The stigma of mental illness and the hidden risks of disclosure
From "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 11
As a health care professional with a background in mental health and addictions, I always thought I would recognize anxiety and depression if they affected me. So I was surprised to learn, during the postpartum stage of each of my pregnancies, how unrecognizable each of these diagnoses could be—especially depression.
My first pregnancy was wonderful, generally free of health issues and filled with all the excitement of bringing a new life into the world. I was never judgemental of friends who reported postpartum depression, but I didn’t fully understand their experiences and didn’t believe it could affect me—that is, until my first child was born.
During each postpartum stage, I went on to experience profound mental changes. However, I didn’t recognize these changes for what they were (serious depression), and I didn’t initially see the impact they were having on our family. Symptoms I was professionally trained to recognize as classic depression were not my “clinical picture” at the time. Instead, I was a high-functioning zombie. Everything that needed to be done on a daily basis (household chores and reading to my children and taking them out to social programs) was done. I managed to respond to my family’s every need, day and night, and put healthy meals on the table, all with a smile. My husband went to work and came home faithfully each day. To the outside world, we were a picture-perfect family.
Unfortunately, what I was experiencing was emotional numbing. At first, I didn’t realize that I couldn’t really “feel” anything anymore. It was like living in a mostly familiar world, but without colour. I could not feel joy in my heart, and I found it difficult to laugh or cry. In moments when my children were quietly playing or sleeping, I began to imagine ways of escape, such as last-minute flights to exotic places. I began to wonder how much breast milk I could pump in order to be able to leave the kids safely with a friend for a day and fly to California for an afternoon. My mind was often consumed with these thoughts. I felt it could do no harm as long as I loved my family and had no thoughts of harming myself or others.
At some point along the way, I began to realize there was something going on with my mental health. But I made the decision to say and do nothing. I knew of a handful of friends in my social circle who had publicly disclosed their postpartum struggles, only to be shamed, back-stabbed and ostracized for it. People were superficially supportive, but on the flip-side would make snide remarks and attempt to solve the person’s struggles in a single sweeping statement: “If only she would…”, followed by a cookie-cutter suggestion for solving the complex problem of intense emotional struggle. The shame cut deep. For many in my social circle (and beyond), postpartum depression signifies poor parenting, weakness and a lack of gratitude for your children. I didn’t want the shaming. So I kept quiet.
After my second maternity leave ended, we made a family decision for me to return to work. I felt good about the decision for a number of reasons. For starters, it would provide meaningful, adult connections—a bit of a break in my otherwise baby-focused life. Also, it was good for my self-esteem to continue using professional skills I had worked so hard to attain prior to starting a family. It seemed like the best of both worlds: being able to juggle a professional life and a family-focused one.
Going back to work was great—at first. I worked hard to update my skills and contribute to my profession in as many ways as I could. I took on extra training for both supervisory and mentoring roles. I felt some colour returning to what had formerly felt like a black-and-white mental landscape, although I still experienced daily mental struggles. I planned to continue working and hoped to move into a role in leadership or education.
What I didn’t realize was that a few co-workers had sensed my vulnerabilities and had other plans for my professional future.
At some point in time, when I was at work, I made the mistake of telling some co-workers that I believed I was struggling with depression and anxiety. Others decided for some reason that I was experiencing marital problems along with the natural stress of juggling a schedule of shift work and child care. Some noticed that I had lost weight in a very short space of time, and they began to harass me about my physical appearance and make allegations about my supposed “food behaviours” and other practices, all of which, aside from being cruel, were completely false. Others openly made social plans at work, making public statements that all co-workers were invited except me.
I felt I was tough and would handle it in my own way—by trying to obtain a positive work reference and applying for another job. I didn’t want to stir up trouble by initiating a complaint about bullying and workplace harassment. I felt it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
But one night, I felt emotionally overwhelmed. The situation at work reminded me so clearly of a similar situation in my early life, in which I was badly bullied and assaulted. I decided to lodge a formal complaint with my supervisors, but both they and Human Resources responded with disbelief and hostility. The complaint was not kept confidential, which led to further harassment. Then, when the complaint moved forward, staff began to worry about losing their jobs; workplace stress increased, and staff morale plummeted. To top things off, my family life—from which I derived so much support and strength—started to suffer. I began to receive formal counselling, but the situation worsened to the point that I ended up on formal leave and was hospitalized. I could no longer deny my mental health struggles.
Because I had made the complaint, however, my employer refused to give me a reference; I had little choice but to try to return to the same job. I tried working at a new location, but I dealt with a tremendous amount of stigma and the staff announced that they were unwilling to work with me. Few of my co-workers had my background in mental health, and I sensed a lot of the reaction I was receiving was based on fear and misconceptions about mental health issues. I ended up on another leave, was treated for depression, and finally worked hard to obtain another accommodation: a transfer to another place of employment.
Today, while my current life and work situation is not perfect, I have received quality treatment and counselling for my depression and anxiety and now work in an emotionally healthier, more peaceful employment environment free from bullying—but I haven’t disclosed my past experiences or shared my mental health challenges.
I feel the worst is behind me, but I am definitely more cautious now. In the future, I will keep my cards closer to my chest, choosing instead to let sleeping dogs lie rather than ever pursue another formal complaint. I would like to report that we live in a stigma-free country, but we are far from having achieved any such thing. There is much work to be done, and it starts with simple acceptance, continued education and awareness. I hope things are different in the workforce—for the better—by the time my kids start applying for their first jobs.
About the author
Emma lives in the Lower Mainland of BC and works as a health care clinician