Ruby Wax has caused a minor kerfuffle by suggesting that those us whom struggle with our mental health should keep it quiet from employers, and in fact, lie to them in order to protect ourselves.
How many of us have had, “a cold” when general misery has flattened us to our beds? Had dodgy trains when it’s really been a panic attack?
In a perfect world, we’d be able to tell the truth. And our employers would be able to respond compassionately and sensibly. But it’s not a perfect world. Nor is it some post-stigma world as Eleanor Morgan suggests in her response to Ruby Wax:
For Wax, a prominent advocate of mental health awareness and visibility, to tell those of us who experience a mental health problem – one in four in the UK each year – that we’re still stigmatised seems a significant regression. Because as a nation we’ve got much better at not looking on those with mental health problems as weird.
If this has been your experience, then frankly, you are privileged. You are lucky. Mental health problems and the people who experience them are still stigmatised. Just because we’re a bit better now doesn’t mean there aren’t people collapsing under the weight of the word, “psycho”, thinking of which imaginary family member they went to care for in that gap in their CV, having obvious self harm scars people frown at and comment on, being laughed at in the street by your neighbours, having friends and strangers speculate on their mental health when they leave the house or spend their benefits money on something other than bread and water as meaning that they, “can’t be that depressed”, writing their DLA form knowing they’re fucked anyway because in this shiny, happy, post stigma world, mental health problems are being written out of the script altogether and it’s just mind over matter, just Not Trying Hard Enough. It’s hard to know which is worse- being written off as a psycho forever, or your experiences being flatly denied in crazy-making gymnastics which make you wonder if you imagined them all, too.
I’m privileged. I’m sure most of you know this, but I work for Mind, the mental health charity (and it goes without saying that this blog is my opinion, not theirs). My manager is, as you’d expect, very good about mental health and they know all about mine, and what to look out for if I’m getting unwell (thanks to a WRAP). I have reasonable adjustments and understanding for my issues (I’m not too sharp early in the morning due to medication, for example). In my case, I feel valued partly due to my experiences, and not in spite of them. And that makes me very lucky. Although we want to work towards a world where this is the rule, not the exception, there’s no way of knowing what your workplace is until you get there.
And it’s fine not to want to tell. There’s so much talk of, “fighting stigma”, as if that makes us all these foot soldiers. You don’t have to be. You don’t have a responsibility to disclose to, “fight stigma”. You don’t have a responsibility to anybody else but yourself and you should never feel bad that you want to protect yourself. You aren’t failing anybody, letting any side down, by not wanting to be open about your experiences or diagnosis. The reason celebrities can come out and speak is often because they have a lot less to lose (but even then, look at the reception different celebrities get, how struggling with addiction and depression is treated differently from just depression, how Paul Gascoigne is an object of ridicule whereas Stephen Fry isn’t, and in particular, look at the attitudes towards women who speak out as being trivial, hysterical or overemotional).
And things may be evolving, as Eleanor Morgan says. The discourse may be changing around depression and anxiety- but it’s not so much around personality disorders and psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. Could we change it by opening up? Maybe- but often the shittiest response is in the mental health system itself both to its patients and its employees, and if it’s been demonstrated to you time and time again that yes, you actually do have something to fear, and you will be treated badly, how is someone going to get the confidence to open up generally?
Of course, if you need support and understanding, it is better to tell. If it becomes unavoidably obvious, it’s better to be honest. But although Eleanor says,
Here are the facts: it’s illegal to be dismissed from your job because of a mental health problem. The Equality Act, bringing together the laws that were found in the Disability Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act and Sex Discrimination Act, protects people from discrimination on the grounds of disability. If you have a mental health problem you may not think of yourself as disabled, but if it has a significant impact on your day-to-day life for a period of time, it will probably be considered a disability under this law. It’s a very detailed law, but Mind provides a legal briefing about how it works.
Most important, an employer should not treat you unfavourably because of a disability, and must make “reasonable adjustments to work practices, and provide other aids and adaptations” – for example, being flexible about hours, and temporarily allowing you to work part-time, or have a period of sick leave with the clear reassurance that you are still valued as an employee. If you feel as if you’ve been fired under the cloak of “something else”, chances are you will be protected.
It is extremely hard to prove you’ve been sacked for mental illness, as well as extremely time consuming and legalese. If you’re a temp, you might feel like you have little recourse, likewise if you’re on a zero hour contract and they stop giving you hours. I’m neither wealthy nor successful but i have been fired for my mental health. I was a temp, and there was an extremely specific search to this blog that only my employer could have made, and the next day, I was fired. They just “didn’t need me” anymore. I knew they’d found my blog and read it and that was that, but I couldn’t prove it. And many people with mental health issues will be in unstable employment where it’s tougher to know your rights, or harder to fight for them. And as for, “getting back on your feet”, as Eleanor puts it, no matter how much we want to say mental health and physical health are the same, they aren’t. They should have parity of esteem, but mental illness affects people differently than physical health. You may get, “back on your feet” but have lost your family and friends in the process, and you might have to be on medication for the rest of your life that will affect you physically and cognitively. In a lot of cases, you can be well, “recovered” but need adjustments for the treatment.
Those adjustments may not be made for you, either, due to the nature of your job. I left my nursing degree due to being told to suck it up- I had to work nights and late earlies which meant I wasn’t able to take my medication and invariably I became ill. There was little practical support and no adjustments (and that isn’t even accounting for the shit attitudes I encountered as a mental health nursing student with mental health issues, including a staff member grabbing my scarred arms in front of a patient and shouting at me). My experiences might not be reflective as a whole, but it also shows that there isn’t a cohesive approach to helping employees (or students) with a mental health issue.
The onus on fighting stigma shouldn’t just be on us, but on the people who treat us, the people whom we work for, the people who love us. Whereas Ruby Wax compares mental health to gay rights, and it was gay people who fought for those rights often to a huge personal cost (and their lives), we should be able to count on the backup of those institutions for whom our diagnosis, in one way or another, matters. If you want to tell, if you want to be the one to challenge it, if your workplace is trying, then tell. It can definitely be a powerful thing to take that control instead of worrying about being, “found out”. But please, don’t feel bad if you don’t. Don’t feel like you’re buying into a, “regressive” idea, because you aren’t. It’s okay not to tell.
And employers who are crap with this stuff- you’re missing out on some amazing people. It’s your loss.
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