Can we just agree to call the mental health stigma what it really is, discrimination. When you encounter the negative stereotypes that cause shame to those with mental illness and prevent them from seeking help, or a place in the workforce, it is not just stigma; it is a blatant, prejudice toward a certain population...the mentally ill. It all adds up to policies that actually make life even more difficult for those with mental health challenges.
When we are diagnosed with a form of mental illness, we are taught to feel shame and to believe that we have a character defect, flaw, or a deficiency that is not accepted in the public norm. We as a society define discrimination as something that happens when a certain individual or group of people are treated less favorably, based on their circumstances. This idea that mental illness is a flaw dates back centuries, when people with psychological conditions were thrown in jail or institutions, locked away or quarantined for their behavior. They were considered a danger to themselves and those around them. Quite frankly, people just did not know what to do with this sector of the population. While we have made definite strides in attitudes and methods of treating the mentally ill, there is still a long way to go.
In the workplace, people who live with mental illness live in hiding, terrified of disclosing their condition. They fear discrimination in promotion opportunities, leadership positions and professional “punishment” in general. Never mind the ostracization they may encounter from their co-workers. This causes the mentally ill not to seek the medical support they need, as it may show up on their record. What is needed, is more policies and procedures that can help people with mental illness get the care they so desperately need, without the worry of shame and discrimination. Although people with mental illness, when stabilized, are able and willing to work, stigma makes employers reluctant to have them on the payroll.
Studies have been done that show people with mental illness have the highest rates of unemployment of all disabled and that half of the U.S. employers are reluctant to hire someone with a past psychiatric history or currently undergoing treatment for a mental illness condition. When the news stories of the day dwell on how the latest suspect in a mass shooting was “hearing voices”; “acting out in strange or violent ways prior to the event”, it only helps to fuel the belief that people with mental illness are unreliable, emotionally unstable and even dangerous.
Recognizing this potential for discrimination in the workplace on the part of employers, many doctors advise concealing the condition, rather than revealing it. It has been shown that an employer is seven times more likely to hire an applicant with a physical disability rather than an applicant with mental illness. The fact is that, many mental health issues are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employers cannot therefore discriminate against qualified applicants or employees with mental illness conditions. An employer is not obligated to hire or keep an employee who would be unable to perform certain functions of the job or who might pose a safety threat...however, employers have to be aware of making assumptions based on their own personal judgment calls or stereotypes. This holds true, mostly, in the fields of the legal system, banking, or insurance. These fields are where the most discrimination towards the mentally ill will be found. People in these fields with mental illness disclosures have been demoted, refused promotion, or had job offers withdrawn.
Having said that, it is important to note that there are certain symptoms of mood disorders that can be quite disruptive in the workplace. If the employee with the mood or mental disorder is not treated, medicated properly, or does not know how to deal with their symptoms, it can cause issues on both sides of the fence. Although I advocate strongly for hiring people with mental disabilities, I also realize that there are potential hurdles that must be dealt with.
Speaking specifically to Borderline Personality Disorder; there are many symptoms of the disorder that can affect job performance and the ability to “fit in” with co-workers in the workplace. Many employers and co-workers are just not prepared to handle a person displaying the symptoms of Borderline. However, a workplace environment can actually provide someone with BPD much needed stability in their lives.
Unfortunately however, the struggles we face with symptoms of BPD in the workplace can be quite unique. Take an example, for instance, of being criticized by a co-worker or supervisor, which can trigger feelings of abandonment or rejection in the person with BPD. This could then lead to outbursts of rage, self-injury or other impulsive behaviors. The employer and co-workers of a person with BPD could find themselves walking through a minefield of symptoms that, not only do they not understand; they might feel incapable of coping with or managing.
A publication by the Department for Work and Pensions (2008) describes some characteristics of personality disorders: “The behavior and attitude of someone with a personality disorder (like BPD) can cause considerable problems for the sufferer and for others. It may be that these individuals are particularly inflexible, vulnerable, difficult to talk to, irrational or have limited and fragile coping mechanisms”. The article goes on to state that individuals with BPD are considered emotionally unstable and that they find emotional control difficult. It was found that individuals with BPD might cause fear and concern amongst their co-workers.
In conclusion, there is no conclusion. This is a very muddy topic. There is a strong need for education about personality disorders, and mental illness in the workplace in general. Management must be willing to do the research needed in the mental health arena to prepare to deal with an employee with these symptoms. The entire staff would also benefit from learning about these conditions so that they will better understand the afflicted employee and be more apt to show compassion and empathy rather than ostracization of the person in the event of a symptom display. The employee also needs to take the responsibility of getting the mental health care needed to control their symptoms and disorder.
On a personal note, I have suffered greatly in both my career as a paralegal and legal secretary, and as a Sr. Director with Mary Kay Cosmetics. Obviously, when I was younger, undiagnosed and living “full blown BPD” as I call it, it was much more difficult for me to co-exist in a workplace environment. I have way too many examples of causing a scene in the workplace, manipulating or treating my co-workers with disrespect or lack of boundaries, engaging in sexual encounters with married attorneys that I worked for….the laundry list is long and ugly. As I grew, developed, and learned to manage my symptoms, things got better, but never “great”. Being in a leadership role as a Pink Cadillac performer in Mary Kay Cosmetics, for me, was very difficult. I found it a daily struggle to deal with the rejection of sales and people in general. It was torture for me dealing with rejection from the women in my sales force who I taught and trained. I would take things very personally and cause disruption in relationships and/or cut people off when I went “black” on them.
All through my years in the workforce, I did persevere to be the best and do the best I could, in spite of my symptoms. I want to think that I left Mary Kay on a “good note”, having the most harmonious group of sellers under me that I ever had in my 25 years tenure. I did learn much along the way about how to conduct myself in relationships, despite the fact that my therapist would constantly tell me that Mary Kay was probably one of the WORST work situations I could have place myself in. I found it to be a personal challenge to learn to operate in that environment despite my limitations.
It’s a process, and not a fun one, to engage in the workforce when we have mental health challenges. Having said that, we, as a group, deserve the right to make an honest living, contribute to society and fulfill our God giving abilities and desires in a work environment. Educate yourself and take as much responsibility as you can personally for your disorder and symptoms, then take an open mind towards educating those you work with. I was sure to inform my Sr. Director and Mentor in Mary Kay about my disorder and what challenges I faced so she knew what we were up against to assist me. It helped tremendously for her to have knowledge and understanding, even empathy, for what I was working against in my duties.