With the abundance of guidance and research available, OH practitioners should now be well placed to help ease the stigma of mental ill health, says Jane Downey.
According to recent research, six employees out of 10 with diabetes keep their condition secret for fear of discrimination and bullying (Paton, 2011). If employees with diabetes fear discrimination, how much greater must the fear be for employees with mental health conditions, described as the "number one" stigma by Corrigan (2005)?
This is echoed in the statistics, which reveal that only 21% of people with long-term mental health conditions are in employment; this reduces to between 4% and 8% for those who have a "severe mental health condition" (Rinaldi and Perkins, 2002). This is despite the fact that research on the "Individual Placement and Support" (IPS) model of vocational rehabilitation clearly demonstrates that a large proportion of people with severe mental health conditions can attain and retain jobs as long as they are provided with appropriate support (Becker et al, 1994; Burns et al, 2007). So, why in these supposed enlightened times is this problem so difficult to resolve? And what can OH practitioners do to alleviate the effects of mental health stigma in their workplaces?
First, we need to assess what is understood by the term "stigma". Biernat and Dovido (2000) define stigma as "a social construct that devalues people because of a distinguishing characteristic or mark". Corrigan (2005) categorises it into two types: "public stigma" and "self-stigma".
Public stigma consists of three elements: stereotypical thinking as a result of ignorance; negative attitude, which leads to prejudice; and negative behaviour, which leads to discrimination. Self-stigma occurs when members of the stigmatised groups internalise the attitudes towards them, which leads to self-defeating beliefs and behaviours, including isolation and avoiding treatment and disclosure that can have not only serious repercussions on their personal life, but also their employment status and opportunities.
A study carried out by Lyons et al (2009) in the North of England comparing the experience of mental health users in 1997 with those in 2007 found that the high levels of stigma and discrimination experienced in the employment settings in the initial study were echoed in the later one. Most of the stigma and discrimination experienced related to recruitmen