In this province, the death of RCMP Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe through suicide early in September drew attention to the problem of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) among those who are first responders to accidents and other traumatic events. One of the things identified in this process was the need for improved services to help those who work in these professions, as they are at higher risk to experience these types of problems.
In response to this need, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Consumers’ Health Awareness Network Newfoundland and Labrador (CHANNAL) partnered last week to let first responders in this province know about some of the services that are available to them. Through this process, CHANNAL was able to outline to RNC officers the various services they can offer to them — which are also available to anyone in the general public — if they are having difficulties dealing with any mental health issue. They especially highlighted their “Warm Line,” an anonymous call-in line that has been running since May and which allows callers to talk about their mental health issues before they build to a crisis situation. You can reach this line by calling 1-888-753-2560.
One of the issues raised by first responders was the difficulty in reaching out for help with mental health concerns due to the perceived stigma attached to these problems. While we have come a long way in recent years, this remains a real problem in these workplaces and in many other workplaces across this country. As much as I would like to believe that people are not prejudiced against those with a diagnosis of mental health in the workplace, I can’t ignore the reality that exists.
Consider two employees of equal training and experience being considered for a promotion; one has a diagnosis of diabetes and the other has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Both require medication to deal with their illness and both have had to take some time off in the previous year due to a health issue associated with their illness. Which employee do you think will likely get the promotion?
The stigma associated with mental illness will most likely mean that the employee with bipolar will not get the promotion. Consequently, most other employees with a mental health problem will not disclose in the workplace or will actively hide their problem, and some even refuse to seek help or treatment for fear their illness will be revealed. While the employee with diabetes can talk about his illness and receive help and support in the workplace, the one with mental illness will be driven further into the shadows, which may worsen the effect of his illness, leading to reduced work performance.
This is an unhealthy dynamic for all involved and we need to find ways to change this paradigm.
One place where we can start is to consider how stigma around mental health is built into our health-care system. We have chosen to separate physical and mental health as if both were not part of the overall health of human beings. In this city, if you have a physical health problem, you are sent to the Health Sciences Centre — a fairly modern building with state-of-the-art equipment — and if you have a mental health problem, you are sent to the Waterford Hospital, an ancient, rundown building which had been in need of replacement for years.
The time has come to unite all aspects of our health and to stop assigning different values to mental and physical health; both are vital to a healthy human population and we are healthiest when both work hand-in-hand. If our health-care system better reflected this, it would go a long way towards removing the stigma around mental health in our workplaces and throughout the rest of society.
Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org