Every day I visit workplaces across this beautiful country (and beyond) and I hear stories of the challenges facing people as they conduct their lives. We all have a story. Many of us are unable or unwilling to share our story with others. We are afraid to truly let others see us and know our truth.
Whatever your views are about confidentiality and privacy; I believe that we need to open the doors – no, tear down the doors – to enable a full dialogue about mental health in the workplace. We are living in a time in which people are literally dying with their story still inside; and that can be changed.
At this delicate time of year, a struggle for many people who experience mental health challenges, it is particularly important to direct our attention to this topic.
I have had the opportunity to meet and work with a beautiful young woman this year. Her name is Jasmine Zyzniewski and she is a 4th year psychology student at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Jasmine is not only beautiful, she is smart, confident, and sociable; and Jasmine has a story. What impressed me most when I met her, was her willingness to be who she is, to share her truth and to demonstrate the strength of character it takes to be truly authentic.
Here is some of her story.
I can remember waking up one morning and feeling the panic set in. It had been years since I had been diagnosed with my anxiety and panic disorder, so I knew what the day was going to bring. Severe hallucinations and blackouts were on the menu and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through a day of work. I called my boss and was forced to make up an excuse for why I couldn’t come in. “Sorry, I have the flu” or “There has been a family emergency”, were two of my favorites. Sadly enough, after conversations with others who suffer from a mental illness, I realized I wasn’t alone in the “excuse-making” skills that I had developed.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 percent of our population will be directly affected by a mental illness in their lifetime. This means that one in five people that we casually walk past on the street are currently struggling with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or one of the many other mental illnesses that our society claims to understand and acknowledge. So why is it that most of our workplaces, where we spend a vast majority of our time, aren’t accepting or open to talk about mental health? Or better yet, why do those who suffer with mental illnesses feel as if a “mental health day” is not a good enough reason to miss work when it is necessary? If it is okay to miss work because I have a cold or a back ache, why is it not okay to miss work when I am experiencing a depressive episode or a particularly bad time with my anxiety?
I know – maybe you think I will take advantage of your sick plan; that I will ‘fake it’. Well, trust me…I will no more fake a mental illness than I will lie about a physical illness. So, let’s just put that argument to rest.
Consider, if you will, a few more relevant statistics. The Mental Health Commission of Canada states that mental health problems and illnesses account for approximately 30 percent of short and long term disability claims from employees. The financial impact to the Canadian economy is significant. Of all claims placed, 47 percent of those that were approved were also mental health related. Therefore, I believe it is time to take action within our workplaces to ensure that employees feel safe enough to talk about mental health so that they can take early measures to maintain this area of their health and well-being.
To do this, the Workplace Mental Health Promotion initiative of the Ontario CMHA believes that employers may need to address the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health in the workplace and be willing to make positive changes to adapt to those who suffer from them. It has been my personal experience to feel embarrassed about my mental health. Because of this embarrassment, I isolated myself from society and avoided treatment options in fear of others finding out about my mental illness. Although I realize now that having both a support system at home and at work could have sped up my recovery process and put me on a path of healing and transformation.
So, let’s not waste any more time. The Ontario CMHA has come up with a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” that employers should take note of in order to create a safe and open space for those suffering from mental health issues.
- Portray successful people with disabilities as the exception
- Use generic labels; many of the terms I hear on a daily basis are “retarded”, “crazy” and “psycho”
- Use the term “insane”; this is strictly reserved for legal purposes
- Allow others to use these terms in your presence (When these terms are used within a workplace, people will begin to feel isolated and ashamed of their mental health. The negative repercussions that I have observed can include everything from choosing to leave the workplace entirely, to experiencing an epic destruction to your self-esteem and sense of well-being.)
- Use respectful language at all times (It is okay to say that I have a mental illness; it is not contagious, it is like any other illness – cancer, heart disease, diabetes – it is simply something with which I have to learn to cope
- Emphasize abilities, not limitations; I have far more gifts than I do limitations
- Refer to the person, not their disability or mental illness
- Stop stigmatizing attitudes in their tracks!
A few small changes in language surrounding mental health in the workplace could extremely influence the positive support that is perceived and received by those with mental illnesses. Make your employees feel safe and welcome within the workplace, I promise everyone will benefit.
Isn’t she lovely…you can see why I like her. Not only is she an accomplished student who will surely go places in her career, she is a thoughtful young woman who has something important to say. I am grateful that she can say it here – with me – and to important people like you.
As you pass people in the malls, on the streets and in your workplaces; I invite you to pause, to take just a moment to see people, to hear them. You never know what will transpire. You never know what conversation might ensue. It might even be one that you did not know you needed to have.
Happy Holidays, one and all. Let’s go out and change the world!
Jasmine Zyzniewski is a fourth and final year student completing her BA in Psychology with a minor in Peace and Conflict Transformation studies. She aims to normalize and contribute to mental health awareness through optimistic and positive reflections on herself and her surroundings. Alongside her studies, she loves DIY crafts, spending time with family and any good book she can get her hands on.
Deri Latimer is an expert in positive possibilities for people! A TEDx Speaker and Author, Deri’s message reinforces that positive habits are the pathway to a happier and healthier life – at work, at home and at any age! www.derilatimer.com