Let’s get something straight from the beginning. If you work for a private company, earning decent money, doing the kind of job that plenty of others would like to get their hands on, here’s some advice: You’d be a total fool to admit to any kind of mental illness whatsoever.
There it is. Not the message MIND, or your company’s official HR policy, or perhaps even this modern, well-designed and compassionate website might want to promote. Not the atmosphere we want people suffering from mental difficulties to work in. But definitely the way things are.
Most people see mental illness as a fundamental flaw in your personality. The psychological equivalent of the drunk on the train carriage. Their instinctive reaction is to avoid it, shrink away, pretend it isn’t there. Most people see mental illness as weakness. And people with weaknesses, people who are unpredictable, people who might not cut it in stressful situations are a threat to their fellow employees.
Sounds vicious, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It’s just a natural reaction to being frightened, and there are very few things more frightening than being reminded of our own insecurities, our own weaknesses, our own capacity for failure. Few of us are so confident that we don’t, to some degree, test ourselves against the people around us. ‘How am I doing?’ is a hard question to answer unless you’ve got a benchmark for comparison, and where else can those comparisons come from except work?
So if we’re all performing mental litmus tests to see how together, how on top of things, how impervious to stress we are – and some fucker has the temerity to flip? It’s a betrayal, a breaking of the collective lie that everything’s fine. Admit to mental illness in the workplace and you force everyone around you – your peers, your colleagues, your enemies and friends – to look at themselves for signs of the same thing. To acknowledge that life isn’t easy. That we all have far richer, more nuanced internal lives than we’re ever supposed to admit to.
This isn’t supposed to be some sub-Peter Finch rant about a lack of integrity in the workplace, or a plaintive cry for more openness – more an admission of the difficulty anyone in a competitive, status-driven job is always going to face when they try to put their hand up and say that something’s not right.
If you think different, or even better, know different, then congratulations – you’re either braver, better supported or less closely scrutinised than I’ve ever been. But until the one in four of all adults who at some time will suffer a mental illness can know they’ll be treated with sympathy and understanding by their employers, things aren’t going to change.