Mental health becomes a hot topic when there’s a suicide. What good mental health and suicide prevention requires is stigma reduction.
There’s a lot of talk among the mentally ill that the stigma around mental illness is going away. Whether this is true or not depends on what you consider “stigma reduction.”
If you mean the opportunity to talk about mental illness to other mentally ill people and on forums such as the Bell “Let’s Talk” Facebook page, then the stigma is probably going away.
But if by stigma reduction you mean the mentally ill are integrated into society by being employed, in spite of openly declaring themselves mentally ill, then the stigma is definitely not going away.
Why should the mentally ill want to declare themselves ill when it comes to employment? Why not just hide it? Because mental illness almost always affects the person’s ability to do the job, and so the person needs to be accommodated.
This is actually mandated by the Human Rights Code of Ontario. Unfortunately, the Code is not enforced, so employers are free to turn a blind eye to the needs of their mentally ill employees. And they do.
The stigma is not going away because business relies on it to keep people from declaring their illnesses. This isn’t speculation. It’s fact. I’ve phoned dozens of businesses and asked three questions: how many mentally-ill employees they have, how many employees they have total, and whether they have a policy for actively encouraging employees to disclose their mental illnesses.
The results in all cases were zero mentally ill employees and no policies for encouraging people to disclose. We know that one in five people has a mental illness. What the results of my survey indicate is that people are working without disclosing, and employers aren’t encouraging them to disclose. It’s a taboo subject.
This is the reality of stigma. Business doesn’t want to hear about it. That needs to change if the stigma is to go away for real.
What we, the mentally ill, really need is enforcement of the Human Rights Code’s duty on employers to accommodate the mentally ill, and government incentive programs to encourage employers to hire and accommodate the mentally ill.
When I did my phone survey I got some pretty hostile responses. That also needs to change. Business needs to start talking about mental health.
The fact that I can go to the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook page and exchange feel-good messages with other mentally ill people isn’t good enough.
Real stigma reduction means talking about mental illness with employers and getting the help we need from them.
Gary Roach is a Sarnia resident and workplace mental health advocate