On January 30, NPR’s Talk of the Nation included segment titled “Balancing Work, Medication, and Mental Illness.” It was good to hear this respected program focus on an issue that affects so many people, in a venue in which it was surely heard by many who are unfamiliar with what life is like for people struggling with mental illness.
What particularly struck me about this discussion was the continued stigma that the mentally ill face. On the one hand the Americans With Disabilities Act ensures that employers must accommodate necessary care for mentally ill workers, such as regular appointments with psychiatrists and psychologists – which usually take place during the work day. On the other hand, workers are reluctant to disclose mental illness and the need for regular appointments to employers and co-workers, for fear of subtle or even unintentional negative consequences. An example given was of an employee who suffers from chronic respiratory problems and suffers from infections that keep him home for two weeks out of the year – easily understood, not frightening or intimidating. But a person with schizophrenia, who may be at a low point and unable to work for a couple of weeks out of the year is a very different story – something we talk about in whispers, with raised eyebrows, fear, and misunderstanding.
Similarly those of us caring for a person with a mental illness are often reluctant to let coworkers in on the real story of why we sometimes have to take time off work, when we are in reality needed to assist with mental health appointments or particularly bad days for our loved ones. How much easier it would be if we didn’t have to fight against the waves of negativity we always fear we’ll experience if we speak the truth about what’s going on in our lives with a mentally ill person. And how much healthier for the entire community if we could talk about these issues – taking away the mystery, the misunderstanding, and the fear.