Mental Illness is a workforce issue that as leaders we can longer afford to ignore.
I’ve had the great fortune of being a Vice President of two different nonprofit behavioral health organizations over the course of my career. While I joined these organizations to lead business growth, fundraising, community engagement, and partnerships, I also learned a great deal about mental illness and the people living with mental illness over the course of 13 years in these leadership roles.
I developed a passion for advocacy because I learned the startling facts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five people in the United States have a mental health diagnosis. Yes, one in five.
Black people are less likely to seek mental health treatment due to a number of reasons—stigma, lack of access to quality care, and insurance being three big factors. When Black people do seek care, it is much later. Imagine ignoring a toothache until the pain is so acute that you cannot function any longer. When you finally go to the dentist, the toothache is more difficult and costlier to treat. Too often, that is what we do with our mental health.
According to the World Health Organization:
- Poor working environments – including discrimination and inequality, excessive workloads, low job control, and job insecurity – pose a risk to mental health.
- Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety, resulting in $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.
- Effective workplace programs and actions can reduce mental health risk factors, protect and promote mental health at work, and support employees with mental health conditions.
As I learned more about mental illness signs and symptoms, I began to see people experiencing mental health challenges differently. Instead of focusing on the illness, behaviors, and symptoms, I saw the people. People with education, jobs, and families doing their best to understand their illness, get the right diagnosis, the right treatment, and comply. But this is so much harder for people of color.
One of my greatest teachers was “Rebecca”. She came into my office at work one day and introduced herself. She was excited about seeing a new Black female executive join the organization and wished me well. As time went on, she stopped by my office frequently and eventually told me her story. She was once an engineering student at an Ivy League University when she started hearing voices. She received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder which she did not believe and dismissed. The voices caused behaviors that became increasingly disruptive—sometimes loud, sometimes aggressive—causing her to get into trouble at school. Imagine listening to 10 TVs each on a different channel, playing at different volumes at one time, and trying to figure out what they are all saying; that is what one of the symptoms of this illness feels like. Rebecca did not want to give up on her education and career goals, so she tried to power through without medication or accepting her diagnosis until a psychotic episode required her to leave the school. It took a long, long time, but eventually, she accepted her diagnosis and began to take medicine, participate in therapy, and learn about her triggers, one of which was stress.
She had the benefit of a very supportive middle-income family that stood with her through her journey. She learned to manage her illness by focusing on caring for herself daily. Rebecca also discovered that it helped her to advocate for and mentor others in their wellness journeys. Having a supportive employer that allowed her to advocate for her health needs without fear of the consequences helped her stay well.
Another one of my great mental health teachers used to always say “Nothing About Us Without Us.” According to Psychology Today, the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” originated in the disability rights community, and is the title of a seminal 1998 book by James Charlton, in which he argues that people with physical disabilities have been unfairly stereotyped and marginalized, overlooking the untapped potential of millions with much to offer. In recent years, the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” has had increasing resonance for people with mental health disabilities. It neatly sums up a radical vision that people with lived experience of mental illness must be meaningfully involved in every domain of mental health activity including service delivery, research, training, and governance.
The One in Five includes our employees, members, partners, vendors, and others we serve. It also includes the audiences your business serves. As leaders at the forefront of innovation, we must lead change in this space. Yes, according to the National Library of Medicine, AI might one day transform mental health care and improve outcomes through algorithms that help doctors detect illnesses earlier and allow more personalized approaches to treatment based on a deeper understanding of a person’s individualized symptoms. AI might one day allow doctors to get faster data analysis offering better answers to complex treatment questions. But in the meantime, let’s make it okay to talk about how we feel at work. Let’s listen to our employees more intently. Let’s include mental health training in our professional development programs. Let’s learn about the resources available for mental health in our workplaces, and nationally, and share them prominently.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. That is a great place to start.
- World Health Organization: Mental Health at Work Policy Brief Guidelines on mental health at work (who.int)
- Psychology Today Find a Therapist in Your Area Find a Therapist, Psychologist, Counselor – Psychology Today
- 988 Mental Health and Crisis Hotline 24 hours The Lifeline and 988: Lifeline (988lifeline.org)
- Directory for Culturally Competent Therapists Home – Resource Guide (borislhensonfoundation.org)
- Training: Mental Health First Aid
President and CEO, ITSMF
About Information Technology Senior Management Forum
Since 1996, Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF) has been dedicated to increasing the representation of Black professionals at senior levels in technology to impact organizational innovation and growth. We do this by developing and nurturing these dynamic leaders through enrichment of the mind, body and soul. At its inception, only 3% of senior-level positions in the technology industry were held by Blacks. With a half-million new computer-related jobs expected by 2028, ITSMF is committed to increasing the number of qualified Black professionals for these positions. For more information about ITSMF, visit www.itsmfleaders.org.