On The Topic of Mental Health, We All Have The Power to Make a Difference

At this year’s HRPA Trade Show and Conference, Clara Hughes challenges mental health stigma in the workplace. Workplaces everywhere are in a powerful position to cultivate understanding and healing for healthier people and more productivity at large. I believe this is true, but don’t take my word for it.

Clara speaks to a crowd of almost 2000 and declares that on the topic of mental health, “Every single one of us has the power to make a difference.” She broches the topic of mental health with pride and assertiveness. It’s a special moment where Clara speaks so boldly and publicly about mental health at this conference. HR professionals often straddle an odd line between human empathy and business decision making. If anyone can bridge this gap, it must be in HR.

According to Karla Thorpe, Director of Leadership and Human Resources Research with the Conference Board of Canada, “Mental health issues are a significant contributor to absenteeism in the workplace, which is costly to the Canadian economy. For many employers, mental health is the leading cause of both short-term and long-term disability leaves of absence. And the average length of absence is higher for mental health-related leaves of absence (or when mental health issues exist alongside physical health issues) than for physical health issues alone.” [source: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/humanresource/commentaries/14-01-15/minding_what_matters_gaps_in_programs_for_employees_with_mental_health_issues_persist.aspx]

And for Canadians, this issue is clear. One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness and four in five support someone suffering from mental illness.

Unfortunately, with mental health issues comes stigma. Stigma lives virtually everywhere. Take the word disability, for example. Abilities and disabilities come in so many different forms. But rather than seeing our individualities as uniqueness, we often create categories of difference. In a world without stigma, perhaps learning disabilities would be learning differences and mental health issues would be mental wealth opportunities.

For as long as we stigmatize that which we do not understand, we create chasms instead of bridges. And, worse still, the stigma takes on a life of its own. I’m no expert but I would venture to say it’s not a coincidence that children with ADHD experience co-morbidity ranging from 25 to 48% with anxiety and mood disorders. (Jensen, Hinshaw et al. 2001; Carroll, Maughan et al. 2005; Reich, Neuman et al. 2005; Kessler, Adler et al. 2006.)

If difference is met with stigma, and stigma nurtures more difference, where does the cycle end? For as long as we, either personally or systemically, see difference with discomfort instead of appreciation, we are losing enormous opportunities to nurture growth, build trust, and create loyal relationships.

Learnography is an organization focused on learning. No doubt, the topics of difference, stigma and inclusion can mean so many things in a learning environment. However, learning is not the context within which these came to bear for me recently. The context of my most recent experience with this topic isn’t personal or learning focused. Rather the notion of stigma was raised in relation to mental health in a professional context.

For the record, I do not believe that all people perpetuate painful stigmas. In fact, my workmates are fiercely inclusive. I am eternally grateful for this and feel blessed. I can definitively say, however, I feel grateful and blessed because I believe Learnography is not the norm.

No matter how resistant your organization or industry may be to tackling the stigma around mental health, it’s virtually impossible not to listen to the facts and the commanding message of Clara Hughes.

Clara is the only Canadian to ever win in both winter and summer Olympics. She is the winner of Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic Medals. She serves as Right to Play Ambassador and Bell Mental Health “Let’s Talk” Spokesperson. And she has battled mental health issues throughout her professional career.

I will not pretend to have the answers. This is an extremely complex topic. But I believe we need the kind of open dialogue that Clara Hughes so boldly champions. I believe we need to think about this critically and choose policies and behaviours with intention. I believe that stigma hurts productivity and individuals. I believe inclusion breeds trust and service. I believe we are moving forward just by talking and thinking about this.

As lifelong learners, let’s be aware of this important issue/reality and embrace this unique learning opportunity.

Author: Juliana Trichilo Cina

I’m an academic at heart with a love for the practical. My time at the University of Toronto and Queens University were some of the best years of my life. Today, I am deeply involved with my work, family, friends, and insatiable need to learn. While my love for tradition runs deep, as a first generation Canadian, I am eager to usher in new ways of thinking. I love communications, gardening, technology, and folk music—I was once called a bundle of contradictions and I couldn’t agree more. I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, reader, animal lover, and wannabe comedian. I live in Toronto with my husband, son, and pet rabbit.

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