“WITCHCRAFT” CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH: Reflection on mental health stigma in the workplace

Sorcery and Psyche

This story motivated me to write this post you are now reading:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/27/woman-accused-of-sorcery-reportedly-hacked-to-death-in-papua-new-guinea

 

What does that have to do with anything in our neck of the woods you might ask?

That can’t happen in a developing country you might say!

Well, maybe you might not be hacked to death in a “First World” country but being hacked into emotional bits at work is not uncommon. Especially in the form of stigma against mental health in the workplace. I see many clients in my practice who describe this in gory detail: sometimes in such a visceral fashion the story of the poor woman from the story above made me reflect on some similar underlying dynamics that occur in mental health discrimination in the workplace.

Before you say such a comparison is dubious, research has linked such discrimination to increasing the chance of a person committing suicide. Death comes in many ways.

 

Fear of the Different

Being labeled different, a troublemaker, or rabble-rouser can make you the “witch.” Perhaps it is because you are successful and not following the local powerbase that makes you a target. Politics. Perhaps you are so creative that people don’t understand you – and thus you become a source of fear – because what we do not understand often is looked upon with dread. Or perhaps one is dealing with mental health issues… often evoking even more fear in people that do not understand what it means. If any of this is occurring, one has to wonder about the culture we are embedded in that allows it to happen.

I have many illusionist colleagues who refuse to travel to certain countries, as there are performers who have been arrested for performing “witchcraft” when doing theatrical magic. Some of these countries are not designated “developing” but are considered at the forefront of culture. I’ve even had a colleague fired from a potential TV show series as he was so convincing that the wife of the producer was convinced he was “genuine” and was “working with the Devil!”

This phenomenon is not relegated to only illusionists! It can apply to any who are different in their thoughts or actions that can cause feelings of uncertainty in others.

Let us look at stigma towards mental health issues in the workplace. I’ve known many a client who due to taking time off for being ill, have returned to being negatively labeled and treated like pariahs. The comes the emotional hacking of the “witch” without even a mock trial like they had in Salem.

 

Magical Thinking

A major reason stigma exists is that our minds are designed to come up with quick and simple solutions to complex situations. Especially at times of uncertainty. Thus the creation of simple stereotypes to categorize people is common. Forcing ourselves to truly reflect and think about our experiences of others, and willing to explore our concepts with those others, we rise above our unknowingly following false constructs that lead to stigma and discrimination.

A classic thought process we all have is magical thinking. It was part of our way of coping with the world as a child to make sense of reality. It is a survival technique. It is in essence a way of taking coincidental events and situations and making a connection between them. However, it does not go away even with the development of more logical and rational approaches to our world. One can almost consider magical thinking a bit of a “psychosis” but most people are healthy and don’t realize it as they are filtered out or rejected. Imagine stopping at a red light with somewhere urgent to be. How often have we stared at the light, willing it to turn green? Or asking the forces above to help win the lottery? There are superstitions and associations we make that govern our behaviours, despite the fact that certain things can simply be coincidences.

Thus do not scoff that people believe in the supernatural on some darker level of their minds despite trying to be rational. Thus it is easy to see that mental health issues can evoke magical thinking patterns of being at risk of “catching” mental illness like a contagion. Often I’ve seen people struggle trying to accept a mental health issue as something medical (i.e. bio-psycho-socio-cultural-spiritual) as they only want to see it as spiritual/supernatural/beyond medical i.e. a “curse” “spell” or being “damned.” Stigma is often thriving within the person suffering from the mental health issue as much as those he or she must interact with.

Some of those outsiders looking at those with mental health issues might think the “its actually their character” or “they are being published for their sins” and other mystic answers – quick simple and wrong pigeonhole explanations.

Yes, I hear these explanations still, even in the 21st century.

Just to note, because mental health issues do have a spiritual dimension from the lens of a person being complex, I do often work with spiritual counselors, rabbis, priests, etc. as needed for providing the effective matching help for an individual. However, just because I do think spirituality is important, it does not stop me from recommending medications, psychotherapy, family support and other resources to a person as needed!

Also, I will say it there are many initiatives including worthy events such as Mental Health Awareness Week, Let’s Talk, Workman Art events, and much more, in battling stigma. However, it is something that needs to be combatted constantly on all fronts with as many people as possible. We appear to be mind hardwired in ways that promote creation of stereotypes that lead to stigma: thus our battle is with ourselves to rise above our base thoughts and help others do the same.

 

Change your Work Environment

We all have stereotypes and stigmas and we must become aware of them. Once we are aware of it, then they can be addressed. It isn’t enough to do it as an individual: we need our communities involved in the process as well.

In term of our workplace mental health, more than a policy on a file is needed. The policy needs to be brought to life through creating active infrastructures to promote ongoing reflective practice and development of a supportive environment at work.

I hope you are as tired as I am of having people experience being branded with their mental health issues at work and being hacked emotionally to pieces.

I suggest you join stopping the witch-hunts where you work and live. Please join in by starting discussions at your work on the subject. In the light of reason, dark magic thoughts have a hard time standing.

So, I ask you to reflect today on the following:

  • Does your workplace culture support mental health?
  • Does it have an official policy?
  • Does it do anything more than just point to the policy?
  • Would you admit to your work you needed to take time off for mental health reasons? Or would you claim some other reason even if it was really for mental health?
  • Do you know anyone that may have been emotionally burned or from the force of discrimination towards mental health issues?
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