Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Great Depression Shield

It's the taboo subject that isn't really a taboo subject yet still has an enormous stigma attached to it. I am, of course, talking about mental illness. 

As children, we're never really told about depression, or schizophrenia, or psychosis in the same way that we're told about asthma, eczema, or the common cold. So when we grow up to be faced with these issues, we simply don't know how to handle them. There is no education about mental illness, yet it's something we're all expected to know about. We should know how to assist a friend suffering from depression and we should know how to handle a schizophrenic individual but we just don't. And it's incredibly terrifying.

In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. I know that it's affected me, and plenty of people in my life. I've suffered with depression on and off for seven years now. I don't mean that I feel a little sad from time to time and get a bit teary. When I'm struck with an episode, it is catastrophic. I go from being quite an outgoing individual to a shielded introvert who suffers from chronic panic attacks and can't sleep for days on end. 

Luckily - or unluckily, depending on how you view it - I have a mother who has also suffered from extenuous mental health issues over the years so I grew up knowing that you don't have to suffer in silence and there is no shame in seeking help for it. But how many others are out there blighted by depression who just don't have the information or support system to seek help? I would wager that the number is dangerously high.

My anxiety and related panic attacks have been a burden for an extremely long time. At my previous job, my employers didn't want to handle my rare panic attacks which would leave me needing just ten or fifteen minutes breathing space. It got to a stage where I felt like the best possible solution would be for me to leave. I wasn't expecting to receive special treatment, but a bit of understanding wouldn't go amiss.

Unfortunately, during my research for this article, I discovered that I'm not the only person who has been made to feel like a burden on their employer. One girl I spoke to - who has asked to not be identified - returned to work after a month off, due to a breakdown. Upon her return, she was subjected to colleagues making jokes about her being a 'nutjob' or 'special case' and an employer who was reluctant to allow her to leave early one day to make it to an appointment with a psychiatrist. 

After just three weeks back at work, she found herself facing a dilemma. Should she stay at work, knowing it's the best thing for her, and be subjected to cruel comments, or should she leave her job and begin freelancing? Sadly, she left her job and is now struggling to find anything in her field.

Another individual I spoke to made a bold move that not many others would make when he started a new job: He informed his employers from the very beginning that he was a sufferer of a variety of mental illnesses, hoping that the clarity would make things easier. He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic whilst at university, and was also on medication for anxiety.

Instead of finding himself with compassionate employers who offered their sympathy, he found himself in an office full of reluctant colleagues, each one afraid to communicate with him because he was a 'psycho.' Eventually, his employer asked him to leave as he had created an 'unwelcome atmosphere' within the working environment.

Hearing those stories made me absolutely furious. Can you imagine an employer asking a physically disabled employee to leave because them being in a wheelchair made everyone else uncomfortable? Can you imagine the outrage if a pregnant woman found herself subjected to insults whilst in the workplace? It would just simply not be acceptable. So why is mental illness any different?

Legally, employers are required to make any necessary adaptations when they hire a person who is physically disabled. There are currently no laws protecting those who have mental illnesses. An employer doesn't have to make provisions to allow someone time off to see their psychiatrist, yet they have to for a pregnant employee.

I know there are some wonderful employers out there who bend over backwards for their employees and try their utmost to provide them with a safe, welcoming work environment. However, there are far too many who do little to nothing to assist their employees who suffer from a form of mental illness. Insulting the physically disabled used to be the norm and is now, rightly, incredibly prohibited. Why can't the same be said for those who have a hidden disability?

Twitter: @AmyWhitear

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