Jack Heath, CEO of mental health organisation SANE Australia, has called for a five year coordinated national campaign to reduce mental illness stigma.
“Stigma prevents people getting the help they need early on,” Heath told the Mental Health in the Australian Workplace conference.
The campaign would target specific groups including mental health professionals, media, youth, and CALD communities and cited the workplace as a critical setting in the national effort, he says.
“The evidence tells us that the best way to overcome stigma is through social contact. That’s why social contact needs to be the centrepiece of a national stigma reduction campaign, especially in the workplace,” says Heath.
‘Despite working in mental health for 15 years, I had no idea of my own incorrect assumptions of the capabilities of people living with a mental illness.
“Thankfully, since coming to SANE Australia I have met and been inspired by so many heroic individuals getting on with the business of living contributing, productive lives while also living with a diagnosis.”
Heath is a keynote speaker at the conference that aims to provide employers with insights and strategies to support mental health with their organisations.
He urges business leaders to build a workplace culture where employees feel more comfortable disclosing their mental health difficulties.
“More employers now appreciate the need to provide a mentally healthy workplace for their staff but we still have a very long way to go in reducing stigma and discrimination,” Heath says.
He emphasises the need to redouble the effort to reduce stigma in uncertain economic times.
‘We need to ensure that uncertainty does not lead to increased stigma in the way that it did in the UK with the GFC. In tougher economic times, we need to guard against a fortress mentality that looks after current employees well but discriminates, either consciously or unconsciously, against prospective employees.
“We need to ensure we provide inclusive workplaces where workers feel comfortable and supported in disclosing the mental health challenges they face.”
International comparisons with Europe have shown that Australian workers are less likely to know if a colleague is dealing with a mental health issue and Australians are far less likely to disclose a diagnosis of depression to their employers.
“Clearly, we have improved employers’ and employees’ knowledge and understanding of the symptoms and costs associated with a mental illness like depression but we haven’t yet made the progress we need in changing attitudes and behaviours,” Heath says.
“And for all the progress we’ve made understanding depression we have made virtually no progress in reducing the stigma about the poorly understood psychotic illnesses.
“We urge the Federal government to put in place a five year national stigma reduction campaign so that we can build a fair, decent and prosperous Australia in which we all have a place and contribution to make.”