Is Mental Health In The Workplace Ignored?

By Geoff McLennan

McLennan 9.18I just took a short walk on the Riverwalk in West Sacramento. It is a warm day and ahead of me I spotted a young man spinning his baseball cap and talking to nobody. As he passed me, I noticed his legs were dirty, his shoes were worn and he was sunburned. Where was he going and who would care for him?

Mental health has become an incredibly explosive issue in California and other states. Local governments struggle with how to police, track, feed and otherwise respect mentally ill homeless people. My wife reminded me of when the state released over 3,500 mentally ill from a San Francisco Bay Area state mental hospital shuttled in the 1970s. Since then, we have witnessed a gradual increase of the mentally ill in our schools, institutions and bus stations. More recently, we have seen them in the headlines as celebrities and others succumb to depression, schizophrenia and other psychotic illness. Suicide is our loss. As Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, of Columbia University, New York City, recently observed in Medscape: “Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a preexisting mental illness.” Lieberman also notes, “There are a variety of telltale signs or indicators that suggest that someone may be thinking about suicide.”

When I accepted employment with the government in 1978, the agency I worked for had a psychologist on staff. He was a bearded fellow who had an office on the executive floor. I finally met him after my first experience with conflict in the office. It was pleasant to have someone to talk things over. He eventually arranged for me and the supervisor to meet, shake hands and move beyond the conflict.

Over the years, I heard and indiscriminately shared jokes about “going postal” and other references to anger in the workplace. There were shootings in two state agencies: an irate customer shot a general manager of a housing company and there was the suicide of two retired state executives. Now I look back and chide myself for not being more thoughtful and caring about mental health in the workplace. I miss the staff psychologist at work.

How is mental health addressed in your workplace? Is there a policy, procedure or even a poster? If you or another employee need critical care, do you get an “800” number, a program pamphlet or can you reach a therapist or psychiatrist? Has anyone been arrested and taken away in front of the office?  Do the managers and supervisors know how to recognize telltale signs and the behavior of serious mental illness or is there any training available?

Are we ready to engage mental illness as citizens and employees? Tell me.

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One thought on “Is Mental Health In The Workplace Ignored?

  1. Geoff – you are more than correct – if you take the proportion of the population with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism (a brain-based disorder) add in a few more less well recognized disorders you get to about 25% of the population with some form of biologically-based brain disorder (a more state of the art term than “mental illness”). The losses in productivity and human suffering are uncountable. Much work needs to be done to educate and remove the stigma of these disorders. Very few organizations/people really handle these issues well. In the developing world, biologically-based brain disorders are the number one noncommunicable disease (see WHO report). Thanks for raising this topic.

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