‘The biggest struggle I have faced is the perceived stigma that I live with every day’

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis in my mid-twenties. I would particularly like to explore the difficulties I have faced in my career to date around mental health – pretty much a constant battle, trying to hold down a full-time job and realising that I do indeed live with a serious illness that is indeed recognised as a disability. But the biggest struggle I have faced is the perceived stigma that I live with every day. Both the stigma I have placed on myself as well as stigma from those around me.

Since my diagnosis, I was in workplace trying to cover up my illness whilst living in the fear that someone might find out about my mental health and eventually lose my job because of a perceived and sometimes actual inability to perform. However, I do acknowledge that it is sometimes MY ‘elephant in the room’. I have no ACTUAL reason to believe that I may be discriminated against or lose my job which makes this an extremely grey area.

Then again, I have heard plenty of stories of people who have decided to disclose about a mental health diagnosis in the workplace and have subsequently noticed changes in how they are treated in their jobs. It is these real stories that increase my perceived and sometimes, what feels like, real stigma. This is the reality people are facing in Ireland today and it needs to change.

I do believe we are getting places in terms of promoting positive mental health and well-being in the workplace but much of it remains a tokenistic effort to keep up with the wellness trends and to ‘be seen’ to be making the effort in that regard. However, when I speak to people about mental health in the workplace, they do not feel supported and would be extremely reluctant in taking a day off for their mental health, no mind disclosing anything about an issue. Let me take this opportunity to state, the only ‘issue’ is the employers reluctance to treat mental health like any illness. It must be treated, however, with a compassionate approach which the business world has a tendency to lack.

Personally, I have had to walk out of numerous positions because of my health, however I must say I never exhausted all of my options within the workplace in terms of supports that may have been available. It was, again, the perceived notion of being rejected, judged, stigmatised and ultimately discriminated against.

It is a difficult, grey area but when I was in that position, in my defence I did not feel that it was appropriate to disclose. Given all of the initiatives in place, I still felt like the door was open, so to speak, which is where the real problem lies. Instead of blaming myself for not seeking the support, I think the emphasis needs to be placed on our work culture across the board in Ireland – but also worldwide.

The Americanised culture of a mentality of complete utilisation of employees in stressful and pressurised environment needs to be looked at with a sense of discernment. Whilst business is competitive and fast paced, it is costing people’s health in Ireland and the facts and research add up.

Research carried out by University College Cork in March 2023 examined the challenges Irish employers faced in relation to employee mental health post the COVID-19 pandemic, exploring workplace mental health and well-being promotion in Ireland. The report found that 80% of Irish business do not invest in mental health while in contrast mental health related sickness absence is a growing challenge for Irish employers, as more than half of employer’s report that the proportion of absenteeism due to mental ill-health had increased in the previous 12 months.

Similarly, in a study done by See Change, 70% of Irish workers are concerned that disclosing a mental health issue would impact on their job and lead to them being treated differently by colleagues and managers. Almost half of respondents to a survey by the mental health group said they believed disclosing such an an issue would lead to them being passed over for a promotion, with 37% stating they were “afraid” it would see them excluded from tasks and meetings.

As someone who is directly affected every day by mental health difficulties, I cannot stress the importance of the support needed around mental health as well as increased awareness around its importance leading to an open door policy around mental health for employees in all business in Ireland. We have indeed made improvements on the face of it but the research shows that we have a long way to go in treating mental health to be just as, if not more serious, than physical illness.

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