I suffer from depression and anxiety.
In our constantly-moving world, this is not uncommon.
However, it is rarely acceptable to discuss.
When I was first diagnosed with depression, I was a young working 20 year old in college. The depressive episode had hit me pretty hard and – being in a retail business where customer service was of the utmost importance – it was increasingly difficult to appear “happy” at my job.
Smiling was difficult, staying motivated was difficult, and interacting with customers was almost impossible. I was also commonly late to work, as getting ready and motivated was an increasingly unobtainable outcome.
After a few weeks of a noticeably sullen mood shift, my manager called me into her office. Instead of doing the right thing and asking me if I needed a vacation or a moment away from customers, she told me to “smile” and just keep working.
“My husband suffered from mild depression once,” she informed me, “so I know how difficult depression can be. Still, you need to smile at customers. I never see you smile anymore. If you don’t improve we will have to re-evaluate your performance here.”
Later, this same manager threatened to fire me when my other chronic health issues caused me to be hospitalized for a couple of days. If I had been aware of the laws surrounding the Americans with Disability Act, there’s no doubt I would have filed a complaint. Sadly, I was too young to be aware of them, and I ended up quitting a month later to focus on my schooling.
I did eventually get pills to help with my depression, but they were only a temporary fix. To this day I don’t medicate for the illness, as it is situational. It does rear its ugly head from time to time, but I have decided to treat it without mentally altering medications. It is a condition I am aware of and can prepare for, but I still struggle bringing it up at work.
Stigma around mental health seems to be a constant presence in my life. From people commonly describing the weather as “bi-polar,” to news stories focused around another mass shooting and the role that mental health plays in gun rights; I can never seem to escape the reminder that our society finds mental illness unacceptable.
These stigmas – plus the way I was treated at my job when I was 20 – has caused me to bottle up my condition in the workplace. “If they don’t see it and if I don’t mention it; then my job will be secure,” I think to myself. However, bottling up my condition can lead to more anxiety and distrust with my employer. I shouldn’t feel like I need to hide something that can affect my life so heavily.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about one in five Americans suffer from mental illnesses every year. The most common ailment to affect the brain is anxiety (about 18.1% of Americans suffer from it), closely followed by depression and other mood disorders. Considering mental illness is so prominent in our society, one would assume that our level of acceptance and understanding was much higher than the reality. Sadly, it wasn’t until recently (with the addition of the Affordable Care Act) that mental illness treatment was even seen as a necessity.
According to Bradley University’s Counseling Program, mental illness can have serious physical effects on the body as well. Depression alone can increase a person’s chances of contracting heart disease or cancer by over 50%, and over-exposure to chronic stress is directly correlated to increased risks of heart attacks.
What does this mean for mental health in the workplace?
We, the employees and those in management, need to break the stigma and talk about our mental state comfortably with our superiors. Our superiors, in turn, should be able to understand the best ways to mitigate stress and anxiety, and not discriminate against employees that struggle with mental health conditions. As Wake Forest University explains, stigma can originate inside ourselves, and the first step to conquering the problem is talking openly about our condition with others.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), mental health issues can qualify as “psychiatric disabilities” that may hamper “one or more major life activity.” NAMI has also provided a helpful handout for any employees that struggle with mental illness and want to know their rights. Legally, most mental illness sufferers fall under the protection of the ADA.
Learn your rights, and do your part to end the stigmas surrounding mental illness. Hopefully over time, we can reverse discriminatory practices in the workplace and bring about a more mentally-healthy future.
Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. When she’s not writing about millennials or small businesses, she spends her free time training her dog Toby to herd her three annoying (but adorable) cats around her house. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.