Talking about mental illness in the workplace may sometimes be frowned upon, but this attitude needs to change, according to Alfred Apps, former chair of the Foundation Board for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, speaking today to The Economic Club of Toronto.

“We can talk easily about our own prostate problems, our wife’s hemorrhoids, our brother’s triple bypass. But I’ll bet few of you can recall a cocktail-party conversation where someone openly shared their problem with chronic depression or talked freely about their success in managing schizophrenia or bipolarity,” he continued. “This has to change.”

Apps stressed that the stigma of mental illness in our society has to removed. Stigma, he said, prevents those who are ill from facing up to their problem. Stigma also keeps people from getting the help they need, and it keeps those with a “desire and capacity” to help from associating themselves with the cause.

Hand in hand with the stigma, of course, are the overwhelming statistics.

At least one in five Canadians will experience a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime. The National Institute of Mental Health says more than one quarter of Americans age 18 and older suffer from a mental disorder in any given year.

In terms of treatment, less than one third of Canadians suffering from mental illness or addiction have sought help. And almost 50% of youth(ages 15 to 24)who are depressed or suicidal aren’t accessing treatment.

Taking into account both substance abuse and mental illness, Ontario spends an estimated $30 to $40 billion per year, which, when projected nationally, would be almost $100 billion. “That’s almost what we invest annually in our entire Canadian healthcare system,” said Apps.

In the workplace, mental health issues are the single biggest reason for absenteeism, he said. More than 35 million workdays are lost in Canada each year, and between 30% and 40% of disability claims are attributed to mental health issues.

What can employers do?
Although the stats are staggering, Apps says Canadian employers can do their part. They can become leaders in nurturing mental health in the workplace by:

• training managers to encourage work-life balance and how to manage colleagues facing mental health challenges
• educating employees on policies and programs to promote mental health
• establishing flex hours to help employees manage any family crises that may arise
• monitoring employees’ job satisfaction
• showing that recovering mentally ill employees are reintegrated back into the workplace with some degree of normalcy

“We need to tackle mental health in the workplace as a productivity issue, as a competitiveness issue, just like we did with workplace safety,” Apps said. “Jobs lost, days lost, lives lost: precious human capital that should not be wasted.”

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