One in five adults in this country will experience a diagnosable mental illness during their lifetime. Here, in Sacramento County, an estimated 300,000 residents are living with mental illness, which impacts every ethnic, racial, cultural, economic, religious, gender, sexual orientation and age group.
Despite progress made over the years in education about mental illness, stigma still prevents many individuals from seeking treatment and is one of the largest obstacles to recovery. Many individuals are also afraid to tell their coworkers or employers about their mental health condition because they’re afraid of being treated differently or even losing their jobs.
Nearly six years ago, Sacramento County — where I work as a health educator — initiated the “Mental Illness: It’s not always what you think” project, funded by the Division of Behavioral Health Services through the voter-approved Proposition 63, aims to reduce stigma and discrimination, promote health and wellness, and inspire hope for people and families living with mental illness. The speakers bureau for the project — Stop Stigma Sacramento — comprises individuals who share their personal experiences with mental illness, promote positive attitudes, and spread messages of hope and recovery in the workplace and community.
Bill Marr, president and CEO of Sanitas Benefits, is a member of Stop Stigma Sacramento and lives with anxiety. He recently shared his experience and advice for others navigating mental illness in the workplace:
What has your personal experience been with mental illness?
I started Sanitas Benefits three years ago. Prior to starting my own business, I worked for another insurance carrier in Sacramento, but I had to leave my position because of my anxiety. I live with obsessive compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and often fear that I will die of a heart attack. I realize it’s irrational, and probably won’t happen, but it is a very real part of my life. I have found a way to manage my anxiety with the firm belief that I don’t have to let this condition dictate my behavior.
What has helped in your recovery?
It’s important not to judge yourself when you’re having a difficult moment. Let’s say you’re having a day where you have several panic attacks and you have to push off meetings — don’t take inventory of your life in that moment. It never ends well. However, if an hour later, or the next day, you feel good and you’re back at the office, that’s the time to take inventory — because then you realize how lucky you are.
How has living with a mental illness impacted your work life?
When I go to a new meeting, I often worry that I’m going to have a panic attack and need to leave suddenly. I usually bring a coworker with me — they know I have anxiety and are there for support. I don’t scream my condition from the rooftops, however, I’m very open about my anxiety and people around me have been receptive.
Why is stigma such a major issue for those living with a mental illness?
The workplace is a lifeline for people — it’s how they pay their mortgages and support their families. Work is already a competitive environment and the last thing most people want is to be perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘incapable.’ If you’re moved to share your condition with your employer, I’d recommend going to your human resources team first, to explain and say: ‘Here is what I’m living with,’ ‘here is how I cope’ and ‘here is how I’ve been able to succeed in my career.’
Why do you think there is value in speaking up about mental illness in the workplace and elsewhere?
Speaking up about mental health keeps us focused on the things that make us similar instead of our differences. Mental health is what connects us. We are kind, loving, compassionate human beings, and we need to cultivate a sense of curiosity verses a sense of judgment about others.
What are some tactics or tools you use to communicate with your coworkers about mental illness?
Keep mental health a part of normal, healthy conversation. When I have a meeting, I say, ‘Hey, who’s going with me?’ My colleagues know that that means I’ll need support in the room in case I need to leave suddenly due to my anxiety. I’ve talked about it openly, and so this situation is something we all know how to handle.
What are some of the best ways to reduce stigma around mental illness in the workplace?
It’s important that someone from the top take a proactive step and encourage the importance of mental health in the workplace. Look at it this way: If someone had a heart condition, an employer would expect them to undergo proper treatment. If enough of us follow this protocol when it comes to mental health, the stigma won’t have a chance. I’d suggest inviting a speakers bureau member to come to your office to share their experience.