Stripping away the stigma of mental illness on the job
May 11, 2004
JIM COYLE -- Toronto Star

A disease known, the proverb goes, is half cured.

But some ailments, it would appear, take a little more time to recognize and make acquaintance with than others.

Tonight's St. Lawrence Centre Forum on Mental Health in the Workplace is the sort of thing that must both hearten and mildly frustrate people like Bill Wilkerson. That such a forum is being held is a long step forward from where things were even a decade ago. That mental health in the workplace is still referred to in the forum's program as "the last taboo" suggests there remains considerable stigma to be chipped away.

Forum speakers and the audience will be asked, organizers say, to address tough questions "with an openness and frankness that begins to crack the taboo on mental illness in the workplace."

Can you speak openly with co-workers about mental health and workplace stress or is it considered a sign of weakness that you can't keep up the pace?

There are lots of workplace health-and-safety and anti-smoking programs, but how about treatment for depression, anxiety or substance abuse?

How do poisonous work environments affect mental well-being? Does it take a crisis for us to ask for help?

The news lately has been dotted with anecdotal items that suggest some of the answers.

In yesterday's National Post, a report from Hamilton told of the brisk business being done at mental-health kiosks set up in a suburban mall, where people stood in line to get information on anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Recent reports told of a U.S. army interrogator who suffered severe panic attacks while serving in Iraq and was, upon requesting counselling, shipped home to face court-martial charges of cowardice.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the Star's Robin Harvey reported about 10 days ago that Ontario classrooms may be among the most toxic workplaces around, with teachers seeing soaring rates of depression among their ranks after a decade of education wars.

The incidence of depression among teachers is a third higher than that of other professions, she reported, and long-term disability claims have doubled since 1993.

These trends were revealed by Bill Wilkerson, of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, in a presentation to the Ontario Medical Association's annual meeting.

And while they might shock some, they likely came as no surprise to him.

Wilkerson knows better than most that for too long, employers and workers themselves have mistaken a continued ability to function for wellness, that the cost of failing to recognize mental illness in the workplace is higher in human and economic terms than most people or businesses understand.

The average Canadian workplace sees 15 to 25 per cent of its employees suffer from mental illness, according to the program for the St. Lawrence forum. It is the leading cause of disability. It costs the Canadian economy more than $33 billion annually. And men and women with more than 10 years of service with their employer are most at risk.

Now in its sixth year, Wilkerson's round table is a network of business executives, health professionals and educators determined to make the economic case for the benefits of mental health and the cost of mental illness.

As he has said, "We are not a voice for business, but a voice to business." Business decision-making often involves the gut, he says, "but seldom the heart."

But even if the case is most effectively put in dollars and cents, he says, what is being discussed is "not just words and numbers, it is names and people." The stakes are high on all levels.

"We live in an economy of mental performance," Wilkerson has said.

"Three-quarters of the new jobs coming on stream in the United States require cerebral, not manual, skills. This defines the economy of mental performance — an economy of thinking and doing, not lifting and doing; an economy, therefore, where the human mind, through innovation, does the real heavy lifting for competitive business organizations."

This new reality exists at a time when job insecurity is pervasive, when deep budget cuts are permanent fixtures, when existence is relentlessly commercialized, when stress is rising as life intensifies and time seems to compress.

Eighty per cent of psychiatric hospital emergencies in the United States occur among younger adults in their prime working years, Wilkerson has said. "Depression and anxiety attack the heart of the workforce."

So he posed some questions of his own.

"Why not a world of work where the early detection and effective treatment of mental-health problems are routine, not rare?

"Why not a world of work where stigma and discrimination against those living with mental illness are wiped clean away?

"Why not a world where recovery from mental illness — like life itself — is understood to be a journey, not a destination?

"Why not a world of work where screening for depression is as routine as a flu shot?"

Tonight, the chipping away at stigma — the getting better acquainted with mental illness in the workplace — goes on.

Tonight, maybe some of the questions posed by the forum and by Wilkerson will come a few steps closer to finding answers.