Interest in the stigma surrounding mental health difficulties has been increasing amongst researchers and health practitioners, and with good reason. Experiencing discrimination and negative attitudes as a result of mental health difficulties can lead to social isolation and reduce the chance of recovery. Those who have experienced psychosis have even been presented by the media as dangerous , with some sufferers describing the prejudice they have faced as worse than the symptoms themselves. This stigma can have a serious impact on all areas of life, as well as on business and employment, both for individuals and for the wider organisational culture.
Much effort has rightly focused on calls for funding to decrease stigma and improve attitudes. However, if the budget were to double, or even triple, tomorrow would we know how to spend it? How much do we know about which specific attitudes are most harmful to well-being and recovery, and how to change them? Researcher John Read, along with Clinical Psychologist and voice-hearer Jacqui Dillon have questioned the efficacy of many well-intended campaigns to reduce stigma that have been based on promoting the idea of equivalence of mental illness with physical illness. The “illness like any other” approach can lead to decreased stigma around help seeking, but can also lead to a reduction in the perceived potential for recovery and an increase in perceived dangerousness and unpredictability . One 1997 study (harking back to the dark days of the Milgram Experiment) even found that emphasising biomedical ‘illness’ type explanations leads to a higher amount of ‘electric shocks’ administered to a research confederate posing as someone who had experienced mental health difficulties. Still other researchers have found that concentrating on whether mental health difficulties are ‘real’ biological illnesses or not has no impact on stigma at all (as did our own online experiment).
And then we have the equity versus equality debate. Is our goal for employers and colleagues to be ‘blind’ to cognitive and emotional problems the way we might talk about being ‘colour blind’ when it comes to race issues? Or is it more about providing the necessary supports to increase individual performance and fulfillment at work for individuals who might have specific needs? Mental Health issues are covered under the term ‘disability’ in employment legislation in Ireland. Are those affected comfortable with the perception of their experiences as a disability?
What are your thoughts on what reduced mental health stigma should look like in employment? And what are your ideas on how we can get there?