Following the suicide of noted artist Ari Behn on December 25th, 2019, a debate about mental health ensued in Norwegian media. A recurring topic has been openness and daring to ask for help. But what does being open mean, and why is there such a stigma related to mental health issues?

Today, March 30th, we want to take the opportunity to both mark World Bipolar Day, and to raise the broader subject of being open about mental health issues in the workplace.

A story of physical and mental health

Imagine two colleagues. Both are on sick leave. Let’s call them John and Ted.

  • John sits in the office cafeteria, having coffee with his team, while they sign his cast. John broke both legs in a skiing accident. He tells his co-workers about the accident, and Greta talks about the time she fell while snowboarding and broke her tailbone. They share a laugh.

John looks forward to returning to the office. Everybody knows why he’s away, and he’s likely to fully recover.

  • Ted sits in his bed, alone. Ted suffers from a severe depression and has an undiagnosed bipolar disorder but tells no-one about it. Nobody shares with him that 15-20 % of the adult population will experience a mental disorder, or that studies have found that only 13 % of those with symptoms of depression seek help.

Ted dreads returning to the office. Nobody knows why he’s away, and he is fifteen times more likely to die from suicide than the average population.

Why is it so hard to be open about mental health?

We spoke to our colleague, Robert Lohne, who has been open about his bipolar disorder for several years, about his experience and his thoughts on the topic.

Robert Lohne, Easee Head of Task Force

At first it was unthinkable to tell somebody about my problems. I think part of why it’s so hard, is that once you tell someone, it starts to feel a bit more real. It’s harder to sweep it under the carpet and tell yourself that everybody experiences ups and downs, this is totally normal.

And I was afraid – afraid of what my friends and family would think. As I grew older, I worried about how it could affect my professional life; what would my manager think, how would colleagues and clients react? The stigma of being mentally ill, of being labelled “crazy” was also a large part of it. I was deeply ashamed and felt that it was my own fault.

Study finds that only 3 in 10 would interview a candidate with mental health issues

It’s not just something those who suffer from mental health issues feel; a recent study lends support to the hypothesis that openness can come with a cost. A survey conducted in 2017 among 1500 public and private enterprises in Norway showed that only 3 out of 10 employers would interview a young candidate with mental health issues, even if the candidate was qualified.

Managers and HR personnel who were interviewed cited fear of increased absence as an important factor in why they would hesitate to interview candidates with mental health issues, as well as increased need for accommodations. Among the concerns listed, worry about the quality of work was only cited among 3 % of the managers in public sector, and 8 % in private sector.

So, why did Robert choose to be open about his disorder, and what has his experience been?

– Early on, I opened up about my diagnosis to my manager, and some of my closest colleagues. The way they reacted made it easier to tell others. I was met with understanding, care, acceptance and respect. Some of my colleagues opened up about their own challenges and experiences.

In January of 2020, I wrote a chronicle in the regional newspaper, Bergens Tidende, about my experiences, and the newspaper later did a story about what mental health absence from work costs society, with me on the cover. I was in the open all right. Following these articles, I’ve received messages on social media from strangers who have thanked me for being open and have talked about their own challenges.

One of the questions I get, is whether or not being open is something I recommend, and why I have chosen to be. To answer the latter question first, it was partly because in the end, I felt that it was easier for me and my family. Instead of hiding why I was away, I could focus on becoming better. I could take half the day off when I was able to work but had issues staying in the office. Returning from a hospitalisation felt less scary because everybody knew, and I felt cared for and appreciated.

But I think the study speaks for itself. I can’t recommend it; at least not in general. At the time, I had worked there for close to 10 years, and had established myself as a high performing employee. Conceivably it could have been very different if I was fresh out of school, or a recent hire. So, I think it’s something that everybody should consider for themselves, but I really do hope that someday it will be as natural as telling somebody that you broke your legs skiing.

Help us reduce the stigma related to mental health issues

The costs, both to the individual human beings suffering from mental health issues, and to society, are enormous. Reducing stigma will help those who experiences mental health issues lead better lives, and it will help employers who gain access to a group of people with important lessons and experiences.

Many people who experience both temporary mental health issues, as well as chronic disorders, can be fully functional with the help of medication and/or mental healthcare. And regardless of participation in the workforce, we are all people who are worth something.

You can find support and learn more about mental health here:

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