Mental illness remains taboo subject in American workplaces, society

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The horrific scene that played out on live television last month was shocking to all who watched it unfold. But for human resources directors everywhere, the sight of a former employee murdering two current employees had to be especially chilling.

It’s another tragedy that speaks to the need to address one of the last, unspoken taboos in the American workplace and society: mental illness.

In Virginia, it played out in the most public of ways. During a morning news show, WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were interviewing a Roanoke chamber of commerce official.

That’s when police say a former WDBJ employee, Vester Lee Flanagan, approached them, pulled out a 9 mm Glock pistol and opened fire. Flanagan, 41, who worked at the station until two years ago, later took his own life.

Judging by what we’ve learned about Flanagan, from his own words and actions, including a rambling 23-page fax he sent to ABC News and prior social media posts, it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to suspect Flanagan was mentally ill.

However, my point is not so much to psychoanalyze Flanagan, but the way we still shrug off mental illness.

“It’s still seen as a character flaw,” said Marsha Martino, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Palm Beach County. “That someone who has a more severe mental illness can’t pull themselves up by their boostraps and get over it is seen as a personal failing.”

It’s one reason, she says, that we struggle with friends, family, co-workers with mental illness, everything from depression to borderline personality disorders to bipolar disorders to schizophrenia.

Another is anosognosia, which means the person with a mental illness has a lack of awareness of that condition. In other words, they don’t think they’re the ones that have a problem.

“And if that’s the case, you get into some real complex issues related to the right to refuse treatment, to refuse medication,” said Martino. “These are issues we are grappling with at the national level.”

That’s the problem. If a person refuses to concede they have a problem, there’s not much more you can do — or are allowed to do — as a supervisor or co-worker.

Martino said employers can offer employee assistance programs. But insurers do limit the number of sessions.

NAMI offers courses on dealing with family and friends who have mental illnesses. Those are valuable, but I bet most people reading this column have never heard of NAMI or its courses.

And it’s largely because we don’t, as a society, want to acknowledge that mental illness exists. And those that do have an illness are looked down upon.

This is not going to be popular but it needs to be said: As a society we need to see these tragic, violent episodes as more than a gun control problem. We need to see them as a mental health issue, because it’s a common denominator.

Otherwise, it’s like the definition of insanity itself: Having the same conversation over and over but expecting a different result.