The Last Great Struggle for I was a teenager living in the in the South during the ‘60’s. It was the decade of the Vietnam and Cold Wars. It was also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement.

I saw stigma dressed in white robes and setting fire to tall crosses as white town’s people cheered. My contempt for stigma (today’s politically-correct word for discrimination) and denial of civil rights in any form was seared into my psyche, if not my soul.

As Americans matured and we reached some degree of racial equality and sexual orientation acceptance, we all know there is more work to do, especially in employment opportunities for all people regardless of color, religion, gender or even gender identity and certainly for people with physical and mental disabilities.

Culture counts when it comes to mental health in the workplace. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans are not immune to mental health issues. The approach, however, may vary.

Is it possible that racism and prejudice contributed to the onset of mental health issues, as one British study discovered?

An African-American employee, for instance, comes from a segment of society well aware of the emotional impact of discrimination and where access to mental health services is often limited--one out of three, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Asian Americans’ culture, on the other hand, centers on family treatment of mental illness or denial it even exists. Due to cultural perceptions, Asian Americans may feel shame or embarrassment in experiencing a mental illness, and prefer not to seek care, for fear of shaming their family. In many Asian cultures, expression of one’s feelings is an admission of weakness.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Many Hispanics/ Latinos rely on their extended family, community, traditional healers, and/ or churches for help during a health crisis. As a result, thousands of Hispanics/Latinos with mental illness often go without professional mental health treatment.”

Hiring quotas under Affirmative Action are not the issue. There is nothing under the 1964 Civil Right Act and later amended that protects veterans, the disabled or people over 40. These groups are protected under other Federal employment laws most notably the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act as amended in 2008.  It is now easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the Act.

(Employers should familiarize themselves with EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities.)

The World Health Organization  concluded in a recent study that mental health should be an imperative concern to employers and managers (See Mental Health and Work: Impact, Issues and Good Practices.)

In a post in the Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network last January, Rob Lachenauer, the CEO and a co-founder of Banyan Family Business Advisors, wrote “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness, but my experience as a consultant at a very large strategy firm whose clients are giant corporations had been that if someone admitted that he or she struggled with depression or mental illness, that would often be career suicide. Indeed, a former vice president of a major investment banking firm, when told about this blog, warned me against publishing it: ‘Clients are afraid to work with firms that have mentally ill people on the professional staff.’ “

Can mentally ill minorities succeed? Ask:

·      Earl Campbell, former football pro and current business owner, who documented his personal struggle in “The Earl Campbell Story: A Football Great’s Battle with Panic Disorder.”

·      “Academy Award-winning actress Hale Berry who battled depression and once attempted suicide.

·      Singer Janet Jackson who has chronically suffered from depression, especially for the two years preceding the release of “Velvet Rope.”

“People living with mental illness deserve better from our society. The vast majority of them have  many gifts, talents and energy to contribute, but cannot because they face social and economic isolation due to prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes,” wrote Joel Corcoran, Executive Director of Clubhouse International, which helps communities worldwide establish clubhouses to help people with mental illness have hope and opportunities to reach their full potential.

I began this post with a dark memory of the Civil Rights Movement.  I conclude with the words of Maya Angelou who reminds us that all people deserve civil rights and I believe that includes the mentally ill person’s right to work.

It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.

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No business is too big or too small to feel the economic impact of untreated mental illness. The economic price tag of mental illness in the workplace is skyrocketing.  A recent report puts the price at up to $80 billion in the United States. This figure includes medical costs, costs from lost productivity due to long-term and short-term disability, and costs to quality of life.

Mental illnesses have surpassed heart disease as the fastest-growing, costliest disabilities in the country.

Early intervention and treatment makes dollars and “sense.” For example, when workers get early access to treatment, companies can save $5,000 to $10,000 annually.

Getting an employee to treatment and thus cost-savings for the company is blocked by the ugly face of the stigma attached to mental illness. Many people don’t get treatment out of fear it will affect their job security if their employer knew they had a mental illness. Combating stigma should be a top priority for companies. How?  First and foremost is to send a clear message to all employees that non-discrimatory practice applies to employees who have a mental illness. The company should make it clear it considers mental illness no different than a physical illness in how an employee should be treated in the workplace.


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