Guide to spotting mental illness at work

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Mental health literacy is the extent to which lay people are able to recognise mental illnesses in people that they meet in daily life, writes Mary-Clare Race, author of 'Mental Illness at Work'.

This article was originally published by our sister site HRZone - an online HR publication dedicated to bringing science, opinion, analysis and insight to bear on the rapidly-developing HR function.

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Dear mary clare,


whilst your article may increase awareness among more senior hr people, I think you will find that the non unionised small employers sector run by owner managers remain out of touch with hr obligations and requirements and move (or will have moved) staff "off payroll" onto a contract basis. the "pshycoligical contract" originally connected with employment in this country before margeret thatcher has been totally undermined by supposed "employers" at large who tend to either outsource/offshore or contract out, and this process is now moving beyond the private sector to the public sector, so just the nature of any agreement employers/employees tend to come to nowadays undermines the mental health of staff, since there is more often than not no psychological contract, or no presumption that care of staff is a pre-requisite to the contract.


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MedUni Vienna  demonstrate the possibility of using a blood test to detect depression. While blood tests for mental illnesses have until recently been regarded as impossible, a recent study clearly indicates that, in principle, depression can in fact be diagnosed in this way, and this could become reality in the not too distant future!


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Personally I have a couple of diagnosed mental issues which I would prefer no-one else in the office to know about.  No good comes of people knowing about my 'illnesses' (I know from experience), I'm dealing with things and don't want random people trying to help by following some gudie they found after 5 minutes of Googling at lunch.

That said, my work environment is a huge trigger for parts of my issues, but such is life (to remove those triggers would not be practical for my employer and I accept that without it needing to be brought up).

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well done constantly confused

thank you,


that is just my point about employers/people who call themselves employers-workplace issues are a major source of mental health problems and it doesnt do anyone anygood to have others in a small working  team to be snooping around

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Most people's reaction

Let's face it, most (or plenty of) people, if you tell them you're suffering with depression, will feel the need to say 'oh yes, I've been feeling down / stressed too' and will then either tell you all of their problems or change the subject. Or there's the alternative - 'you don't look depressed', 'cheer up', or my personal favourite 'what have you got to be depressed about'. 

I'm all for HR departments (in organisations large enough to have them) having training to deal with mental health issues so that employees can talk to them in confidence but I'd say that it's a safe bet that the second you disclose it to anyone else (and possibly to HR) you've buggered your chances of getting far within the organisation. Depression certainly is still seen as a weakness by many. 

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i recommend


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were all 'mental'
Erm, 'mental illness' also means just being human, there are extremes of course where the label is required. Treating staff so that they feel well respected, cared for, given opportunities, helps to keep people towards an optimum state of mind.

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Erm, 'mental illness' also means just being human, there are extremes of course where the label is required.
Treating mental illness as just an extreme form of normal thought processes is just plain wrong. In fact, this is the sort of thinking that leads to those with genuine mental illness being stigmatised. If you think of it as just a more extreme version of normal thinking, then it is all too easy to think that ALL those suffering have to do is make their thinking less extreme. The reality is that overcoming or coping with mental illness is nowhere near that simple. Having others treat it otherwise makes it even harder to deal with. As for applying labels, mental illness is as varied as its sufferers, and any label applied in anything other than a diagnostic context is meaningless.
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Need to be careful here....

As Flash Gordon has said - being honest about an issue you are dealing with can severely hamper rather than help the work experience - Being regarded as "unstable", removal of prospects for advancement and also the removal of any chance of being taken seriously when making legitimate complaints or requests - and yes, I do speak from experience having been honest about a bout of depression following a road accident.

Whilst I am all for awareness and removal of stigma, I think that trying to encourage illness spotting in the workplace has far more negative possibilities at the present time (last bullet point in monitoring)  - much better to focus on education to try and remove the negative impact than try and spot the sufferers


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It's not plain wrong to consider mental suffering as within the normal range, if your suffering mild depression say for example due to anxiety disorder, I would say you are not "mentally ill" in the same way as if you had bi-polar or schizophrenia.

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Accent on mild

Mild issues are possibly within the normal range, but your posts imply you think the extremes are just part of normal human thinking as well. Putting mentally ill in quotes, as if you don't believe such a thing is real, is really not helping.

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I specifically mentioned extremes in my post. I used the quotes as it is not helpful in my opinion from the sufferers mindset to label themselves as mentally ill, a bit like a placebo effect it can make things worse, anxiety/depression is very common, every one in their work life can expect to encounter others with these issues or experience themselves, it needs to be recognised and dealt with, more positive acceptance as a norm rather than dread and fear by the sufferer or others.

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Saying that mental illness also means just being human is akin to saying that asthma just means shortness of breath. I don't think me being out of puff having tried to keep up with my uber-fast dog feels anything like having a full-blown asthma attack. Certainly mental illness has many forms and many levels. And anxiety (at a level or frequency greater than the average person encounters in everyday life) is indeed a whole different ballgame to schizophrenia. But implying that everyone is 'mental' to some degree runs the risk that some people won't take it seriously and will either think that the person concerned is over-reacting or just needs to pull themselves together. And that is far more damaging.

I'm currently self-diagnosed with Asperger's (waiting for assessment - nice long wait) but having steeled myself up to start the process by requesting a referral from my doctor it was pretty damn devastating to sit there and hear her be incredibly patronising and condescending and, well everything that you expect a doctor not to be. I got my referral but left there having felt myself shrink down inside myself, and spent the next fortnight doubting myself and feeling closer to depression than I've felt in a long time. I'm just praying that the pyschiatrist responsible for assessment is more clued up on mental health than the doctor (who I've since found out is very much a believer of 'we're all mental to some extent' - I'll be changing practices in due course), particularly since adult diagnosis for Asperger's is harder because of spending so many years trying to play the part of 'normal' and suppressing all your regular habits that would earn you strange looks out in public.

But I digress (easily). I don't think labels are damaging to the individual if they are genuinely attached. I'm sure someone who says they're depressed when they're nowhere near that state could manage to convince themselves they feel worse. But for someone who actually is depressed, or has an anxiety disorder, or OCD (genuinely), or whatever, actually managing to identify what is different about you (either different to how you usually are, or different to others) can be the first step in coping better with it. Certainly for me, the more I read about other Aspies and their experiences, the more I realise that I'm not completely weird; I'm just different to the majority but very like a lot of Aspies. I've found my place, my funny-shaped peg has a funny-shaped hole, in the same area (but not too close, I don't like company) as lots of other funny-shaped pegs and holes. It's a great feeling and I'm already coping better with everything.

And I could ramble happily on about Asperger's but I won't :) 

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Not a good analogy because asthma is a very specific medical name for an illness where as 'mental illness' is a very broad term. Depression is much more common than asthma.

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