TOO SCARED TO TELL: Sharing information about mental health conditions with other colleagues might promote support and understanding.Picture: Pexels
Gerry Cupido,42, from Cape Town is a woman who defies the stereotype of having bipolar disorder.

With her bubbly personality and fashion sense, her personality just lights up the room so you would be forgiven for thinking that she doesn’t have any life problems.

Cupido had just turned 35 when she was diagnosed with bipoloar disorder - something she admits that she has to live with the rest of her life. She didn’t disclose her illness to her co-workers immediately, but following several admissions to psychiatric health centres, she says she couldn’t hide it at work any longer.

October is recognised as Mental Health Awareness Month. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has released the results of a new survey that shows that there is still a deep stigma associated with mental illness in the workplace.

The results of the survey show that only 61% of those affected by mental illness had disclosed their health problems to their managers. Of these, almost 70% either experienced negative or no response when they discussed their illness with their managers.

Of the 499 participants in the online survey 79% were female and 21% were males, with 59% of respondents aged between 31 and 50 years.

Interestingly, 44% of the respondents indicated that they were uncomfortable with disclosing their mental health illnesses to their line manager.

Cupido explained that the journey with mental illness started with suicidal thoughts, mood swings and withdrawal. At that time she had just divorced her husband of seven years.

“I just had a major change in my life and during that time I was diagnosed with depression. For months I took depression pills but instead of getting better I got worse until doctors finally diagnosed me with bipolar. My grandmother also had bipolar,” she said.

After keeping her mental illness under wraps for a while, Cupido says when she finally told her manager and other colleagues about it, not only were they understanding and supportive, but “they never treated me differently”.

“They were all understanding, I had to stay away from work for four months. It was a very difficult time I was taken to two different hospitals. Understanding myself and managing my illness was the most difficult part, but I knew that I was still the same person and bipolar did not define me.”

Phumla Majali*, 27, says she commends people who disclose their mental illness at work.

She finds it difficult to disclose her illness to her employer as she fears that she won’t be promoted should they know she has depression.

Depression is stigmatised, sometimes it feels like people think you are an “emotional wreck”, explains Majali.

“A few months before my current job, I was admitted to a depression institution and temporarily took medication to treat it.

"Most of the time I took my pills in secrecy because I feared that people would ask questions. Even when I relapsed I still kept it a secret so much that I wouldn’t disclose it on my sick note,” she said.

It is estimated that one in four South African employees had been diagnosed with depression.

Depression costs South Africa more than R232 billion, or 5.7% of the country’s GDP, due to lost productivity either due to absence from work or attending work while unwell, the IDEA study of the London School of Economics and Political Science found last year.

According to the latest World Federation of Mental Health report , mental illness in the workplace is still regarded as a taboo, with as many as 70% of people not disclosing their mental illness because of fear of discrimination and job loss.

Lameze Abrahams, head of the psychology department at Lentegeur Hospital, says there are a few ways to deal with stigma in the workplace.

She suggests an increase in awareness, through education and the sharing of information on mental illness.

Advocacy and ensuring a safe environment for people who do disclose their mental illness, can go a long way.

“Not challenging stigma can result in people not actively seeking proper diagnosis and treatment. There is increased acknowledgement that a healthier workplace is a more productive space,” says Abrahams.

She cautioned companies that an untreated mental illness in staff members can result in increased absenteeism, and loss of productivity.

For those who have colleagues with mental illness, collegial support is advised

“Do not ask intrusive questions, and if the person does not want to talk about it, don’t insist. You do not have to treat them differently, but treat them with the same respect and empathy that you would give anyone else in recovery from illness,” advises Abrahams.

If you are ill-treated at work for disclosing your mental health problems, Abrahams suggests that you speak to the Human Resources department to guide you on organisational policies the management of discrimination in the workplace.