Addressing stigma about mental illness

Are you concerned about seeking help or telling people about your experiences? Are you concerned that your business or reputation may be affected if others know that you are experiencing a mental health problem?

Although attitudes towards mental health, mental ill-health and suicide are improving, stigma is still one of the most common reasons that people give for not asking for the help and support they may need.

Stigma is often the result of a lack of knowledge about mental ill-health, combined with negative attitudes or personal beliefs that some people still hold. It can lead to people who experience mental ill-health feeling a sense of shame, fear of disapproval, judgement, discrimination or exclusion.

Why is it important to address stigma?

Research in Australia has indicated that while people who work in small business would be very accepting of others who experience mental ill-health in the workplace only 40% of people said that they would disclose their own mental ill-health to others.

It is important to reduce stigma in the small business sector to ensure that mental ill-health does not go untreated. As a small business owner, you are important to the economy, to the community and to the people in your life and deserve the right treatment and support to get you through tough times.

Aside from getting the treatment that you need, there are many positive consequences to acknowledging your mental illness, particularly as it allows others you work or live with to better support you. The decision about whether to tell people and what to tell people is entirely yours.

Types of stigma

There are different types of stigma associated with mental illness. This includes:

  • Personal stigma: A person's stigmatising attitudes and beliefs about other people. For example: People with anxiety should snap out of it.
  • Perceived stigma: A person's beliefs about the negative and stigmatising views that other people hold. For example: All people with anxiety should be able to snap out of it.
  • Self-stigma: The stigmatising views that individuals hold about themselves. For example: I should be able to snap out of my anxiety.
  • Social stigma: The stigmatising views on a person based on social characteristics that distinguish them from others in society. For example: Everyone with a mental illness is dangerous

“There is a stigma attached to it [mental health problems] and, yes, it is a real thing that needs to be recognised. That stigma could stop people from being willing to talk about it.”

Anne, Education and training

Deciding whether to say something to others at work

Deciding whether or not you tell others you work with about what you have been experiencing is entirely up to you. Whether you choose to tell others can depend on how much it might be impacting on the business, whether you need to make changes in the business or whether you need support from people you work with. Some pros and cons listed below might help with the decision.

Reasons to tell others

  • Adjusting your workload or schedule, could help you to reduce stress at work, but as the owner it can be harder to do if you don’t let others know what is going on.
  • There are a lot of people in the community and in small business affected by mental ill-health. By sharing your experiences, it may give others confidence to talk about their own experiences or seek support.
  • If your productivity or performance as the business owner has changed, telling others means they're more likely to be understanding. It also gives you an opportunity to talk about any changes at work that you might need and for how long.
  • People you work with will often pick up when something is not quite right, so talking openly can help to reduce rumours or speculation.
  • Experiencing mental ill-health in the workplace can increase the chances of an accident or injury, so consider if you are in a type of work where you might need to let someone else know for health and safety reasons.

Note: Just because you tell others, doesn’t mean you need to tell them every detail. You also have a right to privacy. So think about what you want to tell others.

Reasons you might not want to tell others

  • Your experience of mental ill-health may not affect your ability to do your job in any way – so it is up to you whether you tell others or not.
  • You might be worried about potential impacts on the business, or future business – especially if you are a sole trader.
  • You might already have adequate support networks outside the business and feel there's not much to gain by letting others you work with know.

Things you need to know if you are a small business owner and you are experiencing mental ill-health.

If you’re worried about others’ perceptions of you for taking action on your mental health, or you are worried about what others may think when you tell them, here are a few things to remember.

  • An illness does not define you: Medical terms such as “depression” or “anxiety” exist simply to steer treatment options. Let people know that you are not defined by the medical label – you are still the same person with skills, knowledge and interests that have nothing to do with the illness.
  • Don’t let other people’s ignorance become your problem: Stigma usually results from misunderstanding, fear or ignorance and is not a personal reflection on you. Remember that there is a growing community of people who understand mental ill-health and who can and will support you.
  • Knowledge is power: Get others around you to learn more about mental ill-health. Many organisations have useful fact sheets about mental illness and there is a range of training available for businesses and communities.
  • Share your story if, and when, you are comfortable: Maybe there are other business owners out there just like you who are struggling to reach out. Maybe by sharing your story, it will help them to do so.

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