When Stigma Prevails, Civilised Society Fails

People with wellbeing challenges can perform and be effective despite their challenges, if only society could learn how to provide support, rather than stigma.

When I first talked about my mental wellbeing in an effort to get the support I needed, one of the reactions I received was this: "I'm surprised you can climb into a suit in the morning". This comment, backed up by the course of conduct I experienced in the coming months, told me that I was faced with an individual who perceived me as weak and incapable. That person was very wrong. I wasn't weak & incapable. I was ill.

I remain ill. I always will. I have a post-traumatic, hyper-vigilant mind that frequently disturbs me with memories of the death of my son and the anticipation of new tragedies that could come my way. But with support I can perform & be effective.

Following my experience of stigma, I've given up a part of my earning capacity to instead support those who face the same dehumanising stigma.

From my work with organisations (workplaces, universities and schools) through an organisation called "Evenhood" I have learned a great deal about what life is like in different workplaces for those are bereaved, who have depression, anxiety, are stressed, have gone through a divorce or other personal-life crisis, who have bipolar disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, eating disorders, those who self-harm and those who have other wellbeing challenges.

How about this for a list of stigma-inducing behaviour:

  • someone with depression who was openly referred to by his boss as "infectiously grumpy"

  • someone with anxiety who was labelled as "a delicate flower" by their boss

  • someone who was a bereaved parent who was told they'd lost their gravitas as a manager

  • someone with autism who was asked in his appraisal to become more sociable! (to which his reaction was: "but I've got autism, that's like asking a blind man to see!")

  • a bereaved parent who couldn't discuss his wellbeing with his boss, so instead he ended up coming into work on the anniversary of his son's death. Part-way through his day he asked me for some coaching to help him get to the end of the day.

We get all sorts of language that some people think is "banter". It isn't.

Picture listing the sort of words applied to those with mental health challenges such as nutter, grumpy, mental, fruitcake, irritable, sullen, insane and so on.

We get those phrases that people think are funny. They aren't.

Cartoon image of the author holding two potato fries with the phrase "two fries short of a happy meal" above his head

These things aren't necessarily malicious or vindictive. But this stuff hurts. The people who receive these negative labels not only have a mental wellness challenge, which is hard enough, but they now feel beaten up for it by having their difference constantly highlighted as a weakness.

Let me put it another way. It is so obvious that your boss cannot punch you in the face that no-one probably even goes to the effort of writing this down in a staff handbook. The boss would get fired. It is simply not allowed. Yet, through Evenhood, I've worked with people who have had this kind of language applied to them. And it hurts. It makes their condition worse. It makes them more ill. I know. Because this has happened to me too.

Let me be clear. That is an assault. It's an assault because it causes injury and further illness.

Cartoon image with the phrase "spot the difference" at the top. The images shows a boss pointing a finger and saying "infectiously grumpy" alongside another boss punching an employee in the face.

Stigma is an assault. As plain as a punch to the face.

And alongside this Stigma, there is a lack of workplace support.

I've worked with people who have not been sent for a medical assessment, despite asking for one.

I've worked with someone whose boss accused her of "gaming the system" when she asked for some adjustments to support her mental health. Her "invisible" mental health challenge meant that her boss thought he could simply say she was trying it on.

Image of boss pointing his finger and saying "you're gaming the system".

I've even seen organisations reject adjustments - one because they "don't fit with the way