Let’s Stand Up to Stigma!
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how inextricably linked mental and physical health are. It’s difficult to talk about a lack of personal protective equipment without talking about the mental health repercussions, it’s difficult to talk about patients who are dying of Covid-19 without talking about grief and it’s difficult to talk about unemployment or social isolation without talking about anxiety and depression. Yet, there is a certain stigma around mental health and this can be particularly pronounced in the workplace.
A fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are amongst the top reasons that people hide their mental health problems from their colleagues. However, it is now recognised that seeking help can be life-changing for many. According to Paul Gilligan, clinical psychologist and CEO of St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services, recent trends in research have suggested an overall spike in anxiety levels since the outbreak of Covid-19. Some people are now living with a new mental health difficulty, which was triggered by the onset of the pandemic whilst others are experiencing an exacerbated presentation of a pre-existing condition.
The existence of stigma around mental health issues can exacerbate the difficulties these people face. The fact is that we all possess unconscious biases about certain groups of people, which are actually outside of our conscious awareness. These biases, which can lead us to stereotype, stem from our innate human desire to organise social worlds. When we deny that we could be unintentionally stigmatising mental health and assert the blame to “others”, whom are “different” to us, we fall into a trap of reinforcing this sort of societal discrimination and “holding it in place”.
In the context of Covid-19, many of us are feeling more open-minded in our approach to life, as a result of living through an extremely existential period. We are therefore presented with an opportunity to fight back against this stigma with a new perspective. How can each of us play a part to break down the stigma around mental health? As an organisation, what can you do to challenge this stigma and empower employees to seek help?
Create workplace cultures where people can be themselves and bring their whole selves to work. This makes it easier for people to speak about mental health concerns and to reach out for help when they need it, without fear of consequences.
Educate people on your teams about the facts and realities of mental illnesses. We all have mental health just like we have physical health. The more exposure and conversations around mental health, the more “normalised” it becomes.
Be mindful of your language when talking about someone. Rather than saying that a person “is” a condition, such as “anorexic or depressed”, it is preferred to explain that someone “is suffering with” anorexia or “has been diagnosed with” depression.
Encourage employees who are struggling with their mental health to access help. In my opinion, this is the most important step to take in breaking down the stigma, as this is acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s difficulties. If you have the resources, you might even consider including “mental health check-ups” as one of the benefits available to your employees
On a personal level, check in with your unconscious biases. Reflection creates an awareness of our perceptions and attitudes towards others, presenting us with an opportunity to challenge biases, if they are not actually aligned to our conscious values.