The consequences of mental illness stigma in the work-place
Dr Therese O’Carroll and Mr. George Bridges of REFOCUS (Recovery Experience Forum of Carers and Users of Services) speak with Mr. A.T. about the consequences of stigma in the work-place for people with a history of mental illness.This was published as part of Think Tank, a quarterly e-newsletter for trainees by the CPsychI Training Committee 2016.
Dr Therese O’Carroll (TO’C) and Mr. George Bridges (GB): Do you think there is a negative attitude to disclosure of mental health problems in the workplace?
AT: Yes, I do. I would be cautious about disclosure as stigma exists in many places of work. It is one of the burdens of having a mental illness. If I disclosed my diagnosis of schizophrenia in the workplace, I would have spoken the unspoken. Some illnesses, like depression for example, may now be considered more acceptable to most people, but not my illness. I hope someday in the future it will feel safe to do so but not in today’s workplace.
TO’C/GB: How can disclosure of a mental health problem affect people in the workplace?
AT: Disclosure in the workplace can result in people with mental illnesses being treated as less competent by others. It can also result in colleagues and employers making negative judgements about that person, and can lead to over-attribution of grievances or problems in work to illness. In some cases it can also lead to offensive comments, malicious gossip and forms of social exclusion.
I worked for the same employer for twenty years and ended up being bullied by a manager. A video was made of a mocking enactment of my illness which took place on stage at a Christmas party. This video was watched by management and staff. It was handed around and made available for all to see and I faced a barrage of laughter from staff. The management did not do anything to assist me. This broke my resolve and led to my retiring on sick grounds. This is an example of stigma in the workplace and the damage it can cause.
TO’C/GB: Do you think there is a reluctance to disclose information about mental health problems in job interviews?
AT: I would never willingly disclose my mental illness in an interview. Life experience leads me to this secrecy. I was on a college course once for which I had done an interview. I had already started the course but when I handed the cheque to my lecturer she noticed Schizophrenia Ireland written on it, as I had received partial funding from them. Things changed after this. I was told I was unsuitable for the course and I was brought before her coordinator. My lecturer was told I had schizophrenia. I left the course willingly as I felt that I was being stigmatised there.
TO’C/GB: Do you think employers are less likely to consider employees known to have mental illness for promotion or career advancement opportunities?
AT: Over the years I have seen how people with mental illness are treated unfairly in the workplace. I have seen people experience patronising attitudes from colleagues and lack of promotion prospects. I have heard of people not getting credit for their work, having to put up with dismissive comments from colleagues, and being advised to lower their expectations for accomplishment in life. It has happened to me several times and has been very damaging to my self-esteem. I had been in my current job for 14 years when I applied for a higher position. In the application I was asked if I have a mental illness. I did not get an interview for the position. This made me think that disclosing my mental illness had a negative impact on my application. I feel in the workplace I can do a very good job, but if you have a mental illness it feels as if you have to learn to know your place.
TO’C/GB: Do you think there has been some softening of attitudes towards the integration of people with mental illness in recent times?
AT: Yes and no. It seems that when tragedies occur people rally – but are we doing enough? People are talking more about their mental health problems. Young people are changing their attitudes and social media is helping this. But there is a long way to go. Sometimes attitudes are within the person and they can be very resistant to change. Mental illnesses need to be accepted as illnesses that can be treated. We have a long way to go before that is seen to be the case.
TO’C/GB: Do you think people worry that others will view them unfavourably because they received psychiatric treatment?
AT: Yes, this happens. I have experienced friends not wanting to know me or be associated with me anymore following hospital admissions. This is stigma alive in the community. Some people are silent but you can sense the difference in their attitudes towards you. Stigma can be silent but destructive to the person. Men who I have worked with have had similar experiences to me when they have come out of hospital.
TO’C/GB: What can be done to overcome stigma around mental illness in the workplace?
AT: A work environment where discrimination is unacceptable needs to be promoted. Clear anti-stigma policies with attached disciplinary routes are essential. In a wider sense, heightened public awareness of the negative effects of stigma around mental health is needed, perhaps along the lines of the very visible anti-bullying campaigns of recent years. Ideally, these messages would be delivered at an early stage, for example beginning in primary schools. Mental health problems should be discussed openly and ‘normalised’. GP practices, hospitals, public health clinics and mental health specialists all have a role to play in this as do the media, governmental agencies and advocacy groups.