Smash the stigma of mental illness

Today I attended the launch of Heads Up, a campaign from beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance which aims to create mentally healthy workplaces..(Disclaimer: I am a member of beyondblue’s Workplace Expert Advisory Group and the Alliance’s Stakeholder Advisory Group).

As someone who lives with mental illness, the campaign could not come soon enough. While organisations such as beyondblue and SANE have accomplished much in raising community awareness about mental health issues, more needs to be done as stigmatising attitudes still persist.

In the most recent beyondbue Depression Monitor (an Australia-wide survey of 3200 people):

  • 64% said people with depression were unpredictable
  • 44% thought they were unreliable
  • 25% though they should pull themselves together.

I can’t help but take this personally. This is what happens when you become a statistic, when you become one of the 1 in 5 people who will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. What is about me that makes someone think I am unpredictable or unreliable? Why do they think if pull up my socks, my debilitating illness will magically disappear and I will no longer need medication or the care of a psychiatrist, psychologist and GP. (Yes that what it takes to keep me well).

Do these attitudes stem from personal experience of working with someone with depression or are they nothing more than irrational fears about the unknown ‘other’. Us Greeks have a word for this: xenophobia with xeno meaning stranger and phobia meaning fear.

The workplace plays a pivotal role for people with mental illness. For me, going to work contributes to my self-esteem and self-worth and counterbalances the ugly side of my illness. I never imagined that I would suffer from a mental illness, that depression would enter my life and steal my mind like a thief. At the most basic level, going to work gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning and leave the black dog behind.

And if the moral arguments aren't enough, consider the business case. Untreated depression costs Australian employers $12.3 billion every year through absenteeism, reduced productivity and staff turnover. Research commissioned for Heads Up shows mentally healthy workplaces provide a positive ROI as every $1 employers invest in mental health returns $2.30.

Look around your workplace. Can you see signs of a mentally healthy workplace? Do you provide mental health training to managers; have trained mental health first aid officers; facilitate peer support networks for employees with mental illness; participate in events such as Mental Health Week and R U OK Day; or have mental health specific return to work policies and guidelines?

If you are struggling to answer or think there is more that your workplace can do, then please visit Heads Up and avail yourself of the many resources. You too can help smash the stigma of mental illness.