Eliminating the Stigma Around Mental Health at Work

“It’s easy to understand how many might think twice, or ten times, before seeking help.”

“I feel totally schizo today!”

“This workload is insane!”

“I’m going nuts trying to finish this project!”

We’ve all heard those phrases—if we’re honest, maybe we’ve even said one or two ourselves. In some business cultures, it’s almost chic to talk about how very, very hard you work. But it’s much less fashionable how those offhand remarks make light of mental health challenges. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), as many as one in five of our colleagues experiences some mental health challenge every year—and one in 25 has a serious mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

With people making a joke of mental illness — or, worse, being scared of it — it’s easy to understand how many might think twice, or ten times, before seeking help. That’s why Deborah Miscoll, Psy.D, a psychologist and Managing Director at Deloitte, says the first step to eradicating the stigma around mental health challenges is to get people educated. To bring this often taboo subject into the light and help everyone understand exactly what kinds of mental health challenges people face at work, and how they — and their colleagues — can cope with them.

I sat down with Miscoll to talk about mental health in the workplace. In this conversation, we discussed the impact of mental health stigma on society and the workplace.

Jen Fisher: Why are stigmas around mental health challenges so pervasive?

Deborah Miscoll: One reason is that stigmas sink into our culture and our consciousness on three different levels: First there’s the personal level, where you internalize stereotypes and judgments. In a business setting, you may not find too many people being overtly judgmental about mental health issues, but they can subconsciously stereotype or assign negative values to people who exhibit behavior that fits whatever stereotype they have about mental illness. When we internalize those stereotypes, that’s the second level of stigma. And the third level is structural — where these stigmas embed into societal and cultural norms. The fundamental lack of education about mental health touches each of those layers — from the personal to the societal. We need to do a better job of talking about mental illness and demystifying it.

JF: Do these stigmas make it harder for people to seek treatment?

DM: Absolutely. In a society with such a persistent stigma against mental illness, you have to be pretty brave to step up and say, “Hey — that’s me. And I need some help.” Unfortunately, people experiencing a mental health crisis aren’t at their strongest. If their environment doesn’t empower them to seek care, they often won’t. And that ramps up their stress level. It’s a Catch-22: get care and risk being “found out,” or keep it quiet and risk getting worse.

JF: What can we do to help break down the stigmas about mental health challenges?

DM: It’s not easy; we’ve been struggling with them since time began. But it has to start with education. And courage. We can share statistics about how prevalent mental health challenges are, but they’re just a bunch of numbers. What will really break through is when people start sharing their stories with their communities — stories about themselves and (with permission, of course) about loved ones and family members and their struggles and triumphs. When people connect with a story emotionally, they will have a hard time aligning those stories with stereotypes. Stories can dislodge the stereotypes and then we’ll have the beginning of real change.

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