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Putting a face on mental illness

Mental illness costs the Canadian economy a staggering amount of money—in excess of $50 billion annually, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental health issue in their lifetime. In excess of 25% of all disability claims in Canada are now due to mental health issues.

Yet, despite the magnitude and significance of mental health problems, most Canadians would rather sweep it under the rug; the stigma persists to the detriment of us all.

One in five Canadians suffering from a mental health issue in their lifetime. Mental illness not only impacts the individual, but also their friends, families and co-workers. Increasingly, employers will be called upon to provide a psychologically safe work environment for employees—free from stigma—and with sufficient support mechanisms in place targeted to not only those suffering from a mental health illness, but also to their friends and families.

In creating this psychologically safe work environment, my advice to employers is as follows:

• Education is important. It is impossible (and impractical) for line managers to know all the complexities of dealing with someone with a mental illness, but they should know the basics. They should understand how a mental illness might manifest itself, how to react when they suspect someone might be struggling and, most importantly, where to refer someone for help.

• Develop a plan of action. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has done some tremendous work in identifying 24 employer actions that can be implemented to protect and enhance psychological health and safety. They have created an action guide for employers.  The MHCC, together with others, are also working on the development of a standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, which is expected to be released in the fall of 2012. There are resources available for employers who wish to deal with this issue head-on.

• Access to professional help is vital. An employer can’t make someone seek treatment. All they can do is ensure that professional assistance is available. It is absolutely critical that someone dealing with a mental health issue seek professional treatment. Telling them to “snap out of it” doesn’t work.  Mental illness is a serious condition that deserves the same amount of attention as someone suffering from a serious physical disease such as cancer.

• Create a culture of caring. Although the workplace may be the cause of stress that could further complicate a mental illness, attachment to the workplace can also be critical to an individual suffering from a mental illness. However, there may be periods of time when someone with a mental illness is simply unable to perform as you would expect. A psychologically safe work environment is prepared to work with an individual to accommodate their disability/illness in anticipation of the “bad days” (e.g., allowing them to work from home). Managers and supervisors are also wired to care. A simple “How are you, is there anything I can do to help?” goes a long way.

• Partner with vendors that understand. Helping an individual with a mental illness return to active employment is different than rehabilitating someone with a physical injury. Up until fairly recently, many insurers did not acknowledge the difference. Ask your insurer to describe the process they follow to manage the absence of someone with a mental illness, and make sure you hear the words, “We get that it’s different from a physical disability.”

The most severe cases of mental illness that make headline news are rare. The real face of mental illness is not scary.  It is people like you and me—productive members of Canadian society with so much to give. The stigma associated with mental illness forces these people to suffer in silence, which is wrong on so many levels. People with mental illness do not chose to be unwell and, yet, our collective ignorance pushes many into the world of denial. Access to treatment could make their worlds so much more fulfilling.

The brain is no different than a heart or lung. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes it does not. And when it does not, we need to embrace the individual and throw all available resources at the illness—not push it under the carpet.

This article was written by Brian Lindenberg and published in Benefits Canada.

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