'Coming out' as an employee with mental illness

When it comes to work and colleagues, the situation can be very complex. The purpose and intent of disclosing personal matters should be well thought-through

Updated: Sep 5, 2019 05:53:12 PM UTC

Dr Vinod Kumar is Psychiatrist & Head at Mpower - The Centre, Bangalore.

Image: Shutterstock

Let's face it: There's a lot of myths, confusion and stigma associated with mental illness. Whether one should 'come out' depends entirely on the context, and there are many issues to consider here:

Firstly, the need to come out. Normally, health matters are personal/ private affairs. To share or not to share is the prerogative of the individual. One can share one’s health issue with people they trust and depend on. When it comes to work and colleagues, the situation can be very complex. The trend to ‘come out’ is gaining traction in recent times, whether it about one’s sexuality or health issues. The purpose and intent of disclosing personal matters should be well thought through.

Secondly, workplaces usually tend to be microcosms of the wider culture and society they are located in. In our culture, it has been observed that there is a great deal of misconceptions around mental health issues. This leads to assumptions and bracketing of people into black and white categories. In reality most mental health difficulties lie on a continuum rather being categorical. In fact, one could say that the entire range of mental wellness to illness is a continuum, and a dynamic process. Modern-day mental health issues are almost ubiquitous in our society. The so-called common mental health problems affect almost all of us.

When it comes to more severe and enduring mental disorders like psychotic illnesses, the situation can be very complex. The stigma associated with mental illness is a nearly universal phenomenon across the world, but the degree varies. Over the years, our media, and in particular, our cinema, portrayed mental illness as an exaggerated stereotyped. This, amongst other things, has led to a perception of mental illness as something that will lead to the person being incapable of functioning normally and consistently both occupationally and personally. In fact, with the availability of modern-day treatments, most mental illnesses are easily manageable. It is imperative to seek appropriate and timely help, like one would for physical health difficulties.

Finally, the way forward is to create awareness, counteract stigma and educate people on the nature of mental illnesses. This is obviously a mammoth task. We will only begin to shift the paradigm in this matter if all stakeholders participate. In recent times, various organisations have done a tremendous amount of work in this regard, but we have miles to go. The level of awareness and factual clarity about mental illnesses in the wider society will reflect in the work place setting as well.

Of course, if progressive and forward-looking organisations put in extra investment of time and resources to create awareness and counteract stigma, it would really help. Organisations could collaborate proactively with agencies that have the resources and experience to counteract stigma. This could include workshops, lectures and other means of delivering information to a wider audience. It is very important for change to begin at the very top, including HR managers. In my experience in dealing with corporates, the commitment to this area is limited, to say the least. It is very common for organisations to pay lip service to mental wellness by providing a telephone number for counselling for instance. Serious and well-intentioned, concerted programmes at work can make a huge difference to someone's life.

The author is Psychiatrist & Head-Mpower-the Centre, Bangalore.

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