Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

Five Myths About Mental Illness and the Workplace

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If you’ve held a job or two, you’ve probably worked with someone who had a mental illness. Surprised? Here are some major myths—and facts—about the impact of mental illness on the workplace.

Myth 1: Mental illness is the same as mental retardation.

Facts: Mental illness and intellectual disability are two distinct disorders. A diagnosis of intellectual disability is chiefly characterized by limitation in intellectual functioning as well as difficulties with certain daily living skills. In contrast, among those with psychiatric disabilities, intellectual functioning varies, just as it does across the general population.

Myth 2: Recovery from mental illness is not possible.

Facts: Long-term studies have shown that the majority of people with mental illnesses show genuine improvement over time and lead stable, productive lives.

For many decades, mental illness was thought to be permanent and untreatable.

People with mental illness were separated from the rest of society through institutionalization in mental hospitals. As medications and behavioral treatments were discovered that helped alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, there was a gradual evolution towards providing treatment and rehabilitation services in the community.

 

Myth 3: Individuals with a mental illness or those who have achieved recovery tend to be second-rate workers.

Facts: Employers who have hired individuals with a current or past mental illness report that they are higher than average in attendance and punctuality, and as good as or better than other employees in motivation, quality of work, and job tenure. Studies reported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill have concluded that there are no differences in productivity when those with a current or past mental illness are compared with other employees.

 

Myth 4: People with mental illness and disability cannot tolerate stress on the job.

Facts: This oversimplifies the complex human response to stress. People with a variety of medical conditions—including cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and psychiatric disorders—may find their symptoms exacerbated by high levels of stress. However, the source of personal and job-related stress varies substantially among individuals. Some people find an unstructured schedule very stressful while others struggle with a regimented workflow. Some people thrive on public visibility and a high level of social contact, while others require minimal interaction in order to focus and complete tasks.

Likewise, people with psychiatric disabilities vary in their response to stressors on the job. In essence, all jobs are stressful to some extent. Productivity is maximized when there is a good match between each employee’s needs and working conditions, whether or not an individual has a psychiatric disability.

 

Myth 5: People with a mental illness are unpredictable, violent, and dangerous.

Facts: The vast majority of people with a mental illness are not dangerous or violent. In fact, research published in the February 2015 American Journal of Public Health shows the mentally ill are much more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence.

This myth that mentally ill people are inherently violent is reinforced by portrayals in the media of people with mental illnesses as frequently and randomly violent. When an employer learns that a job applicant has a mental illness, some employers may unfairly expect the individual to become violent.

Scholarly reviews of the research indicate that none of the data support the sensationalized caricature of the mentally disordered served up by the popular media.

Although stigma and shame are still the dominant attitudes towards mental health and mental illness, a dramatic shift in perception has taken place during the last 10 years. Advancement and improvements in the legal system have had a positive impact on attitudes and knowledge relating to all disabilities and to mental illness in particular.

This, in turn, has created a greater openness towards all mental health issues. Additional contributing factors include public and professional awareness that prolonged hospital stays can be disabling, advances in pharmacology, and a shift in focus from pathologizing differences to playing to individuals’ strengths and abilities.

More importantly, a variety of service models have been developed and implemented over the past decade that have been successful in helping people with depression and other mental illnesses secure and maintain employment.

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