Normalize It: Mental Illness in the Workplace

mental health in the workplace

This entry is part of a spiffy little four-part series I’ve developed called “Normalize It”. Each week, I’ll explore a different socioeconomic phenomenon which, in my opinion, needs to be better understood or recognized as a natural part of our society. I will provide as much detail and support as I can without putting my dear readership to sleep. The series will continue indefinitely if new topics arise, but I’m going to stick with four for now. If you have an idea for something that you believe should be part of “the new normal”, please e-mail me at and we will discuss it.

In light of my earlier post as well as the many conversations that followed, I became inspired to write about something that I’ve thought about ever since I entered the professional workforce in 2013. If you read that post, you’ll learn that I suffer from an anxiety disorder. If you read almost any of my other posts, you may also be able to infer that I have invariably suffered from depression as well.

Let me first start out by saying something simple regarding these facts: this isn’t a “poor me” trope that I’m riding the coattails of; it’s okay that I suffer from those things. I’m not defective, broken, or tainted – I’m a generally happy human being who is open enough to share her struggles. More importantly, I’m not alone. Bombarded with statistics as you might be, it’s worth mentioning that about 1 in 4 adults suffer from some type of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This means that, yes, every fourth person in your life likely suffers from at least some type of mild mental illness, even if it’s latent or temporary. Regardless of this, many people will deny that they have these problems and many of them don’t even know that they’re there.

Unsurprisingly, these behaviors are caused by two things: first, the history of mental illness, including the persistent and gross misunderstanding that surrounds it, and second, its persistent stigma within modern-day society, especially within the increasingly competitive environment of the U.S. workplace. Let’s examine both.

Note: As I live in the United States, my analysis will be limited to the history and modern-day perception of mental illness within the U.S. Apologies for the myopia in advance.

Lunatics, Looney Bins, Lobotomies, and Lithium

Our understanding of mental illness has been largely shaped by public attitudes and beliefs of the day, however disconnected from science and reason they were. In colonial times, a person acting a little koo-koo was thought to have derived their behavior from being born under a full moon. These “lunatics” were then subject to such super-comfortable treatments as ice baths and bloodletting, with little regard for their own dignity or what was actually happening inside their brains. To the abusers, it had nothing to do with “brain chemistry”. It was that evil moon’s fault. And probably the devil’s. He was responsible for a lot back then.

ice bath

By the late 18th century, things weren’t much better. Those with mental illness were kept away from the rest of society in crammed, public hospitals rather than actually treated. You would think things would have improved over the next hundred years, but they probably made some people wax nostalgic about the old days. By the mid 19th century, these dirty, overstuffed hospitals were outfitted with virtual torture devices like shock machines and restraints, which were designed to “reform” patients. Much like in the colonial days, the patients were treated at best like cattle and at worst like worthless inanimate objects that could be shoved and crammed and prodded with no consequence. Whether you had mild depression or severe schizophrenia, life was unequivocally no-bueno for those with mental illness at this time.

That's okay. I'll take the ice bath.
That’s okay. I’ll take the ice bath.

At the turn of the 20th century, the dude who finally helped the U.S. pull their noggins out of their nether-regions with regards to mental illness was Clifford Whittingham Beers, who chronicled his struggle with mental illness–and the abuses he faced in his own hospital–in his book, A Mind that Found Itself. He’s seen as the founder of the American mental hygiene movement and formed the first committee to continue reform for the mentally ill. Indeed, this was a start for our starry, stripey country. But it wasn’t the end of the struggle.

Ol' Cliff. Sadly, he ended up shaving the mustache.
Ol’ Cliff. Sadly, he ended up shaving the mustache.

In order to try and “re-wire” people struggling with mental health issues, doctors began performing lobotomies in Portugal and the U.S. in the mid-1930s. The procedure, which involves severing the connections to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, often left patients either more mentally unstable than before or throughly incapacitated. A famous example of this was the first sister of former president John F. Kennedy, Rosemary, who became a vegetable after her operation at age 23. Despite this, over 18,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S. in the 1940s alone, with many thousands more performed in other countries. Even as hospitals continued to expand with mental health units, humane treatment of patients increased only marginally.

I don’t even want to know who had this idea originally.

The late 40s through 70s provided a glimmer of hope as antipsychotic drugs such as lithium and thorazine became available. Millions of dollars were allocated to furthering psychopharmacological research. Community health centers popped up left and right. Research was presented to Congress that advised mental health issues to be more thoroughly examined and considered. By the late 1970s, lobotomies were virtually out of practice.

The ads were a lot funnier back then.
The ads were a lot funnier back then.

Just when things seemed to be going really well in the 1980s with then-President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act being signed, the voting of actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan into office dashed those dreams as quickly as they materialized. His strengths and daddish demeanor aside, the new President understood little about mental illness and acted according to his lack of understanding. And so, gone were the budding initiatives, the community health centers, and, most unfortunately, the Mental Health Systems Act.

Na-na-na-na-na-na! You guys can't get me! I make all the rules now!
Na-na-na-na-na-na! You guys can’t get me! I make all the rules now!

As the 90s swept in, though, the cause took another great leap forward, returning to its roots with the community health centers and yielding great advances in the field of mental health. Brain imaging was now being used to diagnose and better understand those with mental illness. HIPAA brought about regulations for privacy and security of mental health information. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was also signed in 1990, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities–including those with mental illness–provided that they can otherwise perform the duties required of them. Reports and research on mental illnesses abound, bringing greater awareness to both the White House and the general public. At last, the mental health crusade had ostensibly won a long-standing battle and had taken great steps towards being understood.

Fun fact: the Act is as old as I am!

And yet, the world retained the bitter taste in its mouth with regards to mental illness. Though we’ve come a long way from making people bleed and severing their brains out of fear of their illness, we still don’t see mental illness on the same playing field as physical illness. But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. So, where exactly do we stand now, in 2015?

Stealthy Sorrows Lead to More Wallows

Even today, people don’t particularly want to admit that they or their loved one are dealing with a mental illness, largely because they don’t really understand what “mental illness” means. When people think of “mental illness”, they often conjure up images up insane asylums, criminals, and violent behavior just to name a few. They see the condition of having depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder as a permanent cross to bear, a life-ruiner that will prevent them from living a normal life and make them unlovable. It’s a shame, because although there are plenty of serious cases out there (about 6% of mentally ill people are “seriously mentally ill”), most people dealing with mental illness are otherwise balanced and experience little-to-no outward manifestation of their illness.

This Dude: NOT a typical mentally ill person.
This Dude: NOT a typical mentally ill person.

And I suppose that’s the problem.

Mental illness is an already silent battle that is further silenced by those who want to hide it from the world. People who haven’t personally dealt with it are only exposed to the really bad cases and start to assume that anyone with mental illness is, deep down, a really bad case. Those who have the ability to hide their mild-to-moderate condition think that they have it in the bag until it all comes crashing down internally. From there, you either pick up the pieces and get help, or you keep crashing down.

Mental Illness in the Office

Due to the fact that most of my readership spends the majority of their waking hours working, I decided that it would be best to zero in on the workplace’s attitude towards the mentally ill. I can clearly remember the nights I lay in bed, wondering whether to come clean to my team–or even my company as a whole–about my own issues. It shouldn’t be such an overwhelming deliberation, but for those of us who silently suffer, that seems to be the only choice we have.

Sure, there are laws in place that prevent our discrimination, which can and will prevent the vast majority of people being fired expressly for having a mental illness. But this does nothing to stop rampant discrimination from happening that effectively forces us out, which, in my opinion, is even worse than being fired.

During my internet scour for stories, I came across people who were passed up for promotions and projects galore. I came across people who took the leave necessary for their life, only to come back to a radically changed–and thoroughly unwelcoming–workplace. I came across people who’s bosses made a complete 180 on their treatment of them after finding out, despite the employee putting out consistently good work. For many who choose to “come out” to their workplace, their days become an agonizing stretch of loneliness and perceived uselessness.


Similarly, I personally know people who keep tight-lipped about their own issues, silently crumbling in the exact same way. They hold out fiercely, tricking themselves into thinking that their jobs require from them a robot-like stoicism. Their job depends on their not letting their mental illness get in the way, they say, so they pretend like it’s not there. Only when they lay down to sleep do they realize that the overlapping bandages they put on their mind are coming off, revealing the problems underneath.


These two situations, different as they are, are just two different rooms in a house of hell.

How do We Help?

Lobbying for laws that protect people with mental health is great. But what the movement needs even more is greater awareness and greater debunking of myths and the negative views that cause the scenarios above. For those of us afflicted with mental illness, it’s also our duty to be as out and proud as we can, edging the world toward the idea that, yes, we are depressed, or anxiety-ridden, or borderline-personality-stricken, but we are worth it. We do great work for this world. we are awesome.

Writing this was a form of “coming out” for me that also serves to make people aware that this is an issue. If you don’t deal with mental illness, you probably don’t give it much thought. But the truth is, you probably know someone in your personal life or at work who thinks about this a lot. For those who are lucky enough to not have to deal with it, perhaps this can help you help others who are.

Life is hard, but it’s also beautiful. We can make it more beautiful by coming to terms with our flaws and learning that, no matter how much grief they cause us, they can also inspire us to learn and become better versions of ourselves. We are all dealing with something and nobody should be treated negatively for that. So I’ll repeat what I said above: we are worth it. We do great work for this world. We are awesome.

You are worth it. You do great work for this world. You are awesome.


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