ED: In an editorial published in June 6th's Toronto Star, writer Michael Gray Kimber—a blogger who's shared his experiences with mental illness on his blog, Colony of Losers: Fuck Mental Illness, earning 2 million hits in the process—pleas for a drastic change in the mental health system.
"No minority [such as those with mental illness] has ever been given rights without demanding them," writes Kimber. "The struggle for rights for people living with mental illness is complicated by the fact that no one wants to admit they have been sick. We need to break the stigma. Our only hope is each other, that we who have been lucky enough to recover will remember that darkness and leave no man, woman or child behind."
Kimber's stumbled upon a salient point here: invisible disabilities are very real. And, as he correctly notes, 4,000 Canadians are lost to suicide every year—a figure indicating that mental illness is still stigmatized, in the workplace or otherwise. It's a hot-button issue that few are willing to talk about. Yet the results of mental illness paired with no accomodations, as wonderfully explained by Jezebel, can be lethal.
So, if you have a mental illness, how does that effect you in the workplace? What types of accomodations will you need, and how can you address them to any employer? There's no easy answer, but here, Emma Wooley tackles those questions. -Mark Teo
Jessica, a full-time student in the sciences, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 22. This disorder, characterized by extreme mood swings, can make working and keeping up with homework very difficult. When explaining to her professor that she has good and bad days, she was told, “We all have bad days.”
“Most of them [educators] didn't take my condition seriously and I felt it was because I don't immediately appear ‘disabled,’” says Jessica.
Bipolar disorder is just one of many invisible disabilities that affect Canadians. The less noticeable conditions can include physical symptoms, such as pain, mobility/agility issues, fatigue, chronic illness, dizziness, and weakness; invisible disabilities can also be cognitive dysfunctions, such as learning difficulties and mental disorders. Such impairments aren’t always obvious, but they can limit a person’s activities and productivity, especially in the workplace.
Unfortunately, because invisible disabilities are well, invisible, they aren’t always taken seriously. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and a recent survey of for-profit businesses in British Columbia revealed that 89 percent of respondents didn’t have a plan in place for invisible disabilities.
While workplaces and schools have a legal responsibility to make accommodations for all people with disabilities, stigma and a lack of understanding can make asking for them very difficult. Jessica, whose bad days are more than just bad days, says, “They [most educators] probably assumed I was taking advantage of the system for the perks and extensions.”
If you have an invisible disability, you’re not alone. In 2006, about half a million Canadians over the age of fifteen reported having less noticeable disabilities. The following is an overview of some of the most common conditions and how to make sure you get the accommodations you need.
Physical disabilities aren’t always as obvious as having to use a wheelchair or crutches. Some of the most self-reported disabilities include mobility and agility issues (such as standing for long periods of time and picking up objects), and over half of Canadians are living with some kind of chronic disease.
One of the most common chronic diseases is diabetes, which affects nearly two million Canadians. Anne, a fine arts and social work graduate, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 15. While working in private childcare, she could easily explain that the cause of her type 1 diabetes is more complicated than following prescribed diets, but rather the fact that her body has simply stopped producing insulin.
Explaining her disease wasn’t so easy once she entered an office environment. “People make gross assumptions and I have been in more than one situation where people at work have publicly declared that I shouldn’t be eating the cake or candy in my hand.”
“It got bad enough in one place that I just stopped eating around co-workers. It was really uncomfortable and made me feel different and unwelcome. This made me feel self-conscious about other aspects of my condition, like organizing time off to get to doctor’s appointments or thinking about how my co-workers would react if I had a severe hypoglycemic reaction.”
In situations such as Anne’s, when co-workers and employers are aware of your condition, knowing your rights as a person with a disability is very important. She also recommends getting to know the various organizations associated with your condition, and says, “I know that if I feel like I’m experiencing prejudice in the workplace I can call the Canadian Diabetes Association for advice.”
Mental health conditions
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 percent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime and the remaining 80 percent will be indirectly affected through a friend, family member, or colleague. At least eight percent of adults will experience major depression at some point in their lives.
Despite the prevalence of mental illness, people who experience it still deal with a lot of stigma. “I found most people assume people with bipolar disorder are violent, delusional, or drug addicts,” says Jessica. “I've never really explained my disability to a boss before — aside from using the term ‘mood disorder’ — because of my fear of being judged. But I think in order to achieve more understanding in the workplace and in school environments, people should discuss it more so it loses its taboo.”
With so many preexisting negative stereotypes about mental illness — for example, only 49 percent of Canadians polled said they would socialize with a friend with a mental illness — It can be difficult for those affected to talk about it.
“Many people walk around with myths about mental illness,” says Bonnie Kirsch, an associate professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto. ‘It may be that what needs to happen is a discussion about what that actually is.”
Learning disabilities can affect a person in several areas, such as listening, speaking, reading, memory, writing, and math. Like chronic diseases and mental health conditions, learning disabilities are common: one in 10 Canadians are affected. Similar to other conditions, learning disabilities manifest themselves differently and to varying degrees of severity in people.
Anne, who also has diabetes and depression, is officially diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) but prefers to tell people she has difficulty with her short-term memory. She says that many places were very accommodating to her needs (for example, writing out instructions instead of conveying them verbally), but she went through a lot of trial and error before figuring out what she needed to do to succeed.
“I realized pretty quickly after missing a meeting that I needed to be more diligent about getting things marked on my calendar. That meant that if I didn’t have something to write it down in right away, I needed to get better at asking people to send me a quick reminder over email.”
To tell or not to tell?
No matter what kind of disability you have, deciding whether or not to tell your employer and/or co-workers can be a tough one. While hiding a part of yourself can feel like a burden, showing it could have negative consequences.
Carolyn Dewa, head of the Centre for Research on Employment and Workplace Disability at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says, “On one hand, you can't ask for accommodations if you don't say you need them. On the other hand, your decision depends on the workplace. If you have a manager who isn't understanding, it may create a barrier between you and things like promotions.”
While it’s illegal for employers to discriminate that way, unfortunately it happens. In order to gauge whether or not that could happen to you, Kirsch says: “Take a look at the organizational culture first. What happens to people here if they're different? Are they treated well?” If they’re not, and you’d really rather disclose, you may want to consider working elsewhere.
Before talking to your employer, learn what works best for you. Kirsch uses the example of early mornings, which don’t work well for many people with disabilities. “Say I really can do this, but I’m better at doing this when it’s later in the day.” Many organizations will allow you to have flexible hours as long as you work a specified number a day.
Another major and commonly necessary accommodation is being able to leave work to get treatment, as many providers don’t offer services during evenings or weekends. "Early intervention is important to avoid workplace disability and recurrent leave,” Dewa says. So if you have to make appointments during the day, talk to your employer about it so you can make up for that time. Can you treat it as a lunch break, stay later, or come in earlier?
Most importantly, try not to get stuck on what you have trouble with. “Focus on the positives,” says Dewa, to help employers see that your situation is a workable one. “I think most people—it's just the nature of it—come in with what they can't do. Go in with what you can do.”