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How to Combat the Stigmatization of Mental Illness in the Workplace

If you suffer from a mental illness, what can you do in the workplace culture of stigmatization?

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BY Anna Johansson - 10 Jan 2018

How to Combat the Stigmatization of Mental Illness in the Workplace

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The stigmatization of mental illness is well-documented, and many of us witness it on a daily basis, even if we don't realize it. But with more than one in five adults suffering from mental health issues every year, mental health is too pressing to ignore--and we owe it to our bosses, employees, and coworkers to find ways to eliminate assumptions and biases against their conditions.

How the Stigma Manifests

The stigma of mental health conditions dates back several hundred years, to when newspapers and media outlets characterized the mentally ill as genetically inferior, or even morally inferior (in the case of alcoholics and other substance-dependents). Despite major progress in identifying, treating, and accepting mental illness, as a society we're still predisposed to certain limitations in how we see, treat, and handle the mental illnesses of others.

These are just some of the ways this stigma manifests:

  • Stereotypes. There are many negative stereotypes associated with mental illnesses overall (such as labeling people as "crazy" or unable to fit into society), as well as specific mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and disorders like schizophrenia.
  • Perception of ability. Mentally ill people are also seen as being less able to perform than their counterparts. In some cases, mental illness can affect performance, but discriminating against the mentally ill doesn't resolve the issue.
  • Support. Some people aren't willing to help others suffering from mental health conditions, instead resorting to inaction or avoidance.

What You Can Do as a Sufferer

If you suffer from a mental illness, what can you do in this culture of stigmatization?

  • Seek treatment. Make sure you seek professional treatment however you can. Mental health professionals will be able to help you better understand and cope with your illness, so you can integrate into your workplace easier.
  • Be open to others. Though it may be hard, try to talk openly to other people, including your coworkers and supervisors. Be upfront about what you're experiencing, describe the realities of the condition, and detail your feelings on it. Make it clear that it doesn't change your identity as a person or your abilities as a worker.
  • Point out and address stigma. When you encounter an instance of discrimination or bias against those with mental illnesses, point it out and explain why it's not right. Vocalize your concerns politely, and with a desire to educate, rather than scold.

What You Can Do as an Employee

As an employee who doesn't suffer from mental health conditions, there's still much you can do:

  • Learn whatever you can. Talk to people who do have mental illnesses, and do your own independent research to learn as much as you can about mental health. The more informed you are, the more you'll contribute to a positive work environment.
  • Treat all people with respect. No matter who you're talking to or what they're experiencing, talk to them with respect. It should be a no-brainer to treat all people equally, but your perceptions may change with the knowledge that someone else is dealing with a mental illness.
  • Ask your coworkers how you can support them. If you have any coworkers who struggle with a mental illness, ask them what you can do to support them. They know best.

What You Can Do as an Employer

As an employer, you have significant influence over how your workplace develops. You can use these strategies to make your workplace friendlier to those with mental illnesses:

  • Educate people. Do whatever you can to educate and inform the people in your company. The more people understand about mental illness, the less they'll be inclined to stigmatize it.
  • Create a healthy environment. Make sure you've structured and can enforce a healthy workplace environment, where people can talk to each other openly and seek help without being discriminated against because of it. Openness and acceptance are key values here.
  • Set a good example. As a leader, you'll need to set a strong example for your employees. Avoid stigmatizing mental illness through your own words and actions.
  • Improve accessibility. If you have the resources, try to improve accessibility to mental health resources for your workers, with better healthcare coverage, trained HR employees, or even information on where to get help.

No matter who you are or what role you play in the workplace, there's something you can do to fight back against the stigma of mental illnesses. The more you're willing to listen, and the more you're willing to contribute, the more influence you'll have in reshaping our work culture.