Even as people with mental illness reveal their struggles to strangers on the Internet, they’re reluctant to divulge them at work. Their fears are founded; stereotypes of those with mental illness as unreliable, less competent and even dangerous abound in the workplace.
“I am constantly amazed at how widespread the fear of people with mental illnesses is and the false association with violence and dangerousness,” said Jennifer Mathis, the director of programs at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
The Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 made it illegal to discriminate against an employee with a mental-health issue and required “reasonable accommodations” be made for those who disclose.
But there remains a high level of bias in the workplace, according to a 2011 study led by Boston University professor Zlatka Russinova.
The study found that many people who revealed their mental illness at work reported experiencing prejudice and discrimination afterward. These reactions threatened “not only their professional confidence but their sense of worthwhileness as a person as well,” the study’s authors wrote.
Katherine Switz, a Harvard Business School graduate who has been hospitalized twice because of her bipolar disorder, said she never even considered disclosing her mental-health condition to her bosses at GE and McKinsey.
While hospitalized for what she told them was a “health issue,” Switz said she realized she didn’t know any people who were successfully coping with mental illness who could provide her hope. She decided that if she couldn’t find the courage to speak out, nothing would change.
So Switz joined a small vanguard of people who are leading efforts to lift the stigma of mental illness in the workplace.
In 2013, she founded the Stability Network, an advocacy group that highlights successful working individuals who also live with a mental illness. Now she sees firsthand how much the stigma persists.
“I have had an extremely difficult time finding leaders to join the Stability Network and step forward to share their stories,” she said. “Often, people only share their story with their first name, or their name and not their title, or not their employer. That is why we Stability Leaders are trying to be open about every aspect of ourselves.”
Other efforts are cropping up.
Patrick Corrigan, one of the country’s leading researchers of mental-health stigma who runs the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, has developed a program called “Hope, Open, Proud” that includes a manual to help people decide whether and how to come out to their employers, friends and family.
The New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held a forum in April with 12 chief executives of major corporations, such as Ernst and Young and Liberty Bank, to discuss how they can support employees with mental-health issues. The committee looked at successful anti-stigma campaigns in other countries as well as U.S. efforts around HIV/AIDS before concluding that federal intervention is necessary to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
Mathis said she used to encourage people not to disclose in the workplace because the risk was too high and their livelihoods were at stake. While she still believes those risks exist, she now thinks that the new openness may be what is needed to make meaningful changes on the ground.
“I’ve grown to appreciate the other side, which is that until and unless a lot of people are public about having a psychiatric disability, the prejudice will continue,” she said.