Removing the stigma of mental illness

October is recognised as national Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, the South African Department of Health has highlighted the importance of mental health in the workplace and supporting colleagues with mental health conditions.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) an estimated 450 million people worldwide experience or live with mental or neurological disorders or some form of psychosocial condition. This places mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. It is further estimated that only one third of individuals diagnosed with a mental health condition will seek and participate in treatment from a professional health practitioner.

The South African Federation for Mental Health believes that stigma, prejudice and discrimination brought about by lack of understanding and education around mental health conditions are the leading reasons for people living with mental impairments to not seek help. It is therefore critical that awareness is created in order to rectify the attitudinal barriers that individuals living with mental disabilities face.

Recently at the 4th Annual Disability Conference, Justene Smith, Disability Specialist at Progression, unpacked some of the common obstacles experienced by individuals living with mental disabilities and the role that employers should play in creating an accessible and inclusive environment.

“There are a number of misconceptions that exist around people with mental disabilities, which often result in discrimination against an individual seeking employment or advancement in the workplace. We also see these misconceptions acting as a barrier for individuals wanting to disclose their condition. Without disclosure, challenges around a condition can be misunderstood and the required reasonable accommodation may not be explored further,” said Justene.

Some of these misconceptions include beliefs that an individual is intellectually challenged or cannot learn new things, that an individual could be violent or unpredictable, that an individual may be difficult to manage because of their condition, or that an individual could behave differently and make other people feel anxious.

“When we unpack these misconceptions through awareness, education, and conversations with the individuals, we begin the process of breaking down the barriers,” she explains.

The WHO characterises mental disorders as a broad range of problems, generally experienced by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others. Broken down further, mental disabilities can be placed into three main categories: Psychiatric, Cognitive and Neurological.

Psychiatric disabilities refer to a wide range of behavioural and/or psychological problems often characterised by anxiety, mood swings, depression, and/or a compromised assessment of reality. These behaviours persist over time and are often not in response to any particular event. Psychiatric disabilities may include Schizophrenia, Bipolar Mood disorder, Chronic Depression or Anxiety disorders.

Cognitive disabilities could reduce a person’s ability to understand new or complex information and to learn and apply new skills (impaired intelligence). This could result in a reduced capacity to cope independently (impaired social functioning) and generally has a lasting effect on development. Types of cognitive disabilities may include Down Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injury, Autism, or Dementia. Clinical diagnosis may also include less severe cognitive conditions such as Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities.

Neurological disorders are diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system. In other words, the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves, nerve roots, autonomic nervous system, neuromuscular junction and muscles. Neurological disorders include Epilepsy, Alzheimer disease and other Dementias, Cerebrovascular diseases such as Stroke, Migraine and other Headache Disorders, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Brain Tumours or traumatic disorders of the nervous system such as Brain Trauma.

“Although we tend to categorise these conditions for the sake of simple understanding, it is important to remember that no two people with the same disability will experience the same challenges,” says Justene. “It’s therefore critical when we consider ‘invisible’ disabilities that we focus on how an individual experiences their own condition rather than focusing on the preconceived notion or understanding that we think we have of that condition.”

Examples of challenges that people with mental disabilities may encounter include memory loss, lack of self-confidence, emotional liability, difficulty managing their medication, poor concentration or lack of focus, difficulty in learning new tasks, communication barriers, or poor receipt of negative feedback. Depending on how the person experiences these barriers or challenges, employers may want to consider solutions that could include written instruction, regular feedback for positive areas of development, reallocation of non-essential work tasks, establishing routine, job coaching, allocated time for medication management or open communication channels that allow the individual to seek and receive necessary support.

“All of the above solutions promote an environment that allows for an individual experiencing a psychiatric, cognitive or neurological disability the opportunity to add real value to the workplace,” concludes Justene. “Reasonable accommodation for individuals with mental disabilities need not be exhaustive in terms of expense. In fact, much of the reasonable accommodation lies in education and awareness for the employer and employees of an organisation so that an inclusive environment free of stereotypes and misconceptions is achieved.”

For more information about Progression’s Disability Services, please contact progression on 0860 754 557 or enquiries@progression.co.za

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