Tuesday, August 11, 2015

23% of Kiwis Think Mentally Ill Should Face Workplace Discrimination? That's Just Nuts!

Well this is concerning, isn't it. According to the Herald, a quarter of Kiwis are OK with workplace discrimination against the mentally ill. Specifically, 23% of respondents to the HPA's Health and Lifestyles Survey reckoned that an employer was a-ok justified in hiring a candidate with less work-experience and a clean bill of mental health over somebody more experienced, yet who also had a history of mental health issues.

Now let's be clear about this. I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

You all know that mentally ill Kiwis are people just like you and me (in fact, I'm one of them). It's also vitally important to stress that mental illness is an absolutely *huge* and multidimensional spectrum of ailments and impairments - some of which are curable and others merely 'manageable'. Many of them don't even directly interface with the workplace or effect performance therein in the first instance.

So the first thing we need to get absolutely clear if you're one of the 23% of Kiwis who think having a history of mental illness automatically justifies somebody being excluded from swathes of the workforce ... is that it's a ridiculously broad category of people you're discriminating against. And given the question asked about a "history of mental illness" rather than "someone who is presently mentally ill", you could well be excluding Kiwis who are, in fact, perfectly FINE despite having had a bout of depression or a psychotic episode many, many years in their past.

And that doesn't make very much sense, does it.

Yet as long as mental health issues continue to carry a public stigma attached to them, it's all too easy for many otherwise good people to think this way. Because there's this great big scary ontological boogeyman called "Mental Illness" in most people's minds, we don't always bother to look behind and beyond that to see both what's *actually* entailed by a given illness, and who the real person suffering (or recovering from, or remembering) the illness is.

As I've previously argued, when the average person thinks of somebody with a "history of mental health issues", they're more likely to insta-conjure the Patrick Batemans, William Bells or Clayton Weatherstons of this world - rather than, say, some relatively innocuous type who mostly keeps to him-or-her-self and manages his/her depression via a small handful of SSRIs in the mornings.

Now to be fair, there are some mental illnesses which can seriously negatively impact upon a sufferer's ability to perform in the workplace. One of the reasons why I'm on the modern equivalent of a sickness benefit, for instance, is because the last time I was in a sixty-hour-a-week job, I started hallucinating objects, details and people in a manner that effectively precluded me from holding down a day-job. So I definitely do acknowledge that not every mentally ill person is employable - and that in some cases, an average layman's trepidation that it could all start again for somebody with a history of the illness, is not born out of a completely blind bigotry.

But thanks to advances in modern medicine and psychiatry, many conditions are now treatable. Most of those that are not substantially reversible are, at the very least, manageable. You would be genuinely surprised at the number of otherwise relatively normal people in YOUR workplace who might have scary-sounding conditions like "paranoid schizophrenia" or "cyclothymia" ... and yet who manage to function perfectly well and adequately without even the merest hint of their illness emerging in their day-to-day interactions with you or the spreadsheets.

In other words, there is absolutely no justification, in most cases of people with a mental illness or a history of mental health problems to discriminate against those people in the workplace. Particularly when it's a previous *history* of mental health problems - that sort-of by itself indicates that it's a past issue which is hopefully, for all intents and purposes, vanishing off into the distance of the mists of time with proper intervention and care.

In fact, I'd go even FURTHER.

Occasionally, mentally ill people seem to be able to make an excellent contribution not in spite of, but perhaps BECAUSE of their disorders.

That's why in some industries - although definitely not all - it could be argued that we're already quite accustomed to looking at people with an acknowledged history or present of mental illness, shrugging our shoulders, and wondering in frank askance why anyone would bother to hold it against them?

Winston Churchill's bipolar, for instance, is arguably one of the things that made him the politician and war-leader that he was. Ditto with Abraham Lincoln's major depression. And I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking Stephen Fry's bipolar probably added to his prowess as a comedian. Heck, with John Nash foremost in mind, there's been a whole range of mathematicians and artists who've suffered from schizophrenia - yet produced great things in their respective fields, quite possibly in part due to the disease.

Obviously, these are not going to be generally representative of either the experience of mental illness generally, or for the individual and their community.

But they do go to prove an important point: that it's seriously, SERIOUSLY foolhardy if not outright irrational to write somebody off from being able to make a contribution to the workforce or to our Nation purely on the basis of their having a mental disorder and perhaps seeing the world a little bit differently.

It's time we stopped, as a society, looking upon both mental illness and the mentally ill with such stigma.

We can and should be more accepting, as well as more supportive in helping people with all manner of cognitive backgrounds to be able to find ways in which they can make THEIR contribution to our community and progress.

Because a situation wherein 23% of us think the more than 16% of us who've been diagnosed with a mental disorder ought to face workplace discrimination ... is quite frankly just plain nuts.

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