Remember when the rule in the military about gays serving was “don’t ask, don’t tell”?  Now that gay men and women serve openly in the armed services, the rule seems to apply to workers who have major depression or another mood disorder.

 “Jim” (not his real name) called me recently about his struggle with major depression and how his employer treated him after he disclosed it to his supervisor.

“Jim” is retired military and currently works as a civilian contractor for one of the service branches.

“I can’t concentrate,” he told me, “and I have to miss a lot of work.”

“Jim” said in order to keep his job he decided to tell his supervisor that his frequent absences were due to depression and he was going to get help.

“I didn’t get much sympathy,” he said, “in fact my flight authorizations were stopped, which had an impact on my job because it requires a lot of traveling.”

Why flight authorizations cancelled? Maybe the boss thought “Jim” would hijack the plane or bomb it to commit suicide and still get life insurance for his family.

Instead of helping a hard-working, experienced employee, the supervisor hurt not only the employee, but also the company they both serve.

There are two lessons to learn from this story:

1. Negative disclosure consequences could have been avoided had the employer implemented a mental health friendly workplace beginning with educating all supervisors about mental illness;

2. “Jim” needed his own education about depression, too. He had avoided seeing a psychiatrist his primary care doctor recommended perhaps out of fear of more stigma. He didn’t say.

“Jim” chose to disclose and get help to restore his productivity, but the supervisor did what far too many supervisors do by stigmatizing him.

Research suggests that workers with a mental health issue perform better if they disclose the issue than if they hide it.

Should you disclose your depression? First, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish by telling your boss, advises Clare Miller, the director of the American Psychiatric

Foundation's Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, which helps employers develop effective approaches to mental health.

For instance, disclosure may be in your best interest if you need special accommodations to do your job, such as the option of starting later in the day because you're on a new medication

that makes you sleepy in the morning or taking sick leave if you are having a particularly tough time emotionally.

“Disclosure is probably also a good idea if depression if causing your job performance to suffer noticeably”, says Miller. "But try to do it early in the game as opposed to waiting until you get a bad performance review," she added.

Another important consideration for self-disclosure is the atmosphere of your workplace.  Stigma isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it still exists.

If you want to see a success story about corporate support of mental health in the workplace, see “A ‘Smart Little Company’ Lowers Healthcare Costs; Creates Healthy Workforce”. It is

bout Highsmith, Inc, which employs only 1,000 people.

Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability among adults 15 to 44 years old, affecting nearly 7 percent of adults

in the U.S. each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And depression causes an estimated $23 billion in lostoductivity in the U.S. each year.

" Thirty-four percent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86% of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the

price,” according to Graeme Cowan, author of  Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder 

Depression disclosure in the workplace is a matter of dollars and it makes good sense.

I try to write a blog post three times a month, but I’ve been traveling and speaking about mental illness and stigma. My recent speech to neuroscience students at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, two of the top eight universities in the U.S., was one I titled “The Speech I Wish I had heard when I was an Undergraduate.”

My college years were during Nixon’s first term as President and the Vietnam War was raging. The only thing I knew about mental illness then was jokes and the family secret my Dad’s older sister was a little off and her son once shot himself in the leg to keep from going to school. No labels for mother and son because going to a psychiatrist would bring shame to the family. Our family engaged in its own conspiracy of silence about mental illness. My poor cousin is in his 80’s now living in his mother’s house and eating from cans of food neighbors give him. He has schizophrenia, but never formerly diagnosed and no medicine, of course. An Uncle checks on his welfare from time to time.

I wish I had heard the speech I gave in North Carolina when I was a student because I could have realized I was mentally ill. Why else would severe depression lead me to the decision to take my life? Obviously, I didn’t follow through.

Sad story, isn’t it? Now think about your employees who may be suffering from depression or other mental illness too afraid of stigma at work to get help. Think about the impact untreated mental illness has on productivity and your company’s bottom line.

May I suggest a starting point in ending the conspiracy of silence on mental illness in your company by inviting someone like me to speak at a company meeting or to your Board of Directors? I speak frankly with a touch of self-deprecating humor to keep my audiences engaged. I am hired as a keynote speaker because I am not boring. You have plenty of employees or yourself without training as a public speaker and put the audience asleep so they miss a message that could save their lives and enrich your company. My latest speech to university students isn’t posted on my website yet, but an earlier one is there. I delivered it to the Turning Point Foundation in Ventura, CA and titled it “17 Minutes.” The title came from the fact that there is one suicide every 17 minutes in the U.S. because people don’t get treatment for mental illness out of fear of stigma.  

You should listen to me before hiring me, of course.  Consider it my audition and a bit of “shameless self- promotion,” as my mentor Patricia Fripp calls it.

You can schedule me through MVP Seminars 442-300-2425.

My corporate speech title is “Mental Health in the Workplace Makes Dollars and ’Sense.’” I explain the steps a company should take to make the workplace mental health-friendly, and demonstrate how that translates into productivity and adds to the bottom line. I look forward to hearing from you and will applaud you for the courage to break the conspiracy of silence about mental illness in the workplace.

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