Taking action on mental illness

I recently experienced a great deal of sadness over the passing of someone I didn’t know—but someone that had brought me so much joy over the years. I was deeply saddened by the fact that this person could not possibly know how much happiness they brought to so many people—how could they? I was heartbroken by the fact that this person clearly suffered in silence and felt so helpless that the only way out was to take their own life. I shed a tear over Robin Williams.

I know I am not the only one to be saddened by the loss of someone who, on the outside, seemed to be so together, so giving but who, on the inside, was obviously such a tormented soul. It did remind me of my friend Blue (not their real name) and the article that I wrote, Putting a face on mental illness. It reminded me of how important of an issue this is, yet it still seems far too convenient to push it aside and hope it goes away. It’s not going away; in fact, it may only get worse.

First, some sobering statistics:

  • nearly one in five Canadians—six million people—will experience a mental health episode at some point during their working careers;
  • approximately 11% of Canadians suffer from depression;
  • mental and nervous disability claims represents upwards of 25% of all disabilities under long-term disability programs, and the number increases every year;
  • the economic burden to Canadian society associated with mental illness is $51 billion per year;
  • half a million Canadians are unable to go to work—each and every week—due to mental health issues; and
  • there remains a significant stigma associated with mental illness; approximately 50% of all people suffering from a mental illness do not seek treatment.

We often forget that people with a mental illness do not choose to be unwell—they are the same as someone with cancer or some other serious disease. And yet, we tend to treat them differently. As a consequence, they suffer in silence, and, for the most part, we are absolutely content to have them do so. There is a stigma associated with mental illness—a stigma bore out of ignorance perhaps more so than a lack of compassion. We don’t know what to do.

In an attempt to provide some direction to employers, the Mental Health Commission of Canada introduced in 2013 voluntary standards to guide employers on the creation of a psychologically safe work environment. Many employers (although not enough) have proactively adopted these standards while others are unaware of their existence and some view the standards as something to which they could be held accountable, which they perceive to be a bad thing. We have much work to do here.

I received so many positive comments about my article on Blue—from those who had a similar personal experience to those simply grateful that someone was prepared to advance the conversation. Robin Williams’ passing was a powerful reminder that more needs to be done. People with mental illness are struggling every day. We need to continue the conversation; we need to do more.

So what can be done? At the risk of repeating myself—but some things are important enough to repeat—the following is my call to action as articulated in my 2012 article about Blue:

Education — Dealing with someone with a mental illness is not easy—what seems so obvious to you is anything but to them. Their ability to cope with daily living is often greatly diminished. And line managers are on the frontlines—so important in dealing with the situation appropriately and yet struggling with knowing what to do. Managers don’t need to be experts but they should be in a position to identify warning signs and to hopefully respond in a compassionate and appropriate way. Hoping the individual will “get over it” simply does not work. Fortunately there is much more information on the issue today and training programs are readily available. A good place to look for assistance in this area is your disability insurer and/or employee assistance program (EAP) vendor.

Create a plan — Mental illness is a significant issue in the workplace with significant economic costs. It’s more than deserving of an action plan if for no other reason than it makes good business sense. It also makes sense based on compassionate and human grounds. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace by the Mental Health Commission of Canada is an excellent template for the development of a comprehensive strategy to deal with this issue. And accountability for the mental health of your employees should not be considered a bad thing.

Provide access to help — Mental health issues are complex and very difficult to treat. Employers cannot make someone seek treatment—but they can make sure that the appropriate resources are available when needed. And it’s absolutely critical that someone who is suffering from a mental illness seeks professional help. Their pain and suffering is no less severe than someone with a serious physical illness. Your EAP is an excellent first line of defense in ensuring that those needing professional help—get it.

Don’t overlook the issue — Dealing with mental health issues in the workplace is tough and frustrating. The natural tendency is to either ignore the issue completely or to pass it along to someone else. And yet the workplace can be an important anchor for someone going through a very challenging period in their life. The workplace can provide a necessary escape and/or a place to focus energy and emotion. However, there will be bad days when the individual can simply not perform as you would expect. Learn to embrace the good days and help the individual through the bad days. And don’t be afraid to ask: “how are you today?”

Leverage external resources — As already mentioned there are many resources available to assist plan sponsors in proactively managing mental illness within the workplace. With the introduction of the National Standard, there are a number of organizations that have developed training programs to assist employers. And increasingly, disability insurers have come to recognize that treating a mental illness is different than a physical disability. Help is available.

We’re never going to be able to help everyone with a mental illness but we sure can do a better job than what we’re doing today. And it’s more than simply shedding a tear for a public figure who made us laugh; it’s about taking action to remove that stigma that is still associated with mental illness in Canada. And it starts with the simple realization that these people don’t chose to be unwell and that they deserve the same care and compassion as someone suffering from a physical ailment.

We can do better. We must do better.