Stigma of mental illness a 'disturbing' trend in workplace
A pair of Winnipeggers are sounding the alarm over how people with mental illness are treated in the workplace.
And mental illness advocates say they are far from alone in their experience. In fact, they say it's a disturbing new trend.
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David Albert Newman was training as a chartered accountant at one of the biggest accounting firms in the world but his battle with schizophrenia cost him his job.
"People were asking, 'Is David all right? Is there something wrong with him?'" he said.
"And when you have paranoid schizophrenia you're worried about people watching you or making criticisms of you and that's exactly what was happening. Eventually I was suicidal and I was hospitalized three times."
For years after that, he struggled to find work.
"And then I went back to work at a restaurant that I worked at during university as a dishwasher. Meanwhile, I was a CGA," he said.
Mental illness is not a casserole illness — people don't show up at your door with cards or flowers or casseroles or anything like that. They kind of just stay away more because it's not a physical illness- Kim Heidinger
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission says complaints dealing with mental health issues are up and Chris Summerville, head of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said the the stigma is getting worse and employers need to take this seriously.
"With there being one in five people who have a mental illness, we know that people with mental illness are in the workforce," he said, adding those people seem to face a greater mark of social disgrace in this province.
"Especially if you're living with psychosis or schizophrenia in Manitoba … because the assumption is, 'oh my god, you have schizophrenia? How do I know you're not going to be one of those high profile cases?'" Summerville said, referring to the case of Vince Li, who was found not criminally responsible for beheading a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 2008, just outside Portage la Prairie.
Human rights complaints in Manitoba
- In 2012, 31 per cent of disability cases were based on a mental health issue.
- In 2013, that number increased slightly to 34 percent.
The majority of those complaints were workplace related.
SOURCE: Manitoba Human Rights Commission
Kim Heidinger works from home, a big change of pace after working many years as an elementary school teacher — a job she loved but couldn't do anymore.
"I spent the summer just not understanding why I wasn't happy. I didn't feel good; it was like the black cloud hanging over my head," she recalled.
In 2005 she was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, and anxiety disorder.
Heidinger's recovery wasn't easy and no one from the school called to see how she was doing during the year she was away from work.
"I say mental illness is not a casserole illness — people don't show up at your door with cards or flowers or casseroles or anything like that. They kind of just stay away more because it's not a physical illness," she said.
And things didn't get any better when she went back to work. Colleagues treated her differently and kept their distance.
"I knew I wasn't scary or a dangerous person, but I was told that I would make the staff feel uncomfortable if I worked in the same staff room, and I might therefore be bad for staff morale," Heidinger said.
She eventually quit her teaching job and now works as an outreach worker, helping others with mental illness.
Newman, who now works as an accountant with the province, said more needs to be done to battle the workplace stigma around mental illness.
"I've had instances where I'd be eating lunch and I'd be eating a salad and somebody would say, ‘Oh is that your mental health diet?’ So that sort of thing is still out there," he said.
He hopes that coming forward with his story might stop discrimination at work from happening to someone else.
You can see more on this story on CBC TV News Monday night at 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m.