We often don’t talk about mental health in our workplaces. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in five adult Americans has a diagnosed mental health challenge in any given year. That’s 20% of the population.
Recently a colleague shared with me her moving journey of developing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), in high school. I learned that it was never as simple as needing to straighten a messy desk. Before doctors diagnosed her, she developed a number of debilitating phobias—becoming afraid of everything from the food she ate to the clothes she wore to the computers, calculator, and pencils she needed to use for school.
She got the medical help she needed, completed her education, and eventually made her way to a great career. She kept her diagnosis from her colleagues for years, only sharing it with Human Resources when her managers assigned her a role with responsibilities that would likely trigger her symptoms.
Fortunately, HR made sure she found a more suitable assignment. And much to her surprise, they did it without notifying her managers about why she needed the change. She’d been so concerned about sharing her illness that she forgot about privacy laws designed to shield people in her situation.
Others learned about her OCD when she was profiled at work. The internal article generated an incredible response, with about half of the emails thanking her and saying how important it is to be open about mental health. The other half of her correspondents wrote about personal experiences with OCD or another mental illness. Several had children diagnosed with OCD—at even younger ages than she was.
She noted that what really struck her was how many people have been affected by mental illness through family, friends, or personal experience. It can be easy to feel isolated in one’s own unique situations, but being ‘open’ about mental illness has shown that there’s a lot of support out there.
This story reminded me that we don’t always know what the people around us are dealing with and that just because you don’t struggle with mental illness now, doesn’t mean that you won’t be affected by it later. And if that happens, you’ll likely need the help and support of colleagues and friends.
When we stigmatize people with mental health challenges, we make it harder for everyone to find and accept help. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that only about four in ten Americans with a mental illness received treatment in 2014.
Companies need to create an environment in which our colleagues can feel safe enough to “speak up.” And we need to be sure they understand privacy policies that help them to get the help they need—whether from the medical community or from their employer.
But we can’t make this their burden alone. Let’s all be more open about how mental health struggles have touched us, our families, and our loved ones. That way our colleagues will know they’re not alone.
Learn more about Mental Health Awareness month and how you can support a loved one with a mental illness.
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