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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 things are done around here" rather than thinking about whether the way things are done could change, to accommodate the adjustment.

Cartoon image of boss shrugging shoulders and saying "sorry, that doesn't fit with the way things are done around here".

This absence of support is also damaging. It makes the condition worse. I've seen people become more ill because of the way that they are treated. I also became more ill because of the way I was treated.

Let me be clear again. This is totally unacceptable. It's an assault. It has to change.

It can change by people in positions of influence learning how to have mentally healthy conversations. That is the main focus of my work through Evenhood.

The long and short of it is that when Stigma prevails, civilised society fails. Those bosses, tutors, teachers who don't care, show their true colours. At best they show themselves as incapable of leading because they lack compassion and empathy on how to offer support. At worst they show themselves as self-interested bullies who are willing to mistreat the vulnerable and discard them.

A civilised society needs to call this out as unacceptable. We need to train our leaders, managers, tutors and teachers in how to have a mentally healthy conversation so that they can discover the world of capability that lies within those who have mental wellbeing challenges.

I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan

About Jonathan Phelan

Jonathan is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.

Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.

Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing. Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.

The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation is available on Amazon or from the Evenhood website.


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