Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who committed murder-suicide by flying a plane full of people into a mountainside, has brought the conversation about mental illness at work to the forefront.
Why do we still attach such a stigma to mental illness? You've seen a homeless person with a mental illness rifling through the garbage, been told to keep your distance from a relative referred to as "crazy" and been exposed to countless images of the devastating impact of actions by some deranged person such as Lubitz.
This bombardment of negative messages and images has caused society to become cold and detached from the mentally ill. People are fearful of those who have mental illnesses, especially in the workplace.
The people who you work with who have occasional bouts of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder 2, to name just a few, are people who are usually under a doctor's care, usually on some form of medication and work hard at managing their disorder, versus their disorder managing them.
These are people who often want to disclose their condition but fear being ostracized because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness, but it says nothing about colleagues, clients and peers who may have a raised eyebrow if someone were to reveal that he or she had a mental health challenge.
The truth is that people have not learned how to engage people with mental illness. People often do not know how to react or respond when someone shares that they have a mental illness in the workplace, so they sink back into their childlike ways of running away, laughing or avoiding. It's tough having a mental illness in the workplace, but it's equally difficult to be expected to work alongside of someone who has admitted to having a mental health challenge.
Why? Primarily because you never learned how to embrace this diversity difference. You never learned how to play in the sandbox together, and now you are uncomfortable because you don't know how to behave, react or respond to the news. Here are few suggestions:
Upon hearing that someone has a mental illness, don't pull out the Kleenex to catch the tears welling up in your eyes. Don't shake your head in disbelief as you express how you can't believe that "they" could have a mental illness.
I see it all the time when I share with others my mental health challenges. I know that they are trying to be compassionate, but it feels disingenuous and quite frankly awkward. Just listen as if someone told you that they had a treatable cancer. After all, even though the mental illness may not be curable, it is treatable for ongoing healing.
Become Inclusive to Eliminate Isolation
When you are aware that someone has a mental illness based on her full disclosure to the group, then meet her where she is. Provide her with an opportunity to be heard and to voice her concerns.
It takes a lot of courage to come forward and people often just want to be heard and understood. Provide that platform.
I personally held an all-hands meeting and invited people to ask questions after I succinctly and thoroughly discussed my mental health challenges. My goal was to become comfortable and to make others feel comfortable. This eliminated people from isolating and whispering. But, more importantly it gave people a chance to learn.
Learn what you can about that person's challenge, and you'll realize that they are quite capable and probably gifted based on their circumstance.
Communicate with compassion
Don't make jokes about the person. I remember while working on my PhD I shared with a very close peert that I was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder. The first thing that he asked was whether he would find a boiling rabbit on his stove. This was an insensitive and ridiculous comment based on a movie called Fatal Attraction about a woman with a personality disorder.
Sometimes people believe comedic relief will lighten the load and environment, but it doesn't. And, to tell people to toughen up or just get over it, doesn't inspire or exude respect either.
I often say that you may not be able to say anything to make me feel better, but there is a hell of a lot that you can say to make me feel worse. Be sensitive to what that person is experiencing, and remember that you aren't inoculated.
Some mental illness such as dementia happens after 65 and today you may be healthy and later in life you too may experience a mental illness. So, think about how you would want to be treated.
If you have a question about mental health at work, please write firstname.lastname@example.org.