Stigma in the Workplace

Greg Hitchcock gives his talk about ‘stigma in the workplace’ at Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church on Sun. May 15, 2022.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (13:5) reads:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; Be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”.

It was in 2016 when Michelle Lewis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She was called into a meeting at work after she was released from the clinic. She felt that she could be honest with her employer.

So – she told them how she was seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist once a month for her mental illness. The reaction she received was not what she expected. She was told that she should resign and that her work was no longer up to par (even though there were no issues before that). Eventually, Lewis was forced to resign as the company began treating her differently.

In her autobiography, CBS Sunday Morning anchor Jane Pauley revealed that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late forties. She also mentioned that upon hospitalization for her symptoms, a doctor recommended she tell her employer that she was receiving treatment for a thyroid condition. Pauley goes on to describe the incident as “the only time in my life…that I experienced stigma.”

Mental illness is one of the ways in which you can be discriminated against in the workplace. Mental illness is still very stigmatized today as many people do not understand it and how it works.

Consider Liam.

After Liam received his schizophrenia diagnosis at age 16, he would tell people about it. That’s when they recoiled in horror.

Lots of people told Liam, “You don’t look schizophrenic.” But what does a schizophrenic person look like?

Consider Estelle.

For every excellent professional, Estelle said she has encountered others who have been unhelpful, including doctors and psychiatrists, who don’t understand.

I’ve been called a “Timewaster: and someone who cried wolf too many times, she said.

Consider Denise.

I have tried speaking to some of my family about the self-stigma I experience, but they just don’t understand. They say they do, but they don’t – they often say, ‘Give yourself a shake,’ or, ‘Snap out of it.’

Or consider me – Gregory Hitchcock.

When told of my own mental illness, I was an 18-year-old soldier serving faithfully and honorably in the U.S. Army. After experiencing voices, anxiety, and paranoia, my medical providers said my schizophrenia was debilitating and lifelong with no chance of a cure.

I was sent home with an honorable discharge to allow time to recover. I have spent nearly 35 years trying to prove them wrong, that I am a worthwhile person, mostly through good work both as an employee and as a volunteer.

My mother was the first in my family to lend help and support. My mother was a teacher. She instilled in me a work ethic that has not left me even through my recovery journey. A work ethic is a principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous and worthy of reward.

Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12):

“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now, such persons, we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

In 1987, I left military service with low self-esteem through self-stigma. Was I going to have a good life? Was I destined to be sick forever? Why did God curse me with schizophrenia?

My mother insisted I start over again by going to college and finding my way to a career, one without stigma. Anything to get me going. Using the G.I Bill, which helps veterans attend college after their service ends, I chose English never knowing where it would lead me. It took some time to find out I was interested in Journalism

In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to prevent workplace and hiring discrimination against people with disabilities. This Act applies to all private businesses with 15 or more employees and covers government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions.

However, in the decades since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employment has remained an elusive goal for many people. Only thirty-one percent of people with disabilities, ages 16 to 64, had a job in 2019, compared with 75 percent of those without disabilities, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The rate of unemployment is higher for people with mental illness than for those who do not have a mental health condition (6.4% as compared to 5.1%). Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that people with mental illness want to work and that working is vital to their recovery, but they struggle to find employment and equitable workplaces.

It was not until Spring 1999 that I found my first job in the field of Journalism and for the next twenty-five years, I interviewed people, researched information, and wrote articles for newspapers in my hometown and ultimately throughout the United States.

I had my doubts that I could do this. Questions still popped into my mind. The biggest question was who would trust someone to be factual when they had a mental disorder?

However, I had people who supported me in my job. They made me feel welcome and encouraged me in my endeavors. I self-disclosed about my mental illness and somehow, they understood.

An employment contract is like a covenant. It is an agreement between two parties. In the case of an employment contract, one party promises to work faithfully and honorably while the other party employs them.

The covenant that God gave at Mount Sinai with Moses reinforced the covenant that God had given to Abraham and told the Jews what they would have to do as their side of the covenant. God again promised to stay with the Jews and never to abandon them, because they were his chosen people.

However, contracts, unlike covenants, can be nullified for no reason other than disabilities that have been stigmatized by their employers. Many see mental illness as a “character flaw” or a “sign of weakness”. A survey was conducted and found that 57.8% of those with mental illness would not tell their employer about their illness. This is because of the fear of discrimination.

A 2003 study by Rutgers University found that people with physical and mental disabilities continue to be vastly underrepresented in the U.S. workplace. One-third of the employers surveyed said that people with disabilities cannot effectively perform the required job tasks. The second most common reason given for not hiring the disabled was the fear of costly special facilities.

Granted, some people living with a mental health condition find that there are periods of time when working becomes too difficult, and they can no longer sustain employment. The Social Security Administration provides monthly income and health insurance for people unable to work: Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

For other people who receive disability benefits, they may be fearful of entering or re-entering the workforce for fear of losing their financial safety nets.

Sen. Edward Ted Kennedy once wrote;

“…the high unemployment rate among people receiving federal disability benefits is not because their federal benefits programs have ‘front doors that are too big – i.e., have eligibility criteria that are too loose – but because they have ‘back doors that are too small’ – i.e., once persons are on the rolls, it is too risky to come off.”

My story is similar to those like Liam, Estelle, and Denise. Along with them, I have experienced self-stigma stemming from a culture that fears mental illness. That self-stigma made me loath, despise and distrust myself and still has lingering effects today.

Nearly 1 in 4 active-duty members of the military showed signs of a mental health condition, according to a 2014 study in JAMA PsychiatryOne in 5 American adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year. And across the population, 1 in every 20 adults is living with a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or long-term recurring major depression.

A brief look at certain public figures suggests that living with mental illness does not have to hinder success and innovation. Famed mathematician and Nobel Prize Winner John Nash lived with schizophrenia. Beloved Hollywood icon and “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher had bipolar disorder, and she eventually became an advocate who worked to destigmatize the condition and encourage others to seek help. More recently, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles opened up about her mental health battle while adding yet another medal to her collection.

These stories demonstrate that people with mental illnesses are not only productive contributors but that they can be leaders in their fields — assets to both society and the workplace. However, people with mental illness continue to face tremendous barriers to employment; namely, discriminatory hiring practices.

Ultimately, applicants will not want to disclose their disabilities until the stigma surrounding disability and mental illness has been reduced. About 18% of workers in the U.S. report having a mental health condition in any given month, so it is imperative that companies pay attention to their employees’ mental health.

Ultimately, attracting the best talent and maintaining a healthy workplace requires hiring many applicants, including people with mental health conditions. Addressing stigma and better understanding the needs of employees will improve the workplace culture, which in turn, will help create employee loyalty and commitment to the company.

Today, I am a productive well-balanced individual managing my schizophrenia. I turn to health care providers including mental health care workers for counseling and treatment; I love writing; I volunteer at my church and in the community; I have a loving home life with a supportive wife, and I treasure times I can spend with friends and with other veterans in adaptive sports.

I now realize something truly important. God did not abandon me or forsake me. When the doors of the mental health ward swung shut closing me off from the outside world, God was with me. He was there every step of the way placing people on my path of life to support me along the way: My mom; my family and friends; my coworkers; my medical providers; my wife; and yes, my church family I live with today.

I end with a poem.

One word can start a friendship,
One kiss a love affair,
One smile can bring you laughter,
One hug can show you care,
One wave of your hand can say hello,
One tear can make you cry,
One gentle touch can warm a heart,
One dream can make you fly,
One song can bring back memories,
One thought sees brighter days,
One wish can bring colorful rainbows,
One good deed can bring you praise,
One moon can light your darkness,
One star can guide your soul,
One step will start each journey,
One hope to make your goal,
One hand to hold in friendship,
One heart that’s kind and true,
One Love…One friend, is all you need,
It’s really up to you.

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