Robin Williams and the 'Stigma' of Mental Illness

By Julissa Catalan


The sudden death of famed actor and comedian Robin Williams has brought added attention to the severity of mental illness. Williams’ long battle with depression and his suspected bipolar disorder reportedly led the actor to commit suicide this week.

Williams’ battles are far from uncommon. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide among middle-aged men has risen a startling 27 percent since 1999. Millions of Americans face the daily reality of depression and mental illness, and American companies are discovering ways to help their employees.

Why are so many people afraid to disclose, and treat, a mental illness

We asked three disability advocates and leadersCarol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability (NOD); Lori Golden, Abilities Strategy Leader and AccessAbilities Leader for EY; and Jill Houghton, Executive Director, US Business Leadership Network (USBLN)to shed some light on depression and on ways that mental-health issues can be successfully managed in the workplace.

All three women see one key hurdle: The stigma associated with mental illness is keeping those with it from being open about their condition, and from receiving the needed assistance in order to succeed in the workforce and society.

As Glazer points out, it was not that long ago40 years or sothat people with mental-health conditions were institutionalized in asylums and unable to really be a part of society.

“The general misconception was that people would do harm to themselves and to others if they were able to live in communities,” she said. “They had to be taken care of with other people like them in special facilities where people had the so-called training to deal with them.”

Glazer says these types of mental institutions gave way to the “out of sight, out of mind” relationship that society has cultivated with people who have a mental illness. Because of that very negative implication, people today are afraid to recognize the signs of mental illness and therefore go without proper treatment.

“There is a high correlation. Many people commit suicide because they have undiagnosed or untreated severe depression,” she said. “If you look at suicide rates they are increasing dramatically for people in Robin Williams’ generation.”

Glazer suggests that dealing with “real world problems” that are unique to the Baby Boomer generation, such as aging parents and the recession, leads to depression and possible suicide.

What does this mean for Baby Boomers who have a mental-health condition in corporate America

“In the workplace, there is an added concern that coworkers and supervisors may question a person’s competence and professionalism or be uncomfortable interacting with a person with a mental illness,” said EY’s Golden. (EY is No. 1 on DiversityInc’s Top 10 Companies for People With Disabilities.)

“Among employers and in the general public, stigma and lack of knowledgesurrounding mental illness remains a significant barrierthat inhibits an open dialogue regarding the benefits of treatment and the promise of recovery,” Houghton echoed.

“It is estimated that in a typical office of 20, about one in five individuals will have a mental illness in a given year and only half of all individuals who could benefit from professional assistance seek treatment,” she said, referencing findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. “Serious mental illnesses affect about 6 percent of American adults and cost society $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

“A study conducted by Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania found that the No. 1 overlooked health condition impacting the corporate bottom line is depression.”

How can corporate America help

“Next to heart disease, mental health ranks as the leading cause of disability. We know that one in five people has a disability so we know that we are dealing with a potentially large segment of the workforce.” Glazer said. She recommends training for managers on mental-health issues so they can help guide employees through stressful situations, which often can be a trigger for this condition.

“Engage in early detection. Put accommodations in place to avoid more serious effects,” she said.

Glazer offered a few suggestions to managers:

  • Look for triggers such as stress, job responsibilities, job restructuring, and causes of anxiety.Once those are identified, she said, make the necessary accommodations that promote work-life balance and flexibility.
  • Supervision for someone with a mental-health condition is key. She believes a supervisor should identify if his or her employee is someone who needs a lot of instructions or extra time to complete a task.
  • An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can offer support when a manager doesn’t know how to deal with a staff member with a disability. They are a great resource for a manager.

The key, according to Glazer, is to ask the question, “What does the employee bring to the workforce versus what an employee needs to be productive”

Companies such as EY assert that “people with diverse abilities can do their best work” if we as a society reframe our way of thinking when it comes to mental illness.

Corporate America can “help by changing the way we frame mental illness, and we feel that begins with changing our language, changing our mindset, and encouraging a climate of openness.” Golden said. To help with that, EY provides resources for employees with nonvisible disabilities, as well as resources for employees and supervisors to better understand and accommodate their coworkers’ needsGetting Support, Supporting Others: A Handbook for Working with Non-Visible Disabilities.

EY AccessAbilities is an employee resource group, which Golden leads, that promotes an inclusive work culture that raises awareness of abilities-related issues.

EY also practices and encourages the use of “disability-friendly language,” providing their employees with guidelines in You Don’t Saya guide to appropriate language for use in conversing with or referring to people with differing abilities.

“How we use language impacts how we think,” Golden said. “We are very conscious of putting our focus on the person rather than that person’s condition.” For example, EY usually prefers the term mental-health condition instead of mental illness. “People with depression and anxiety may more readily identify themselves” if the term referencing their condition is more neutral. Golden added.

“Avoid terms like disabled in favor of terms like with disabilities because it is more respectful,” she added. “If more people in the business world can be open about their personal challenges and how those challenges impact them day to day, we can help normalize these topics and create conditions that are more comfortable for all of us.”

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