Trending Away from Mental Health Stigma

by Adam Siak
in Blog

          While episodes of mental illness impact 1 in 5 Americans during any given year, it is often the case that a large percentage of those suffering from a mental illness are not receiving adequate treatment, with many not receiving any treatment at all. Recent research from Columbia University has shown that from a population of 46,000, for those individuals that screened positive for depression, only 1/3rd were being treated.

          While hurdles to access to care in the American healthcare system may help explain this discrepancy between sickness and treatment, the additional self-imposed hurdle of mental health stigma has also contributed to our failures in providing proper treatment. People suffering from a mental illness may have internalized certain attitudes about mental health from their families, peers, employers, or culture at large that have placed taboos on talking about issues like anxiety and depression. Therefore, people may be afraid that if they were to speak out about their own issues and ask for help, that they may be perceived as weak, and that they should simply toughen up and get through it. Unfortunately, this stigma results in a person not getting treated and their conditions worsen. Fortunately, however, there are encouraging signs among employers and our culture that suggest a shift towards more openness about mental health while acknowledging the importance of an open environment that provides resources to care for the entire health of the individual. 

          Unless you have been completely unplugged in the past few weeks, you will know that the widely beloved Carrie Fisher passed away in late December. You may also know that in addition to her on-screen persona as Princess Leia, that she was also a strong vocal advocate for mental health awareness, speaking as someone diagnosed with bipolar depression. Celebrities, being highly visible and admired figures, have the unique ability to start or change cultural conversations. Think Muhammad Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam and the impact his opinions and actions had on the national conversation. Similarly, when Carrie Fisher opens up about her experience with mental illness, she “demystifies it,” according to Dr. Dean MacKinnon, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. And Carrie Fisher was not alone. NY Magazine has collected and shared the quotes of 25 other famous women who have been open with their experiences with anxiety and depression.

"I think I had tendencies toward depression from quite young. It became really acute when I was sort of twenty-five to twenty-eight was a dark time. It’s that absence of feeling — and it’s even the absence of hope that you can feel better. And it’s so difficult to describe to someone who’s never been there because it’s not sadness. Sadness is — I know sadness — sadness is not a bad thing. You know? To cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling. That’s what the Dementors are. And it was because of my daughter that I went and got help." - J.K. Rowling

          The conversation at the celebrity level is not limited to female voices, either, as arguably the greatest Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, has also openly discussed his issues with depression and alcohol. Taken together, all of these different celebrity perspectives are important movers that help humanize mental illness, reduce the isolation by making others feel more comfortable talking about their own personal struggles, and to realize that experiencing a mental illness does not preclude you from achieving your goals.

          This humanizing element is important, because there is potential harm in portraying mental illness exclusively with a biological designation. While it is certainly true that biology plays a role and that certain neurochemical deficits may require the need for pharmaceutical treatment, characterizing mental health strictly in biological terms creates a problematic binary of “mentally well versus mentally ill.” This designation is too simplistic and fails to capture the dynamic nature of mental health, which is largely affected by the circumstances of our lives. You are going through a divorce. You are having difficulty managing some debt obligations. You are taking care of your mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. You have a long commute to work among heavy traffic and poorly managed roads. There are limitless examples of stressful circumstances that are inherent in the human experience. All of these life stresses have the potential of magnifying to the point where a person may experience an acute episode or prolonged experience of anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. And, of course, when people show up to work, they do not leave their mental health at home. They bring it with them into the workplace – where they spend the majority of each day.

          While at work, you may have an employer that is stuck under the old paradigm where stigma prevails and you feel compelled to remain silent about your mental health, and you continue to struggle, and not thrive, in your work environment. But, reflecting the shift at the cultural level, there are encouraging signs among organizations that are no longer hiding behind the stigma, but rather are acknowledging the facts head-on, and are looking at employee mental health not as a problem, but as an opportunity. They value their employees as people and foster a more encouraging environment while providing the necessary wellness and EAP resources that help employees manage their entire well-being, from the daily relationship and financial struggles all the way to anxiety and depressive disorders. Further, by valuing their employees’ mental well-being, these employers are improving their bottom line with increased productivity, decreased absences and workers’ compensation claims, and improved talent acquisition and retention measures. Take Unilever, an organization that employees 172,000, that has a global health initiative that includes a programs specifically tailored to mental health. As Unilever’s chief learning officer, Tim Munden, explains, in addition to being the right thing to do, providing for employee mental health is also the right business decision. As Munden succinctly explains, “If you want a high-performing company, you need resilient, healthy employees.”

          As the attitudes are shifting from stigma to conversation, the wellness industry is responding with more focus on providing resources for mindfulness, stress management, and financial wellness. Employee Benefit Adviser recently published an article capturing these trends in wellness during the past year where wellness consultants relay the feedback they get from their employer clients. Emily Noll, the national director of wellness solutions at CBIZ shares “CEOs and CFOs are paying attention to the data on the benefits of meditation practice, yoga and other techniques that yield better focus, more creativity and make their employees better equipped to solve problems and avoid workplace conflict.” And these trends will continue into 2017 and well beyond, as millennials, the largest workforce demographic, value worth and well-being and are seeking companies that are able to provide the benefits and resources that help support their financial, professional, and emotional needs. The EEOC has also published a publication on the Rights of Applicants and Employees with Mental Health Conditions, so both employees and employers should be familiar with their rights and legal obligations around mental health in the workplace.

          While forms of mental health stigma still exist, the progressing cultural shift from stigma and silence to conversation and treatment is an encouraging development. Each one of us has likely either experienced our own struggles with mental health or have witnessed a loved one go through it, and being more open allows us to help ourselves and each other. Organizations, also, are increasingly realizing their role in fostering a culture of well-being by integrating and promoting wellness and EAP resources that help improve employee mental health and office morale.


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