Today marks the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness Week. This event, put on by the National Alliance on Mental Illness — or NAMI — is meant to bring attention to the very real problems those with mental health conditions face. According to research done by the National Institutes of Health, tens of millions of Americans are currently suffering from some form of mental illness. And yet they still struggle to receive recognition for their daily struggles. Additionally, they are often on the receiving end of stigma and discrimination. With the high prevalence, why do we still stigmatize these common problems? And why are there still barriers to getting care? The theme for this year’s NAMI campaign is CureStigma. What does that stigma look like, and how do we tackle it as a society?
Forms of Discrimination for Mental Health
Though the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with mental health diagnoses, it’s not infallible. There have been many unfortunate cases where private information become public, or where employees were unaware of their rights. The first step to becoming an effective advocate for yourself or a loved one is to know how they’re protected by law. If your new employer attempts to ask questions about your mental health, they may very well be in violation of the ADA. There are some gray areas here that you might need to research. If you ever feel uncomfortable about probing questions, you can always try to gently change the subject.
Direct discrimination can crop up even after you’ve been working for a company for years. Have you been passed up for important promotions? Do you receive pointed comments from a manager or other employees? Being penalized for taking sick time is a common problem. ‘Mental health’ days aren’t the punchline of a bad joke about kids these days. They’re a very real part of the self-care required for most people, regardless of their mental health status. Stigma toward mental illness is very real, and a huge problem than needs solving.
Stopping Mental Illness Stigma
What can we do to help those suffering from mental illness? There are many different roles than can be filled in this fight. As an employer, have you considered how friendly your workplace is to those with mental health problems? Required social outings might be a strain for some employees. Others could struggle with a strict sick leave policy. Employee Assistance Programs are often the first step for people struggling with issues. A traumatic event may precipitate a mental health crisis — are you prepared to help?
Part of stopping the stigma is to turn seeking help into a simple and normal step. If you’ve previously sought professional help, would you feel comfortable talking about that in front of others? Even if it’s just your friends or family, normalizing this part of the process helps. Perhaps they may not be willing to seek help now. Perhaps it take them months or even years. But what if your comments could plant that seed?
Make sure friends and family know their rights. If you find out a loved one has been discriminated against, point them toward the ADA for information. You can help keep them informed in this way. Try to be an advocate where you can in the workplace. Have you seen unnecessarily exclusionary practices? Tell a manager. Suggest changes. Stop the stigma.