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A Sick Reality: The Unfettered Spread of Disinformation Regarding Mental Health

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
February 5, 2020

The topic of mental health in America has gained notoriety over the last decade. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of research identifying the role of mental health issues as they apply to the average employed American. Many public policy practitioners often deal with topics that have tremendous spillover effects which can be detrimental to a person’s mental health; e.g. insurance coverage criteria, social service discontinuations, unintended outcomes affecting vulnerable populations, etc. Mental health illnesses such as behavioral and mood disorders are prevalent in contemporary American society, including those working within the field of public administration. This brief piece will focus on the role of placing mental health in its rightful place alongside other medical illnesses.

As the old maxim opines, “One must first take care of themselves before one can take care of others.” We must acknowledge the inherent applicability to the practitioners and professionals in public administrative professions. Many of my previous columns discussed the role of public administrative professionals as being, “The Gatekeepers of Society,” and with this responsibility comes a tremendous amount of possible mental tension and strain. As public administrators, we make decisions which impact the lives of thousands, possibly millions. These individuals are oftentimes our friends, our family and people within our communities. Although public administrators are affected by mental disorders themselves and have affected family and friends, they also make decisions which impact the lives of those affected as well.

Upon asking exactly how are mental disorders are viewed differently from any other, “Physical,” ailments such as gastroenteritis or influenza within the scope of American employment, the suggestion that, “Mental health days,” are unofficially included in, “Sick days,” given by many employers will most likely arise. However, it is important to note that disclosing the inability to attend normal work hours due to a medical illness such a virus or some other physical accident and providing verification of a mental disorder like clinical depression or bipolar disorder are completely different in the mind of the afflicted person, and possibly in the mind of the employer. It is also imperative for us to remember that many of the most vulnerable amongst us (hourly workers and many part-time workers) are not afforded and, therefore, cannot utilize, “Sick days,” at all. The scholarship has made clear that people of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to encounter mental and physical strain. As a result, it seems that the logical decision would be to ensure that part-time and hourly workers have the opportunity to take, “Mental health days,” or, “Sick days,” just like their full-time counterparts.

At times it is extremely difficult to imagine that in the 21st century, mental health issues are still viewed and spoken of with a tremendous degree of negative stigma. Due to the stigmatization surrounding those who suffer from mental illnesses, it is not far-fetched to imagine that many individuals will conceal the diagnosis of their mental illness(es) and try to keep it hidden at all costs from their employer. It may seem, at first glance, that this occurrence is entirely the fault of the individual suffering from the mental illness; however, it is vital that we acknowledge and understand the misinformation and disinformation spread throughout many workforces surrounding issues of mental health. If we are honest and ask ourselves whether our organizations truly have open door policies pertaining to mental health, what would the response be? If we were to ask ourselves if we would perceive an employee who calls in sick from the stomach virus the same as an employee who calls in due to experiencing a mild or moderate depressive episode, would the responses reflect equality for the two situations? To take this example further, imagine having the option to hire a candidate with a mental disorder or one without. We would like to think that we would be truly impartial and make our decisions based solely on their qualifications, but would we? Could we?

This piece is by no means an attempt to pass judgment on the reader in any way. This was written in an attempt to show that there are still harmful and unfair practices which impact working Americans, both within public administration and outside of the field. As we are indeed the Gatekeepers of Society, we are tasked with performing the more noble purpose of ensuring that the public fully understands the impact of proper mental health training and information, and to also address any stigmatized environments those with mental disorders experience. This piece is not exhaustive nor very scientific in design, but nonetheless, was written in hopes of raising awareness. It was written to begin the conversation surrounding the importance of addressing mental health in the field of public administration and within broader society.

Author: William Clements, Ph.D., is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science degree in Forensic Psychology (concentration in Legal Systems), and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Public Policy and Administration (concentration in Public Management and Leadership). He is also a research fellow at the Institute for Polarities of Democracy. He has served in the field of public service for 12 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, homeland security, and most of all, public policy. Email: [email protected]

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