Why are mental disabilities still the elephant in the room?
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that 23 South Africans commit suicide every day. However, despite the disturbing global statistics, mental illness remains the most stigmatised of all health conditions and those affected continue to be shamed and face discrimination in society.
October marks Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa and promotes greater acknowledgement, education and dialogue around mental illness. A mental health condition, the “invisible disability”, is a medical condition that may disrupt a person’s thinking, feelings, mood, ability to relate to others and engagement in activities of daily living. People with mental or emotional disorders could be dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – or a combination of these.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, South Africa was rated as the second most stressed nation in the world and some studies estimated that more than 30% of South Africans suffer from some form of mental disorder in their lifetime. The pandemic has introduced a new source of anxiety with the endless flood of disturbing news reports and alarming social media posts affecting people’s psychological and mental well-being.
It has been particularly worrying to observe the abundance of false information and sensationalist headlines recently, designed solely to garner as many clicks as possible, even by some mainstream media outlets. This deceptive practice of “click-baiting” is appalling, considering that it is driven by journalists and media organisations, who have a moral obligation to report responsibly and ensure that accurate information is shared with the public.
For many people living with mental health conditions, the constant stream of information (some of it, fake news), coupled with increased concerns around their health, as well as social distancing requirements have aggravated their symptoms and caused significant deterioration in their conditions.
Progression is a professional consulting company that specialises in crafting disability management solutions for corporate clients with a focus on accessibility and inclusion, mainly through skills development and learnerships.
Over the past 18 years of operation, we have consistently and passionately worked to raise awareness and campaigned for the equitable integration of people with disabilities into corporate South Africa. However, it is disappointing to note that many employers are still reluctant to have people with disabilities in their space, particularly when it comes to psychiatric conditions.
Discrimination within the various types of disabilities is widespread, with some clients going as far as to stipulate that they will only accept people with “visible” disabilities. However, studies show that a significant number of people do not disclose their mental condition to their employer due to fear of stigma and prejudice. Therefore the irony is that in all likelihood, most companies are already unwittingly employing people with mental disabilities without even knowing it.
According to the WHO, the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year.
Studies have shown that it costs companies more to replace an employee with a mental disability than it does to assist them. Therefore it makes sense for employers to acknowledge and manage mental disabilities in the workplace. The process starts with awareness and education in order to instil a culture of inclusivity and acceptance within the organisation. It is also crucial to implement policies and procedures that protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities, particularly those with mental health conditions.
The statistics indicate that we are headed for a mental health crisis and it has become clear that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the social and economic costs of mental health problems - the importance of creating a deeper understanding and acceptance of this subject has never been greater. Mental Health Awareness Month is the ideal opportunity pause and consider what you can do to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental health conditions are subjected to and be a part of creating an accepting and inclusive workplace and society.