At a recent mental health conference I attended, one presenter described it like this: imagine you just landed an interview for your dream job, one you spent your entire career working toward. You are confident in your skills, work doesn’t feel like work, the pay is just what you’ve always hoped for … but you wake up feeling horrible. The symptoms are so severe you are going to have to reschedule.
You have two options: you can call the interviewer and tell them you are sick or you can tell the interviewer you are having panic attacks. Which option would you take?
When this scenario was described in the workshop, I almost jumped up and yelled, “Yes!” I could so easily relate to this scenario. I can’t imagine telling that interviewer I was having panic attacks or anxiety, or my depression was so bad I just couldn’t get out of bed. After all, that would be saying goodbye to that opportunity! But I would easily lie (though I hate liars) and tell them I am sick and ask if I could possibly reschedule. Heck, I just remembered I actually did it with an interview last year.
Why is this so? I don’t have scientific research to back this up, but I feel it’s because everyone gets sick at one time or another. Everyone can relate — and empathize. However, between the stigma of mental illness (“It’s all in your head. You could ‘will’ yourself out of feeling that way if you just wanted to enough.You just need to be more positive about life.”) and the myth many employers believe that someone with a mental illness would be a terrible employee, chances are great you would never get the job.
This is one reason I did this blog and I’m trying to figure out ways to tell my story. Mental illness, addiction and so many other stigmas aren’t moral failings. You don’t have them because you are lazy and undisciplined. Prayer, memorizing Bible verses or looking at life more optimistically won’t make them “just go away.”
There are so many stigmas that fit the above scenario:
A woman who has a teenage child with severe autism who was up all night and who she can’t leave with anyone else because he needs her so badly right now.
A man who has a huge hangover, not because he was out having fun partying, but because he has an addiction and no matter what he does, he just can’t figure out how to stop drinking.
A single dad whose child woke up sick and needs to go to the doctor … again.
A teenage girl who just found out she is pregnant and can’t even think about getting a good job because she is so wrapped up in what her next step will be.
A professional who couldn’t stop looking at pornography all night, is now beyond exhausted from getting no sleep and knows he won’t be his best for something so important.
A mother whose child attempted suicide last night and the whole family was up all night trying to find ways to keep her child safe … and alive.
A teenager who had a really rough night and participated in self-harm so badly she’s afraid it will be visible to others.
A woman who had yet another negative pregnancy test result the day before and is so depressed she can’t get out bed.
A man with an autoimmune disease that’s flaring up and his joints hurt so badly he can’t move.
A daughter whose dad has Alzheimer’s and is usually cared for by an in-home nurse, fell this morning and so she has to take him to the hospital.
What are the common traits for all of these people?
Most, if not all, would lie about what’s really going on in the face of an important interview. Again, if you are sick yourself, that’s one thing, but admitting you deal with any of these chronic or ongoing situations instantly means you will be a “bad employee,” even if you have a wonderful track record at other jobs.
They are doing the best they can in their circumstances. Most people would think in some of the scenarios, those involved are just not trying enough or it’s their own faults. These people don’t have the brain of an addict or a mental health issue or a chronic health condition or a family member who needs a lot of help … or don’t recognize sometimes people just make mistakes.
Remember those in these scenarios need support, not judgment. The shame, self-doubt and regret they feel can be overwhelming … I have not yet met or heard about an addict who didn’t try to stop on their own — and couldn’t. I personally had a child who attempted suicide and at the time I was a teacher and had suicide prevention training every year. I still didn’t recognize what was happening under my own roof. Even those who have no control over their situations, like having a child or parent with special needs, feel like they should be doing more. Again I say, these people need support, not judgment.
In most of these situations, the people around them — friends, family and coworkers — literally can’t understand. Even if you have lived through something similar, everyone’s situation is different. Though it can help when struggling to know others have gone through the same thing and made it, it’s easy to cross the line and feel condemned because “My friend survived and I’m still drowning so something must be really, really ‘wrong’ with me.”
The safest thing to do is to listen. However, also recognize sometimes people aren’t ready to share. And if they aren’t, let them know you will be there when they are. Do something practical, like provide a meal for that person if they’re willing and able to accept help at that time. Ask what you can do to help — and then do what they say.
As a therapist I talked to about some of this said, “We have to change our mindset.” We have got to stop judging others and realize we are all broken in one way or another.