do this with special apps or by conveying a culture of inclusion and understanding. Pump the breaks on the false assumption that no one with a job should see a therapist. Emphasize confidentiality and respect for personal boundaries.

Post resources on infor­ma­tion boards and the company website. Put it on the agenda for periodic staff meetings. With proper treatment, companies can void the stigma of employees considered damaged goods because of receiving physical or mental health care.

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