If you're diagnosed with a mental illness – as about one in four Canadians will be – it's likely that you'll be holding down a job. It is less likely, however, that you'll hustle off to human resources to report what's wrong the way you might if you had some physical ailment.
“It's uncomfortable talking about it,” says Carl Vendette, a senior manager in Ottawa with the Conference Board of Canada who has battled depression, “because, at the end of day, I am talking about my faults and my flaws, and the more I talk about it, the smaller I become.”
Such awkwardness wasn't really a factor for Kim Mik-Girard, a manager with American Express in Montreal: Her descent into psychosis was painfully public.
During a comedy routine for a talent show at a March, 2005, company conference in Florida, she suddenly began to tell off-colour jokes about colleagues who were in the room.
She thought she was hilarious, but then, she says, she also thought she could fly. You could almost hear her career shattering in the resounding silence.
Yet, within a year, she was back full-time – and still being treated for the bipolar disorder. There were setbacks – she first tried within months of the disastrous conference, only to postpone even part-time work until the fall – but eventually, she was back and looking at a promotion.
Now 33, she recalls that “I had literally thought my career was over. I was talking about moving back to my parents' farm in Alberta to raise pigs.”
Not long ago, that might have been her fate. Her illness was severe, and there was no hiding it from her boss. Having listened to her ramble on during the trip home from the conference, he had called human resources and arranged an immediate leave. She was able to return largely because she received treatment so quickly and because she had an open-minded workplace.
A long-standing issue, creating healthy workplaces has become increasingly urgent as awareness of mental illness has grown and stress leels have risen. The Canadian Mental Health Commission is soon to release voluntary standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace.
The benefits are clear: After all, a knowledge economy relies on healthy minds. According to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, mental illness costs Canada $51-billion a year, about one-third of it in lost productivity. Aware of the toll (and potential legal implications of not handling mental illness properly), “all companies are looking for answers,” says Carolyn Dewa, a CAMH researcher who studies the workplace.
For example, a recent pilot project at CAMH had participating companies cover the cost of having a psychiatrist on call to assist employees' family doctors, who are rarely trained to deal with mental illness. “The program saved money, people came back sooner and were less likely to go on long-term disability,” Dr. Dewa says, suggesting it could easily go into widespread use.
But the main challenge remains creating an environment that encourages people to seek treatment quickly. Dr. Dewa's research estimates that 40 per cent of Canadians who undergo severe depression get no help.
Mr. Vendette, 48, recalls trying to get his depression under control so that he could put on a brave face while being interviewed last year for the job at the Conference Board (he researches better ways to provide health programs). “I did not want to be seen as someone who was less than others,” he says. “I was convinced I could create the image that everything was okay and, once I was better, I wouldn't have to share with anyone.”
At the same time, he felt people like him must “pony up” – to promote openness and make others less afraid to admit they need help – so last fall he gave a speech detailing his own story.
Now, while feeling better, he knows that he must monitor his mental health carefully. “It's almost as if it's in the background.” But what helps, he says, in addition to feeling challenged at work, is knowing that he has the support of his employer. “Having a job you feel good about is very therapeutic.”