Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), p.3
While reading the stories in this issue, I couldn’t help but remember a touching story by a mental health advocate and speaker, Sandy Naiman. Sandy is a veteran journalist with the Toronto Sun who was diagnosed with a rare form of bipolar disorder. In one talk, she described a time when she was having a manic episode at work. It was severe enough that, if I remember correctly, she was in the newsroom in the middle of the night—in her underwear. A building custodian found her and asked if he could bring her some tea and toast. He didn’t respond with fear or judgment. He gave the kind of response all employees struggling with emotional distress, mental illness and/or addiction would hope for from their supervisors and co-workers: compassion. It isn’t always easy to give, I know. But compassion is a piercing arrow through the heart of stigma and discrimination.
I had a similar experience a long time ago when I was an intern. I had recently been diagnosed with severe depression, but routine really helped me so I still went to work every day. Unfortunately, my doctors still hadn’t found a treatment that worked very well, so I hid my symptoms in the workplace. I didn’t know I had a choice; I didn’t know about accommodations. I think I did a good job of hiding my depression and being a valuable employee, but “faking it” takes its toll, and for some reason that I now forget, I sent a note to the head of my team about what had been going on. The next morning, I found a coffee table book called Moments on my chair, along with some handwritten words of support on a bookmark. Moments turned out to be a book of stories of real people and their journeys of recovery put out by the Canadian Mental Health Association. I felt real hope that day. Like Sandy, I’ll never forget that kindness.
This issue of Visions includes a lot rational arguments why employers, managers, unions, and insurers should care. You’ll hear incredible stats about the impact of inaction on the bottom line, about the legal responsibilities, and how accommodations—small changes to help someone be successful at work—are still cheaper and easier than retraining a new employee. But for my little space here, I just want to remind the workplace community that it’s still also, quite simply, the right thing to do.
About the authorSarah is Visions Editor and Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association's BC Division. She also has personal experience with mental illness.