In Our Own Voice: Women describe struggles with mental illness in the workplace
PITTSFIELD — The day after the first time Lucy Ingram called in sick to her job due to depression, her boss presented her with a performance improvement plan. He told her that her calling in was unfair to her coworkers, unprofessional and set a bad example for the young adults she worked with.
Two weeks later, Ingram got a concussion. Her boss told her to take as much time off as she needed.
Ingram, a 29-year-old mental health advocate, shared her story of mental illness Thursday at an In Our Own Voice presentation at Berkshire Community College. In Our Own Voice is a program that focuses primarily on the challenges people with mental illness face in the workplace through personal testimony from those dealing with mental health issues, said Brenda Carpenter, executive director of NAMI Berkshire County, an affiliate of NAMI Massachusetts.
Eliza T. Williamson, program director of In Our Own Voice, also presented her story of struggling with anxiety and depression at the event, which was held during Mental Illness Awareness Week.
The event was jointly presented by BCC and the National Alliance on Mental Illness as part of NAMI Massachusetts' CEOs Against Stigma Campaign, which challenges Massachusetts leaders to commit to their employees' mental health and work to reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues. Leaders who sign the pledge agree to facilitate an In Our Own Voice presentation for employees.
BCC President Ellen Kennedy has signed the CEOs Against Stigma pledge.
"It's our hope ... to stay connected with these organizations and businesses so we can keep the conversation going," Carpenter said.
The core group of presenters at In Our Own Voice had very negative experiences when they disclosed their mental illness at work, Carpenter said.
After Williamson revealed to her boss at a social service agency that she struggled with depression, her boss seemed supportive, if perplexed, and assured her that the information would be kept confidential, she said.
That weekend, Williamson felt like a weight had been lifted off of her, she said.
"That lasted until Tuesday at a staff meeting," she said. She walked into the room and immediately knew that her coworkers had been talking about her. Within a month, she was relegated to getting the coffee and doing the filing, when she had previously been trusted with every aspect of her job.
Both women shared their stories of dark days, accepting their illnesses, treatment and coping strategies, and their successes and hopes for the future to an audience of about 40 people. They also presented video clips of others discussing some of the same topics to the crowd.
At their darkest moments, both women struggled with self-harm and being too depressed or anxious to work, which they concealed from coworkers and others, afraid to ask for help.
Williamson said she was "hanging on by a thread," even as others saw her as the go-to person in the office.
Ingram tried to prove herself at work in a vicious cycle that hurt her mental health, she said.
Audience members asked the women about how they chose to disclose their illnesses and what advice they would give to others considering disclosure.
Williamson said she often advises people to wait until they have good relationships at work to disclose their illnesses.
"I'd like to say you're a protected class," she said. "[But] we're not there yet."
The biggest obstacle to accepting her illness was the social stigma, Williamson said. She spoke about the "enormous cloud of doom and shame" that follows those with mental health difficulties, through things like careless misuse of language that mocks illnesses like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"It's so flippant, and it's so ingrained in our culture," she said. "I feel like stigma creates caricatures."
Ingram also dealt with "self-stigma" — a sense that she was worthless and incapable.
Both women now work in environments that support their proactive efforts at managing their illnesses after leaving their previous jobs.
Ingram referred to her work as a coping skill in itself that gives her a sense of meaning and purpose. She realized that she can be good at her job and take care of herself as well, she said.
Williamson said her current work gives her the interaction, routine and structure she needs to be healthy, and allows her to be part of something larger than herself.
A clinician in the audience asked the women to address maladaptive coping skills that they previously used to handle their illnesses.
Ingram self-injured at times, and isolated herself, avoiding things that caused her anxiety. Williamson also self-injured and lied to loved ones in order to enable avoidance.
After progressing through recovery and learning to manage their illnesses, both Ingram and Williams said they have new ideas of success.
Ingram said she previously defined success as a "straight line" where she would get perfect grades, graduate in four years, and go directly to graduate school.
"Now, I see success for me as overcoming challenges," she said.
She now hopes to go to graduate school to become a therapist.
Williamson said her biggest success to date was facing failure of in vitro fertilization with her wife and not hurting herself in the process.
"[It was the first time] I recognized that I had agency in my own recovery," she said. "I can decide if I'm going to be OK in a big way."
She said she hopes that society will one day treat mental illness with the same reverence and respect as physical illness, so no one will be afraid to seek help.
"We're just so accepting of any body part breaking down except the brain," she said.
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