According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States suffer from some sort of mental illness in a given year. More specifically, approximately 1 in 25 adults experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major activities (which often includes work).
Take a second to reflect on the increased amount of commercials/infomercials, news reports, scholarly journals, magazine articles and so forth that point to the increased amount of those suffering from mental illnesses around the world, yet for the sake of this post, within the United States. Whether it’s an advertisement for a medicine that curves the “lows” of depression, or a documentary telling the chilling details of a teenager that was bullied in school and who later ended their own life – it’s all around us, all the time. Yet, as a society at large we seemingly ignore it or more so have categorized mental illness in a completely different category than other health issues one may face.. which of course presents several problems to those who are suffering.
When doing research for this blog post, I was overwhelmed with the data that is associated with mental illness. Yet, one of the initial questions I had and wanted to clarify my understanding was: What is mental illness? According to Triad Mental Health…
“A mental illness is a disease of the brain that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are: clinical depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.”
So now that we have a pretty clear definition, how can we identify mental illness? Well, we can break it down by age: adults, pre-adolescents, and younger children. To start with adults, some symptoms may be:
- confused thinking
- prolonged depression
- feelings of extreme highs and lows
- excessive fears
- dramatic changes in sleeping or eating habits
- strong feelings of anger
- delusions or hallucinations
- difficulty coping with daily activities or problems
- suicidal thoughts
- denying the obvious
- substance abuse
- unexplained physical ailments
Do any of these seem familiar? While adults and pre-adolescents are similar here are a few more potential symptoms:
- excessive complaints of physical ailments
- defiance of authority (truancy, theft, vandalism, etc.)
- intense fear of weight gain
- prolonged negative mood
- frequent outbursts of anger
Lastly, younger children:
- Changes in school performance
- poor grades despite strong efforts
- excessive worry or anxiety
- persistent nightmares
- persistent disobedience or aggression
So even with being able to identify symptoms and signs.. how can we help others or even ourselves, or as the title alluded to, how can your employer help? The average American works (or does a related activity) 8.9 hours out of the day, the remaining hours are spent sleeping, caring for others, household activities, eating/drinking, so on and so forth.. While the hours spent on the clock may fluctuate depending upon the person, consider this.. the “average Joe/Jane” works 40 hours a week, from the age of 20-65 and gets two weeks of vacation every year. In that time, average Joe/Jane will have worked a total of 90,360 hours over his/her entire life.
What’s difficult about identifying mental illnesses in the workplace is that those suffering tend to hide (or attempt to hide) such on while on the clock – why you ask? Well obvious reasons of course.. job security; employees are often reluctant to seek treatment or share that they are suffering primarily out of fear that it may jeopardize their job. This in itself is problematic as not only is the mental illness going untreated, but it could be impacting productivity at work.
A great resource to check out is the Harvard Health Publications: Mental Health Problems in the Workplace – here they highlight low treatment rates and how it negatively impacts workers’ careers and companies’ productivity. As well as break down the more common mental illnesses and how symptoms of such may appear in the workplace.
Where does the shift in acceptance and support for mental illness and the workplace begin? In my opinion, company culture and policy. Employers will have to be the one to set the tone, whether it’s increased sick days (or even mental health days that are given or accrued), support staff that can aid those with mental illness, resources (whether physical or digital that are readily accessible to all employees), and lastly acceptance and understanding of those with mental illness.
One of the biggest misconceptions with mental illness is that it’s a choice. Suffering from depression myself, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The days where I physically can’t bring myself to get out of bed, eat, or even communicate with others are certainly not a conscious choice. If I could choose, I wouldn’t choose depression.
And my own experience is the reason I felt inclined to write this post, for the “Oh, cheer up!” comments received while on the work place from colleagues that don’t understand that it’s not that easy to not having enough sick days to even take a mental health day if I wanted to. Mental illness has to be a part of our company culture that is discussed openly for anything to change.
Below are some links for both employees and employers in regard to mental illness and the work place: