Anyone who lives with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, bipolar or schizophrenia, knows the pain these conditions can cause. What many people don’t realise, however, is that the stigma of mental health can add extra layers of suffering.

What is the Stigma of Mental Health?

In ancient times madness was seen as a curse from the gods. In the medieval period the insane were believed to be possessed by demons, requiring priestly exorcism. It was not until the 20th century that we developed a mature understanding of psychology and mental illness. Even so, negative feelings such as fear and hostility have persisted right up to the present day. One study found that 77% of characters with schizophrenia in the media were portrayed as dangerous, while in reality the figure is just 3%.

The Stigma of Mental Health at Work

People with mental health conditions often face discrimination at work. They may be shunned or mocked by coworkers. Managers may give them little support for their needs for time off, or other adjustments such as having a private work space. They may fail to be promoted, or they may even be fired. And if they are honest about their condition they may not even be recruited in the first place. It is not surprising then that:

  • 67% of workers would not be comfortable disclosing a mental health condition at work (Capita, 2017)
  • 90% of employees would not feel comfortable disclosing a mental health condition to their line managers (Business in the Community, 2017)

The Consequences of the Stigma of Mental Health

For those with mental health conditions at work, facing work challenges may already be more stressful for them than it is for others. If they face discrimination or negative attitudes, they are unlikely to come forward to seek help. This means that not only may their condition get worse, they will not receive the support they need. Instead, feelings of shame and fear may overwhelm them.

Why is there a Stigma of Mental Health?

In our workshops we address the stigma of mental health directly. We encourage attendees to reflect and discuss the various possible negative attitudes and emotions people may have towards mental health. Attendees have come up with a wide range of such feelings. A common one is fear – for example, that they as a manager will make a mess of the situation and not know the right thing to say. Or that the person will behave unpredictably, and perhaps say or do something harmful, to themselves or others.

Another feeling is irritation – that the condition means the employee will not do their work properly, or they will want lots of time off. There is also suspicion, that they may be faking the problem to get time off or special considerations (like working at home). And perhaps most humiliating for the sufferer there is contempt – the attitude that the employee is weak and should ‘man up’. Many managers believe stress is a part of working life that we all have to accept, and it’s up to the individual to cope.

How to Deal with the Stigma

At Delphis we do not believe in blaming people – either for their mental health conditions or for their negative attitudes. The reasons for both are complex, and partly a result of the culture surrounding us. Instead we encourage reflection and discussion of these feelings, and try to lead attendees toward a greater understanding of mental health. In this way we help attendees to challenge their own negative attitudes, without stirring up defensiveness or hostility.

We also provide a list of possible responses to stigma attitudes in our workbook. For example, if one belief might be ‘They aren’t doing their job properly. It will mean more work for me or other staff, or that the work won’t get done.’ A response to this might be, ‘Many people with mental health problems can cope and do their job well, if given the right support, understanding and reassurance. If you think they have the skills, you should encourage them to believe they can do a job, without forcing them. Give them the chance to try it, and accept it if they make mistakes.’

Together we can rid ourselves of the stigma of mental health. Managers can set the right tone and so challenge their staff to think positively about mental health. At Delphis we see this as a vital part of helping those at work with poor mental health. Our workshops and webinars are about raising awareness and breaking down stigma.

For more on stigma see our LinkedIn article ‘Four steps to tackling the stigma of workplace mental health’.