Reinforcing the Stigma Instead of Breaking It

by Bill Brenner on April 20, 2011

Lost in my most recent tirade against employers who discriminate against the mentally ill is a point that’s very important: People like us have a responsibility to prove we’re up to the challenges we seek.

Mood music:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QanVuQIXU5s&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0]

In my opinion, employers have no legal right to deny someone a job simply because they were diagnosed with a mental illness. They do, however, have the right to pass over a candidate who doesn’t seem up to the job.

My friend Danielle Goodwin shared a personal example of someone denying her a job because she was honest about what she had:

I interviewed several times (making the cut each time) for a national-level position worth some big bucks last year. They used emotional intelligence testing and the whole nine yards. I passed everything.

I went for my final interview with the president of the company (all of the lower committees had recommended me to be hired). Everyone had told me the guy asks stuff that no one else has ever asked you and to be totally honest because he can spot a liar…so he asks me piercing, direct questions about my childhood abuse. I was completely honest with him, and I found out the next day he told everyone else everything I told him and that because I was hurt as a child, I definitely couldn’t function in their company.

What a jerk! He had the right, I guess, since it was just an interview…but why dig in so deep and ask me those things if you’re just going to hold it against me without ever seeing my work product and ethic.

If anything, adult children like me work harder, work more efficiently, and produce higher quality work according to the research.

The guy who interviewed her, told everyone about the conversation and turned her down was an asshole. Pure and simple. A lawyer could have had a field day picking that bastard to pieces.

At the other end of the spectrum is this comment from Beth Horne, president and CEO of The Horne Agency, a marketing and advertising firm. She has lived this from both sides, as the mental illness sufferer and as an employer. She wrote the following via the United States Mental Health Professionals group on LinkedIn:

I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 twenty years ago. I received treatment and have been stable for years, thanks to excellent therapy, medication and education. Before returning to school for my PhD in Psychology, I worked in Marketing/Advertising for several large media companies before opening my own advertising agency. I was open about my diagnosis with my employers during my interview process, and it never hindered me from being hired. In fact, I never interviewed for a job I did not get, due to my work record, resume and references.

I think that my work performance more than made up for any issues I may have had regarding my disorder, such as sometimes having periods of depression or getting a bit manic when life changes occurred. I worked very hard NOT to let them affect my work performance or reduce my ability to generate revenue for my company. 

However, I have been in management with these companies and had employees with mental issues who did not take care of themselves and they became liabilities to the company and had to be let go. Some would refuse to take their medication and attend therapy, some would miss work continually or be so over-medicated they were in a constant stupor, unable to perform their duties. I had one woman who came into the office in such a manic state I had to ask her to stay in her office until she could have her husband take her to her doctor, and to please refrain from taking any sales calls, for fear of her ruining client relations. 

If someone knows they have a mental issue/disorder, it is a personal choice whether or not to accept their diagnosis and get help and follow their treatment. Is this always easy? NO! But if they are to function in the work environment, it is their responsibility to do anything and everything in their power to stay as healthy as possible. If this is not possible for them, then it is time to look into disability.

Employers need to understand that not everyone with a diagnosis of a mental illness is like another…there are people with bipolar disorder who have little problem going on with their daily routine with just therapy and medication, while others find it impossible to blend into the work environment. I use bipolar disorder as just one example, but there are many others, as we all are aware. I have a mother who has a mild form of OCD and is a supervisor at a hospital. What better profession could there be for someone who will always be strict about following rules, cleanliness and excellent patient care than an RN? Or like my brother, who also has the same issue, works in IT?

Both are successful and well-adjusted, and their coworkers probably have no idea they have any mental problems whatsoever. So before they judge and dismiss a potential employee because of ignorance, they should look at the person as a whole and not just their diagnosis.  

Beth, you are so right. Thanks for sharing.

Like Beth, I’ve been judged by my workmanship and not by any mental health issues I’ve disclosed. That has been the case for me in every job I’ve ever had.

I’m very fortunate.

There have also been times in past jobs where my workmanship suffered because I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was refusing to even consider therapy or medication, and I sank lower and lower.

I was reinforcing the stigma instead of breaking it.

Today I succeed because I refuse to let the struggles render me useless. Like Danielle, I fight harder and longer, and I never give up.

Better to be part of the solution than the problem.

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