As we continue our discussion of why employees are reluctant to disclose their mental health disability in the workplace, I would be remiss if I did not touch on one of the most pervasive myths about mental health disabilities – a myth widely believed to be fact. So much so, that the average person will usually argue with you if you try to educate them in this area.
Employee Concern: People will think I’m dangerous.
According to MentalHealth.gov, only 3-5% of violent acts can be contributed to individuals with a significant mental health disability. I hope you will take a moment to pause here before racing ahead through the rest of this post to really think about this statistic. Take a moment to let that sink in. Turn it over and look at it from another angle – 95-97% of violent acts are committed by people who do not have a significant mental health disability.
Now consider this, people who do have a significant mental health disability are “over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than the general population.” So, to put this in perspective, the data shows that the widely accepted belief that people with mental health disabilities are dangerous is not only incorrect, but the exact opposite is true.
Right now, some of you probably are experiencing a little tingle at the back of your mind that is pushing you to be skeptical about these statistics. I get it. I am in a mystery book club. I binge-watched multiple crime dramas throughout the COVID pandemic. I get pulled into documentaries about murder investigations. I try, unsuccessfully, to wrap my mind around the violent and hate-filled acts and rhetoric we find in our daily news broadcasts. Yet, it is of critical importance to remember that media representation is not evidence. Despite studies emphatically demonstrating that people with mental health disabilities are not more violent than those living without mental health disabilities, the belief that people with mental health disabilities are violent persists and is consistently reinforced by media.
According to an article published by Verywell Mind, “the stigmatization of mental illness is so entwined with the media that researchers have used newspaper articles as a proxy metric for stigma in society.” Examples of stigma-reinforcing media habits explored in the article include overgeneralization, trivialization, labeling violent offenders as “crazy,” blaming the individual with a mental health disability rather than societal causes, and portrayal of mental health disability as something that is untreatable or unrecoverable. In other words, the media talks about mental health disability as if it is a universal experience rather than an individual experience – meaning that all people with a certain mental health diagnosis, such as schizophrenia, act the same way and experience the same symptoms. It promotes the idea that certain mental health disabilities and the symptoms experienced are trivial, such as people with agoraphobia just needing the right motivation, such as love, to leave their home or eating disorders as funny rather than life-threatening conditions that they are. The media avoids looking at mental health from a people-first perspective and defines the person by their diagnosis – “a bipolar, white male.” People with mental health disabilities are portrayed as individuals who cannot tolerate stress, hold down a job, or improve through therapy and medical treatment.
In my personal experience, there is a tendency for people to look at the world through a scale in which people’s behavior is “sane” or “crazy.” When people do things that comply with generally acceptable behaviors in society, they are labeled as “sane.” When people do things that fall outside of what we understand to be acceptable, they are “crazy.” People who commit violent acts behave in a way that defies understanding, so they are labeled as “crazy” in the media. The problem is that not only is the “crazy” label applied universally, but it is also specifically implying that a mental health disability is at the root of the “crazy” behavior.
Stigma and negative representation of mental health disability is a pervasive and global issue. An article published through the American Psychiatric Association stated that “there is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness.” I would add to this, that at no point in history can a civilization or society be found where this statement doesn’t hold true. In fact, historically, people with mental health disabilities have been imprisoned or institutionalized, enslaved, tortured, or killed. Not only that but having a family member with a mental health disability was seen as a punishment or dishonor to the family, breeding contempt and hatred from those who should most care for you.
Today so much has advanced in the area of mental health, and we are learning more every day. However, stigma persists and very little is done to change the dialogue about mental health disabilities. The idea that personality, character flaws, or deviancy are the root of mental health disabilities persists. People who disclose a mental health disability publicly are often ridiculed through talk shows, news broadcasts, radio shows, and social media platforms. People with mental health disabilities are pointed at, laughed at, mocked, and shamed every day. This happens so casually, that most people don’t even understand that what they are doing is hurtful.
In our discussion last month, we touched upon using phrases like “crazy,” “psycho,” “OCD,” “bipolar,” and others that trivialize and villainize mental health disabilities. This language, when used by media, has so much power to reinforce and strengthen mental health stigma. This language, when used in the workplace, is an act of ableism and leads to a culture of discrimination and bias.
May is Mental Health Month. I encourage you during this month to keep a mental tally of every time someone casually uses a phrase that disparages, belittles, or stigmatizes mental health disabilities within your workplace, someone complains about mental health programming, or through the media outlets, you interact with. Go ahead and give an extra point any time that reference is accompanied by a prediction of violence in association with mental health disability.
As the month progresses, take time to reflect. Imagine you are someone who is living with a mental health disability. How many times has it been reinforced that there is a negative perception of mental health disability? Have any of your leaders used any terminology that reinforces mental health stigma? How about your direct team members? How many times have friends, coworkers, or family members complained about learning about this subject? Is there someone in your neighborhood that people gossip about from a mental health disability perspective? Do they whisper about this person and weigh in about just how “crazy” they might be? How many shows, songs, or programs reinforce mental health stigma? What’s happening on your social media platforms? Who was the last celebrity you know of that disclosed a mental health disability? What was said on social media about this person?
What are your thoughts about how safe you would feel in disclosing a mental health disability at work after this exercise? Would you be concerned about how people might react?
Now, what can you do, personally, to reduce the stigma about mental health disabilities and the people who live with them?