How should we deal with workplace stigmas around mental health?


Clinical Psychologist, Dr Colinda Linde, weighs in on the stigmas faced in the workplace by those with mental health conditions. Ignorance around mental health conditions worsens the pressure felt by those diagnosed with these illnesses.

"Those with mental health diagnoses who operate in the working world can often find themselves labelled mentally ill and have all that they do, say and encounter be seen through this filter," says Clinical Psychologist, Dr Colinde Linde. "The workplace is generally filled with labels - from CEO to Manager and Senior or Junior employee. Human beings often create labels to define others and communicate these labels to each other, to better understand the world. The labels given to a person with a mental health diagnosis - a largely invisible problem that few understand, can quickly erode compassion or understanding of how this disorder affects the sufferer in the workplace and in society."

Mental health disorders: an invisible wound?

The symptoms of mental health diagnoses tend to be obscure to outsiders. “Symptoms are not obscure for a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist who is trained to identify and interpret symptoms that clearly indicate a disorder,” she says. “A diabetic having a sugar low seems irrational, aggressive and detached – all symptoms like those that could be experienced in the case of a mental health disorder – yet this person is not treated in the same way as the person experiencing the same symptoms – but as a result of of depression or anxiety or Bipolar Disorder. We see the diabetic behaving irrationally or the person having an epileptic seizure in the brain as undergoing something physical – which is okay it’s not their fault. But when it comes to psychological disorders there is a misperception that this is a person’s choice. They choose to be in a low mood. They choose to be anxious. That is not the case – there is a biological underpinning there, a neurotransmitter disorder, a chemical imbalance. Like any other illness of the body, it can be treated with medical help and should be given due attention as well as empathy.”

Workplace stigmas worsen the pressures of mental health diagnoses

It’s not easy to talk about mental health disorders in general and especially in the workplace. Dr Linde often advises her patients to use their discretion and speak only to someone who is trusted, also to think carefully about the purpose of confiding in them about a mental health disorder. “Is it that I need this person, my manager, to understand that I need time for weekly therapy sessions? I wouldn’t suggest disclosing the condition to someone who has never experienced a mental illness or had a family member go through it, or share it with someone simply because they are a colleague. It’s not that you shouldn’t disclose your condition because it’s bad or just in your mind. Rather, it’s about careful choice of confidante, to avoid unnecessary discrimination,” she explains.

Fear of exposure

Dr Linde finds that her patients are often reluctant to process mental health-related claims through their medical aid as they fear having such highly sensitive information on record and accessible to anyone from an admin clerk to HR staff at their workplace, who have access to their personal details. She has also found reluctance amongst her patients to make use of the counselling services offered through the Employee Assistance Programme at work, which often comes at no cost. “There is a great fear that the promised confidentiality around these programmes will not be fulfilled. Whether these fears are founded or not, the possibility of sensitive personal information being accessible to others is real,” she adds.

"A common fear that we harbour is being weak or less than. Yet, what is ironic is that it is a sign of mental health and strength to have the courage to ask for emotional support when it’s needed, rather than to ignore the situation out of fear of being classed incompetent. We all buy into the labels around mental health and perpetuating them both in the way we think of ourselves and others. People have a fear that my manager will find out that I consulted with a therapist and will think that I am incapable of doing my job, or, if I see a therapist I am weak or broken."

Dr Linde says that half to two thirds of the patients she see are dealing with one or more diagnoses at the same time. Chronic anxiety will typically lead to depression or to burnout, which can be linked to substance abuse, mood disorders and can also manifest physically as hypertension or diabetes or ulcers. "If we can see ourselves as holistic beings we can realise that an imbalance in one area affects other systems and the longer that imbalance persists, the more the adjacent systems will be affected. A depressive episode after a loss or trauma that is met with support might end there. If left to perpetuate and compounded by work stress and financial challenges and also goes undiagnosed and untreated, a depressive episode can manifest as a sleep disorder or as substance abuse. And, the stigma around seeking help for mental health disorders stops people from asking for support," she adds.

A trend toward understanding and support

Dr Linde recently did a workshop at a large law firm – generally a high-pressure environment – that had a drive around educating a packed auditorium of staff from every division (not only HR) about mental health issues. The firm instituted a buddy system where all were taught what stress, anxiety and depression look like, and were empowered to aid anyone seeming to have the symptoms. They aim was education and the central principle was preventing discrimination.

"It would be wonderful if this sort of approach became the norm in high-pressure environments or workplaces in general,” says Dr Linde. “An additional trend I have noticed is people will openly mention they are going to other doctors but not that they are going to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. We need to keep educating ourselves and others. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has a few initiatives in an effort  to educate the public. Programmes like Discovery’s Vitality are also providing support to people with mental health diagnoses by encouraging and rewarding healthy eating, exercise and an awareness of the need to take care of one’s mental and physical health.” She adds: “The online assessment tools make you think even if you start off doing them out of idle curiosity or for the points. Awareness is where it starts and using online tool may feel more comfortable than needing to find a therapist. Overall, thanks to efforts like these, we’re slowly seeing a trend emerge – one that is normalising mental conditions as part of the many physical illnesses that people can suffer when there is any imbalance in the body."

Give a helping hand

Give Discovery Health Medical Scheme a call on 0860 99 88 77 to learn more about medical scheme cover for mental illness treatment options. Some mental health conditions qualify for funding from the Chronic Illness Benefit.

If your loved one has Vitality, encourage them to sign up for the Vitality Health Check and Vitality Fitness Assessment so they can get a view of their overall health – and get rewarded for taking their health seriously.


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