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Four common mental illness myths in the workplace

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Bandy X. Lee, Yale University

Four common mental illness myths in the workplace

Common mental illness myths in the workplace contribute to high unemployment for people with mental illness and increased stigma in society.


Even though mental illness affects one in five adults – and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide – secrecy and stigma around the issue continue.

The problem is especially acute in the workplace. While individuals with mental illness often wish to work and are able to, their unemployment rates remain three to four times those of individuals without mental illness.

I’m an expert on mental health, and I have found that to dispel stigmas surrounding mental health in the workplace, researchers like me need first to tackle several common myths about mental illness in the workplace.

1. Everyone has different abilities

Let us examine the first of the mental illness myths: that mental illness makes one less able to do a job.

A mental disorder does not interfere with all capacities, and can sometimes improve others. One study shows that almost half of U.S. presidents suffered from some kind of mental disorder. Some have performed the most challenging tasks in history.

For example, Abraham Lincoln’s severe depression is said to have made him more compassionate, while Theodore Roosevelt’s hypomanic moods made him an exuberant and influential personality.

There is plenty of evidence that, given the right support, people with mental illness can be successful at work. Conversely, individuals do not have to have a mental illness to lack the mental capacity to do a job.

2. Mental versus physical illness

The second myth is that mental illness is associated with moral failing, unlike physical illness.

In our own lifetimes, we may remember the stigma and secrecy that surrounded cancer and AIDS. Scientific research and education helped these prejudices give way to understanding.

The more we know, the more we understand that mental disorders are not moral failings or subjective complaints that people can simply “snap out” of, but are serious, debilitating, and deadly medical conditions like any other.

Within medicine, psychiatric diagnoses are some of the most reliable. And while there are no blood tests, there are standardized scales that can be just as dependable for diagnosing and monitoring prognosis.

3. Mental illness does not equal violence

The third myth is that those who have mental illness are dangerous.

Media and public perception continue to perpetuate this myth, even though large-scale studies have shown no difference in levels of violence from the general population. People with mental illness are actually more often victims of violent crimes than perpetrators.

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In 2017, after a mass shooting in Texas, President Donald Trump stated that “mental health is your problem here … this isn’t a guns situation.” He reissued similar statements after other mass shootings in Parkland, Florida; in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; in Thousand Oaks, California; in El Paso, Texas; and in Dayton, Ohio.

This increases the victimization of mentally ill people, as it augments the suffering of those already afflicted by stigma.

4. Challenging stigmas

Finally and sometimes fatally, the myth persists that speaking about mental illness increases stigma.

Erving Goffman gives a compelling description of how stigma stereotypes a person as abnormal, deformed, and dangerous. Stigma, hence, is a form of violence. It originates from ignorance or misunderstanding and harms those suffering from mental illness by depriving them of their humanity.

Stigma creates for people with mental illness conditions for social exclusionemployment discriminationvictimhood to violent crime and increased suffering, which can lead to self-stigma, poor self-care and greater depression and suicide.

For example, in 2019 Trump accused the then Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of being “a maniac … a deranged human being” and “a very sick man,” but he is not the only politician to do so. Invoking mental health as an insult further stigmatizes those already suffering in harmful ways.

Speaking about mental illness helps educate and dispel myths. Demystifying mental illness and distinguishing it from the person and a person’s abilities are critical to diminishing stigma and improving the lives of those already burdened with mental illness.

Why people work

Work is more than a means for material support. It is also a major way individuals stay mentally healthy and socially integrated.

Especially for those dealing with a serious mental illness, employment is important for daily structure and routine, a sense of self, meaningful goals, and opportunities for friendships and social support.

The workplace is, therefore, an important setting for speaking about mental health and illness. Breaking the silence can be beneficial for removing barriers to seeking treatment, staying well, and staying employed.

Employers already bear much of the burden of mental illness. As 85% of employees’ mental health conditions go undiagnosed or untreated as of 2017, employers subsume more than US$100 billion in lost revenue and 217 million lost workdays each year. Prejudicial attitudes also exclude needed talent in the workforce.

Fear of discrimination leads many not to seek care, despite the availability of successful treatments.

Exclusion from the workforce can result in material deprivation, loss of self-confidence and self-identity, and isolation and marginalization are key risk factors in mental health. High lifetime unemployment even lowers life expectancy, presumably as a combined result of stress, depression, reduced health care, and loss of social networks.

Workplace interventions to interrupt the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental illness can be effective. Some programs might involve psychoeducation, increasing mental health literacy, workshops, online courses that target prejudicial attitudes and behavior, and crisis intervention training.

Awareness of inequalities with respect to race, gender, age, sexuality, class, and other related factors, as well as the benefits of diversity, has grown recently, but society has a long way to go with mental illness.

Bandy X. Lee, Assistant Clinical Professor, Yale School of Medicine, Yale University.
Caption:

Demystifying mental illness and distinguishing it from the person and a person’s abilities is critical to diminishing stigma and improving the lives of those already burdened with mental illness.

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