Discussing Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Gabe Howard

Talking about mental health in the workplace is a tricky maneuver. Unlike diabetes, you can’t just walk up to someone and point out they might be sick.  Sadly, there are many reasons for this, such as the stigma in the workplace, denial, or fear of discrimination.

Lack of education plays a factor, as well. The average person thinks of a mentally ill person as violent, psychotic, uncontrollable, scary, catatonic, rambling nonsense, etc. In short, they see people as stereotypically crazy. The person suffering from mental illness may also think this way. Since they probably aren’t showing those types of symptoms at work, they are likely to think you are insulting them.

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Education and experience teaches people that mental illness only looks like it does in the movies when someone is in crisis, psychotic, or at their very worst. In truth, it is very, very rare for someone to go from perfectly normal to “stereotypically insane.” There are warning signs along the path from normal to crisis. These are the subtle clues that we may pick up on in the people around us that give us a reason to reach out.

Talking to a friend is always easier than talking to a co-worker. First and foremost, there are no potential legal entanglements. Your friends may not like your assertion that they might have a mental illness, but they cannot sue you over it. If the person you suspect of having a mental illness is someone who is below you on the corporate ladder, that complicates matters.

There are some things to keep in mind if you choose to engage in a conversation about mental illness in the workplace.

  1. With an employee you supervise, involve an HR person or another manager. This is for legal reasons.
  2. Privacy: Mental illness is not the type of thing that most people are comfortable discussing openly.
  3. Take it slow. “I noticed you haven’t been acting like yourself…” is a valuable phrase.
  4. Suggest checking with a doctor or a therapist. Be willing to do more listening than talking.
  5. If you feel the person is suicidal, be persistent, but professional, and alert your manager or HR immediately. If you feel it is appropriate, call 9-1-1.

Remember, the person is not required to speak with you. You are both at work and you are not the person’s therapist, doctor, or loved one. (If you are one of those, then don’t talk about this in the workplace.) Also, keep in mind it is never appropriate to armchair diagnose anyone. I know a lot about mental illness and I have often suspected someone has X, Y, or Z diagnosis, but I am not qualified to make that assessment. Suspecting such a thing indicates that you should consider encouraging the person to seek medical attention; it does not mean telling them they have an illness.

Above all, you need to keep in mind that you are at work. As much as it pains me to admit this, there was a time in my life where I would not tell someone I had a mental illness, especially in the workplace. The person could have walked up to me and repeated my exact diagnosis, complete with DSM-5 page numbers, and I would have denied it. There is a line between being a good person and making yourself a nuisance. In my experience, once you think you might have crossed it, you already have.

Before being diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders and being committed to a psychiatric unit, Gabe owned a successful computer and networking company and then moved into employment with a Fortune 100 company. Following the diagnoses, he was terminated from his position, which gave him his first experience of discrimination against the mentally ill and inspiration for becoming an outspoken advocate. He has since gone on to be a professional non-profit fundraiser, community relations expert, business owner, and motivational speaker.

Gabe has served on multiple boards of directors; has been a paid advocate, speaker, and fundraiser for local charitable organizations; has testified in front of the Ohio General Assembly; has been a guest lecturer at multiple universities, including The Ohio State University; assists with Police Officer Training through the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) Program; worked with veterans suffering from mental illness; served on the Suicide Prevention Counsel; and has done many speaking appearances in multiple states for audiences of all sizes. In addition to his work with groups, Gabe has worked one-on-one with hundreds of families and people with mental illness.

Gabe was one of the authors of the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog on HealthyPlace.com.  He currently writes for PsychCentral and has been featured in the Wall Street JournalColumbus Dispatch, WCMH channel 4, WBNS Channel 10, Columbus Monthly, multiple Suburban News Publication (SNP) newspapers, company training videos, Agency Internet Promotional Videos, multiple over-the-air radio outlets, multiple internet radio stations and podcasts, NAMI Advocate, and many newsletters and online blogs. He has also been a guest columnist in several online publications and blogs, and has been used as a resource by criminal defense attorneys in Columbus, Ohio.

Gabe is a dynamic speaker who uses humor, audience interaction, and common sense to engage the people around him.  He is charismatic and unforgettable.  He is currently the managing director of reTRAINING Minds, a workplace training company that provides consulting, education, and workshops to businesses all over the United States.  He currently makes his home in Columbus, Ohio, with his caring and understanding wife, Kendall.


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