Stopping Mental Health Stigma

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When you have an infection, you call the doctor. When you have a toothache, you call the dentist. But why when you notice a change in your emotional wellbeing don’t you call a counselor? The mental health stigma (or the view of individuals who seek mental health counselling in a negative way) can have a strong enough effect to stop someone from picking up the phone for help. The idea that an individual is perceived in a negative manner just for the use of mental health services sometimes prevents an individual from seeking care.

In the same ways that the doctor helps cure your infection, or the dentist helps fill your cavity, a counselor or therapist can help guide you through the emotional challenge you may be experiencing. However, fear surrounding the thought of being judged or criticized holds strong enough in some individuals that they will not seek out care.

1 in 5 Americans live with a mental disorder such as depression, bipolar, or anxiety disorder according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and two-thirds of those diagnosed do not seek treatment. Fears of disclosure or discrimination are some examples of why one would not receive care. Helping to stop mental health stigma opens the doors to mental health treatment and care for those who truly need the support.

Tips for Stopping Mental Health Stigma:

1. Educate those around you about mental health.
Example: With MS, the rate of depression is three times higher than the general population.

2. Use positive language surrounding mental health illnesses
Example: Use phrases such as “a person with depression”; correct people who use inappropriate terms to describe a person.

3. Speak up if you feel you have been discriminated against based on a mental health condition!
Example: People with mental illnesses can experience discrimination in the workplace, education, housing, and healthcare.

Please share your tips or suggestions on ways to stop mental health stigma. By sharing the voices of those in need, we move closer to a world where those who need help no longer fear reaching out.

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Disclosing MS at Work – Community Experience

Since MSAA first partnered with the MultipleSclerosis.net staff, we have consistently been impressed with their willingness to share in our mission of improving lives today. We are pleased to have them as a regular contributor to our blog MS Conversations.

The majority of people who have MS are diagnosed when they are between 20 and 50 years of age. Because this coincides with the time when a person is most likely to be a part of the work force, people who have MS often have to consider their condition when making work-related decisions. Upon receiving an MS diagnosis, one of the biggest decisions they make may be whether or not to share this information with their employer and/or colleagues. While some people choose to be private when it comes to their MS, others may decide to be an “open book.” One of our patient advocates shared his experience about telling his employer and colleagues about his MS, and many of our community members shared their stories in response. We also asked our Facebook community members to share their experiences with us, and as you can see, people have very different stories to tell.

I’m hesitant to tell my employer and colleagues about my MS

  • Sometimes I will say I have a ‘neurological condition’ but I don’t go beyond that.
  • My experience is that most employers don’t want to hire a person with a condition that will increase insurance premiums. I would never tell an employer or future employer I have MS.
  • I think if I disclose my MS at work, I might lose my job. I can’t even work from home one day when I don’t feel well. I’m expected to be alert, healthy, and on top of my game. I feel like no one cares. As much as people can be compassionate, it is only to a degree. I need to be present, and I’m expected to perform. So, I play my role and I smile through pain and tears and I do my job. I don’t have much choice.

I had to make adjustments due to my MS

  • I had to disclose my MS because it could have become a safety issue at work, so my responsibilities needed to be adjusted accordingly.
  • I could no longer be productive and I became a danger to the public and myself. My employer knew before I did that I was having trouble. I drove an 18-wheel truck and set up POS networks. I just could not do the work anymore. Some of my employer’s family members had MS. The truth is I loved my work I had to come to grips with the fact that I just could not do it anymore. It’s important to be truthful to yourself about your capabilities at your job and then make a decision.
  • I had to go part-time instead of full-time three years after being diagnosed because of my symptoms and a number of relapses. However, I’m still trying to “stick it out” and remain employed because I find it quite fulfilling; if I don’t work, I get bored way too easily.

I wish I hadn’t said anything

  • Despite it being a private matter, even with HIPAA laws, word spread fast about my diagnosis at my work and people immediately started treating me differently.
  • When I told my employer, his response was dismissive, as if to say, “and what do you want me to do?”
  • My employer lacks compassion. Unfortunately, a few of my coworkers went out of their way to make it even more difficult for me.
  • I was essentially forced to leave, and I was then denied long-term disability benefits through my employer. Thankfully, I hired an attorney and eventually won.
  • I lost my job when my employer found out.
  • I lost my job of many years shortly after I was diagnosed in the 90s. Of course, they didn’t say my illness was the reason behind losing my job, but it was obvious to me. It was heartbreaking to lose a loved career after working so hard for so long.
  • I shared during my original interview to explain why I had balance issues. When a full-time position later became available, I applied and was told that they would not award me the position due to my MS. My boss said that if I became unable to work, they’d have no one to cover the additional hours. Although I sort of understood, it was blatant discrimination, and I reported it. My boss lied, saying she had never said that. I am still working there, as it is a job that I love with hours I am capable of handling.

Sharing my MS diagnosis was a positive experience

  • My boss is understanding, even though I can’t do everything I used to do.
  • My employer and coworkers have been very kind and understanding. It’s actually harder for me to tell people about my MS on dates than it was when I told my employer.
  • I’m glad I came “out.” My coworkers are very respectful, and I found out my boss’ wife also has MS.
  • Had I not told my employer what was going on, I would have missed out on being connected with the best MS specialist in my area. My boss happens to have connections who were able to get me in with my doctor, who was not accepting new patients at the time. Telling my employer was the best thing I ever did! Also, it is my personality to be very open, so it was never even a question in my mind. I do realize though, that in other positions, it might not have been the same situation, and I might have kept it under wraps if I knew it might mean keeping my job or not.

It’s important to note that there are employment discrimination laws in place in the US to protect you, particularly through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A legal resource such as the State Office of Protection and Advocacy, The Job Accommodation Network, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may also be able to assist in helping an individual to determine what rights they have regarding disclosure, workplace accommodations, and/ or determining whether discrimination may have occurred after a disclosure is made. It is unfortunate that some people have had negative experiences when sharing their MS story with employers and/or colleagues. One can hope that this will improve over time, especially with an increasing awareness of MS.

Have you told your employer that you have MS? What was your experience? What advice would you give someone with MS (or any other chronic condition) regarding disclosing this information?

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