Killing Yourself To Live: Mental Illness, Stigmatization, & the Quest For Gainful Employment

I’ve heard it from nearly all the well-intentioned—and some of the most meaningful and beautiful—people in my life: “Do you really want to have a website on the Internet that chronicles your mental health challenges, as it may present a considerable obstacle regarding your employability?”

Admitting To Depression

MYTH: Mentally ill and mentally restored employees tend to be second-rate workers.
FACT: Individuals with mental illnesses may in fact be superior in many ways to their co-workers without mental illness. Employers who have hired these individuals report that their attendance and punctuality exceed the norm, and that their motivation, work quality, and job tenure is as good as—or better than —that of other employees. Research has shown that there is no difference between the productivity of workers with and without mental illness.

When analyzing the fact that “choosing” to remain silent about my chronic, but now well-managed, behavioral health conditions literally nearly killed me several times over in the span of less than a decade, the answer is a nervous but resounding YES.

Otherwise, the “unemployable” would, logically, have to include people such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neill, Isaac Newton, and John Nash. But it’s not really the illnesses people are talking about, after all, now is it? What they’re actually saying, behind the code, is something more like this: In a Capitalist framework, employers want a labor pool who “guarantees” them lower health insurance costs, “less” interpersonal problems at the office, and takes fewer “days off” (even though this is faulty logic, as those who are open about and receive ongoing care for their chronic illnesses function much better than those who attempt to hide it, but one can’t “hide” an illness forever!). It’s essentially an economic gag order; a request for those with”certain” illness to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.”

I refuse to do this in 2013. It is dangerous—both personally, and for future generations.

The High Cost Of Silence: The REAL Dangers Of Disguising One’s Behavioral Health Illness(es)

Despite the fact that mental illness adversely affects millions of Americans, it remains one of the most gravely misunderstood concepts of our time. Simply looking at most major health plans, which DO NOT include mental health coverage and offer it instead as an “optional rider,” as if it is a “bonus” and not completely imperative make it starkly obvious. How embarrassing and shameful. It’s not the people with these illnesses who are costing companies an estimated $200 billion in lost earnings per year (according to the American Journal of Psychiatry). It’s the developing nation-level mental health care.

According to an extensive report from Harvard Medical School, “Untreated mental illness costs the U.S. a minimum of $105 billion in lost productivity each year. Most organizations’ health coverage plans show that physical ailments are covered, while mental health problems lag far behind.” Ronald Kessler, a Harvard University professor of health acre policy and a lead author at the National Institute of Mental Health, has found significant evidence which illustrates that approximately 60% of Americans with mental health disorders receive NO treatment. So naturally, the illnesses progress, and more and more lives deteriorate. Quite a far cry from long-shattered declarations on the “right” to “life, liberty, and happiness.”

As illuminated in Ray B. Williams’ article in Psychology Today, “The Silent Tsunami: Mental Health In The Workplace: “One difficulty that employees or potential hires face who are suffering from mental health issues is declaring their condition openly. Many recruiters will tell you, although not always on the record, that an admission of mental health issues raises ‘red flags,’ and can be a factor in employer decision-making.” Importantly, Williams sites international studies proving what a hostile and dangerous “practice” this is, and openly declares:

The time has long past where employers and employee organizations alike recognize the importance of considering mental health as not being separate from issues of physical health in the workplace in terms of the conditions of work, appropriate training of managers, and the provision of mental health coverage in health benefits. Failure to do so will not only be an avoidance of moral imperative, but ignoring the practical impact on productivity and profitability of organizations.

We aren’t talking about a small number of people. We’re discussing nearly 25% of the population, which is roughly 78 million individuals. Of this population, about 17%—or 18.5 millon people—have serious, chronic behavioral health illnesses, such as Bipolar disorder or Schizophrenia. And the problem IS NOT that these people are “all of a sudden” seeking treatment. That class of emergency care is precisely what creates economic turmoil for employers. The problem is that they did not feel able, for myriad reasons, to seek out proper care much earlier on. This should and must be encouraged; if not, it will come at our own peril. For make no mistake: this will be looked back on as a medical “dark age.” 

Don’t Look Back: Why Retreating To The “Mentally Ill” Closet Is Not a Viable Option

Falling and Mental Health

MYTH: People with psychotic disabilities cannot tolerate stress on the job.
FACT: The response to job-related stress, and precisely which factors will be perceived as stressful, vary among individuals with psychiatric disabilities just as they do among people without such disabilities. For all workers—with or without psychiatric disabilities—productivity is optimized when there is a close match between the employee’s needs and his or her working conditions.

A comprehensive and monumental study released in mid-2012 by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, working in tandem with the Canadian Standards Association, that shows, quite straightforwardly, that it is beneficial to both the population at large and the business sector to not only take psychology into logical consideration (and not “condemn” those who are openly ill, as the extreme injustice of such speaks for itself) and carry out “healthy living” initiatives in the workplace. The massive, voluntary study eventually made way for one of the most influential reports to date—and this ultimately came from the business community (the Vancouver Board of Trade). The report, titled Psychologically Healthy Workplaces: Improving Bottom Line Results and Employee Psychologically Well-Being, arrived at the following conclusions:

1. Maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace is cost effective through higher employee commitment and motivation, reduced absenteeism and reduced health care costs.
2. Spending on services which directly address mental health has increased 52% in the province of B.C. over the past ten years.
3. For an average company of 500 employees, untreated depression alone costs $1.4 million in lost work days and lost productivity per annum, and this does not include the costs related to bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders.
4. Failure to provide a psychologically safe workplace can lead employees to engage lawyers in pursuit of court settlements.
5. Protecting psychological well-being is a basic and key element of being a responsible employer.

Turning to the personal front, what have I lost, directly and indirectly, as a result of my Major Depressive crash in 2010, compounded by Borderline Personality traits, tremendous Anxiety and Panic disorder-induced responses (i.e., self-isolation and toxic self-shaming), severe insomnia and nightmares, and ultimately PTSD still astounds me. The “list” includes: the vast majority of people who had been my “closest friends” for years on end; my now ex-partner; a substantial chunk of the savings I’d accumulated  as I began working at age 13, when I lied about my age on the application; and my job as an Editor in New York City, and the friendships with my three co-workers, including the remarkably painful loss of never getting to see one of their children grow up, a beautiful little girl whom I was very close with and had “known” since the day she was born.) I lost several years of happiness and freedom. I lost a major slice of my youth, really. But one of the most harmful parts was the internalized repression, manifesting in the dark, whispering lightly but incessantly, “It’s your own fault.”

No it wasn’t.

I was often plagued by “what ifs” regarding everything from medication failures to finances to wondering about speaking up sooner at work, ultimately always blaming myself for my major depressive episode when I have severe, recurrent, Major Depressive disorder—but I am not in that place anymore. The truth is, I pulled it off. I got myself out of something I did not think it was possible to get out of. From the other side of barred windows, it sometimes doesn’t feel possible, and the onset of institutionalization sets in faster than I’d supposed and gets its teeth in for the long haul. And so, in time, I pulled them out.

It is only YOU who can do so. While the assistance of a brilliant, beyond caring psychiatrist was and is of paramount importance (all chronic conditions need excellent preventative care!) in my recovery, I realized I was doing to have to do it myself—and yes, with a little help from my friends. My real friends, who were sometimes people I’d never supposed they’d be, and are eternally grateful for.

Should this—dealing with an incredibly dangerous and enormously challenging brain disease (and succeeding, nonetheless)— present an “obstacle to my employability?” Of course not. What it should exhibit is that I am a tenacious, dedicated woman who cares about mental health, and is precisely the type of person who should work in this field. But I am not completely naive, and recognize both the de jure and de facto stigmatization of mental health, and recognize that just because something shouldn’t matter does not necessarily mean it won’t. But I also know what risks are truly worth taking—and one with my own health and well-being is simply not one of them.

And so, am I “unemployable?” Let’s see. I don’t give up. I am brave, honest, sincere, and loyal. I’m intelligent. I’m intellectual. I am curious, inquisitive, non-judgmental, research-prone, understanding, unique.  I value genuine communication I sincerely care about others, and try to show it in little ways every, single day—and in larger ways when I can. I refuse to be knocked down and stay down. I am up for anything.

I am me. And, in short, I refuse to be pushed back into any closet, ever again—and neither should you. Instead, take the reigns, empower yourself, and learn how to balance your life and your values in a way that doesn’t take a toll on either. DBT and meditation (perhaps in conjunction with therapy and medication), and positive, continual life changes (i.e., healthy eating and regular exercise) are essential for me. What works for you?

Ask yourself the same questions—and give the real answers.

As famous poet Mary Oliver once wrote in her masterpiece The Summer Day: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Keep your head up. Dare—and prepare— to amaze yourself.