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The Stigma of Taking Mental Health Sick Days from Work

Some think taking mental health sick days from work shows weakness. That stigma doesn't serve our mental health, and here's why. Take a look.

A post made by a woman named Madelyn Parker about the response from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company she works for after she said she was taking mental health sick days has gone viral. The compassion and understanding of web developing company CEO Ben Congleton toward Parker taking time for her mental health has drawn a wealth of virtual applause and admiration. There are, however, naysayers taking issue with the post, and one response, in particular, I’ve seen is riddled with stigma around taking mental health sick days from work.

To be clear, as a journalist myself, I understand the function of opinion journalism, but stigma is stigma and I’m going to talk about it.

It’s clear from the beginning, Cheryl K. Chumley, online opinion editor for The Washington Times, isn’t a fan of the story. She calls taking sick days for mental health reasons “wussification” and proceeds to call the situation crazy, a “gag me moment,” and a “sad moment for America.” She compares Parker’s situation to people who had to struggle through the Great Depression, an unfair jab comparing the mental illness to an economically devastating point in recent history.

Reporting Mental Health Sick Days Without Reprisal

There is one part of her column I do agree with, which is not having to disclose what kind of sick day we’re taking. My employers have only asked for specifics about why I’m off sick a few times, but otherwise, the need to specify isn’t there.

At the same time, being able to specify and having an employer be supportive is amazing. Wanting to have that is perfectly reasonable. And ultimately, it’s the person’s choice whether to share those details; if the employer were demanding to know, then we could have the conversation Chumley wants to have about private medical information (For Mental Illness, Should I Check the Disability Box?).

Beyond that, her column screams of ignorance and stigma. As I’ve written plenty of times before, if you’re going to compare sadness or struggle from person to person, you have to compare all states of being or emotions. Saying, “How can you be sad when other people have it worse?” is just as ridiculous as saying, “How can you be happy when someone else has it better?”

When we struggle, we struggle. Period. Don’t invalidate someone’s struggles because you don’t understand why it’s a struggle.

And to me, it’s pretty clear that Chumley doesn’t understand mental illness. That she compares it to being “down in the dumps” or “feeling blue” and calls it “Millennial Madness” is very, very telling (Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?).

The millennial generation may be opening up the conversation, but mental illness is not new. Maybe people would simply “suck it up” and go to work in the past, but that also equaled suffering in silence and potentially never getting treatment, which is one of the primary reasons for death by suicide. I know I’ve put myself through work days while battling severe bouts of depression or anxiety and it’s nearly unmanageable. We’re not attempting to never go to work again by taking mental health days, as Chumley implies, but rather to take the time to heal.

It’s not the same as having an off day or feeling blasé about your job; mental illness can be debilitating. Perhaps Chumley is assuming by Parker’s excitement in sharing her CEO’s reaction and the clear, concise language of the original email that she wasn’t in a place of genuine struggle, but we don’t know that.

The most glaring piece of evidence that Chumley is being stigmatizing rather than just critical, is her use of the words “wussification” and weakness to describe needing to take a mental health day. Having an illness is not weakness. You wouldn’t be likely to give someone who needs to take a day off due to physical illness a “suck it up, princess” attitude, so we need to stop doing that with mental illness.

Citations

Chumley, C. K. (2017, July 12). Mental health sick days a sign of America’s wussification. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from http://www.washingtontimes.com

4 thoughts on “The Stigma of Taking Mental Health Sick Days from Work”

  1. Well done Laura, a considered and well structured response, certainly more polite than when I saw that article! I have been lucky with my employer who supported me when I was initially off and respected my privacy, but who has then fully supported my sharing of my weekly blogs on depression across the organisation. It’s the language and words that are used which propagate stigma.

    1. Hi Chris. Thanks, as always, for your support, and I’m glad to hear you like what I’ve written here! Language is definitely a super tricky thing when it comes to mental illness and stigma, so getting it just right is key. I think I may have said it before, but it’s good to hear your boss is so receptive and supportive in your situation! People don’t seem to realize how that alone can alleviate a lot of stress. 🙂

  2. Powerful and important read. While I agree that you shouldn’t have to disclose the nature of the sick day I do think that positive, open support of it is extremely commendable. We should start striving for more action that recognizes the direct connection between body and mind. If the mind is is feeling “unwell” it’s only a matter of time before the body follows. Mental health is health, and caring for it is, especially when living with a mental illness, is extremely important.

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