Creating a space for mental illness

With so many mentally ill people in the world, why is mental illness still so little understood by society as a whole?

Despite all the research coming out about improvements in psychiatric treatments, the average Joe still lacks even a basic understanding and empathy of what it’s like to have emotional instability run your life, or to have paranoid delusions you cannot control.

Anyone who suffers from panic attacks, depressive episodes or similar knows how isolating the experience can be. Unsympathetic bystanders may  call sufferers crazy, emotional or “damaged.” Whatever the case may be, these words are damaging to societal dialogue on mental illness.

While in college, I overheard a student say in regard to another student that the girl should take Prozac due to her crying a lot. But it’s insensitive statements such as these that make mental illness sufferers, especially those with anxiety and depression, open up to their peers.

Admittedly, it’s easy to stereotype people we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean we should continue to stigmatize them. This is just a sign that we as a society need to make efforts to talk about mental illness on a mature and educated level.

Employers especially don’t seem to know how to talk to employees sympathetically about mental illnesses. For instance, I attempted to explain my supposedly poor customer service skills to my former boss  when she was told me to improve my behavior as a cashier. According to her, I always looked upset or often spoke harshly to customers. I attempted to explain to her that this really is the result of my anxiety and depression. When overwhelmed with a lot,  I become anxious, irritable or withdrawn.

I told her I’m on medication for it, but I still get that way. In short, she said she knows people on “pills” who get through tasks they would rather not do. She missed my point completely, and in doing so, exhibited her ignorance of what those of us on “pills” go through inside.  That same day I quit because the manager said she was going to keep an eye on my every movement to make sure I changed my behavior.  Her choice of words were not conducive to my well being as an associate under her employ.

Interestingly, an article in The Guardian addresses ending discrimination toward  mental illness in the workplace in the UK. Employees and employers are reluctant to talk about mental illness out of fear of being perceived as weak.

The article sites a report titled Mental Health: We’re Ready to Talk. The study finds that 15.2 million days of sickness absence were caused by stress, anxiety or depression. This is a dramatic increase from 11.8 million days in 2010. Despite one in six employees experiencing mental health problems, employers are not enforcing plans to deal with their mental health.

The lack of willingness to speak about mental illness represents a culture of silence, and the article refers to mental health as the last workplace taboo. While many celebrities, athletes and MPs have spoken about their mental illness, business leaders rarely do so.  If employers were to put two and two together, they would come to the conclusion that mental well-being is conducive to performance. Employees with  untreated mental illnesses may not perform as highly.

While this report focuses on employees in the UK, it is still applicable to the United States. Take my experience as an example. While my managers should have approached me compassionately, they instead told me to buck up and get over it. Many retail employers here are not trained to speak to their employees as humans. Instead, they are trained to intimidate us to work harder and to increase sales. My former boss used intimidating language, stating she would watch my every move through the cameras until I changed my behavior. The fact that she expected me to stay after such a threat speaks to a culture not just of silence, but of bullying.

I also found a similar study based in the US with a pie chart.

A chart depicting money spent on treatment costs, absenteeism and low productivity at work each year from AspenPointe.

A chart depicting money spent on treatment costs, absenteeism and low productivity at work each year from AspenPointe.

Here are some facts that employers and companies need to look at if they want to address mental illness among employees. First, stress and anxiety is caused by a combination of home and workplace-related factors. Strained finances, relationship problems, family issues, pressure at work to do better while being paid low wages, school, bullying, abuse and more are all factors that plague individuals everywhere everyday. People who are predisposed to anxiety and depression are more likely to let these problems affect their work performance. Rather than compassionately addressing these problems, employers tell us to leave our baggage at home and put on a happy, productive face to deal with difficult, griping customers. Angry people with angry kids dump their baggage at the register and expect cashiers to deal with it and their abusive language.

Customers have told me I’m not friendly enough, especially at Christmas shopping season. I’ve been called a psycho by another customer whom I got a little sarcastic with. One woman came in screaming at me for having done my job the way I was taught. The managers put a negative customer service review that mentioned my name on the wall in the break room. In the review, the customer said she had to ask me to wrap her glass item three times before I responded. Of course, the managers sided with the review and asked me to sign a write-up that I refused to sign and also led me to quit the job.

While I realize that this is all part of working with customers in retail, I don’t think it’s worth $7.25/hr. This also makes me fortunate that retail is not a permanent job for me, anyway. While we are expected to give customers 100 percent satisfaction, employees get none in return. We just get a dumb high five from the equally dumb assistant manager. At the end of the day, is it any wonder why employees have anxiety and depression?



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