I saw a lot of employers posting about Mental Health Awareness Week. It is absolutely crucial we start conversations about the realities of mental illness and it’s great that it’s happening, but I wish some employers would stop kidding themselves.
I’ve worked all my adult life, before, during and since my diagnosis and treatment. I was diagnosed with moderately severe depression and anxiety and bulimia in 2007. I've had CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and am currently seeing a private therapist weekly. I never got so much as a displeased look… until I disclosed my mental health problem.
I have disclosed twice in corporate environments. Both times my employment became a cycle of letters requesting meetings asking why I was sick? Why did I get the flu so easily? My situation isn’t new. Since sharing my story, I’ve encountered many separate accounts detailing variations on my own experience.
I’ve found employment nothing but a minefield of misunderstandings and complete unwillingness, (despite the initial platitudes), to actually accept and support employees with a mental illness. And now suddenly all these employers are declaring their “awareness” on every social media platform available to them; welcoming us into the workplace. As if they’ve always been there and I’m just too afraid to ask. Not that I can speak for anyone else, but there’s a reason I’ve become reticent, and it’s not fear of judgement; it’s experience of it.
It isn’t just about talking. Support is an ever-evolving process; the process of accepting who we are, without judgement and acting accordingly - and that isn’t limited to what your own idea of “equality” dictates. “Awareness” is something you can get from our application form. In my experience, this is where it gets uncomfortable for employers. They have all these policies for “work/life balance,” and still create an environment so pressured it becomes impossible to complete your workload without working through lunch. Let on that you’re struggling, by all means, but prepare to be asked the question: “is this a legitimate concern or is it just a symptom of your condition?” That’s a quote from an ex employer. The only conclusion I could draw from it at the time was “you have anxiety, so your concerns aren’t real.” This, in turn, caused more anxiety. I can’t think why.
Here’s another one:
“I know promoting mental health is your thing but be careful who you share your story with because some people might not understand."
This nugget of wisdom was imparted to me by a manager in a work setting with, I think overall, good - if fatally misguided - intentions. Implicit in their words was a very serious underlying problem: acceptance of potential discrimination as part of the infrastructure of the place of employment without open acknowledgement of its injustice.
As I re-read this passage, I’m a bit indignant. Just try replacing “mental health” with any other condition and see how that sentence comes out:
“I know dyslexia is your thing but could you just try not to struggle with words in front of people?”
“I know autism is your thing but…”
“I know cancer is your thing but…”
I have remembered that sentence - that sentence and many others from people with more "professional" power than myself, who "can't understand why a counsellor would advise" this that or the other; who ask of my occupational health record: "is it really relevant to the case?" having not read it before calling me into a meeting to discuss whether to take punitive action over a flu virus: - (In this instance, it was particularly relevant as I was a recovering bulimic at the time with a compromised immune system).
I’ve been asked, (by a manager), "how does your boyfriend deal with this?"
1. It's not relevant
2. Why am I something to be “dealt with?” I’m not a slug that turned up in your bathroom!
The answer, (not that I am obliged to share it), is unabashedly - "he makes me a cup of tea and we get on with it." Their surprise at my answer denotes another significant lack of understanding and/or willingness to accept that what is being said is normal. There’s that word again: Accept.
Allowing me the luxury of disclosure is not acceptance. Acceptance is not saying "it's OK if you leave early for a counselling appointment." That is a reasonable adjustment. Reasonable adjustment is the law. You're not doing us a favour by observing our human right to exist and be ill.
Acceptance is going beyond the law and taking us out of the box we ticked. It's remembering we are human - more so than your average - and yes being uber-human is frightening because it magnifies the onlooker's vulnerability. We get it's scary to look at us being scared.
We cannot change the condition. Fact. So it's on you. You've posted your posts, you've tweeted your tweets. Congratulations. You're aware.
Now what are you going to do with it?