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Bill Wilkerson talks about the workplace

Continued from Page 3

Union leader from Toronto: While some progress has been made in the workplace in recognizing that mental illness is as legitimate as a physical ailment, issues surrounding the privacy of the employee have become more common. In my workplace, short and long term disability have been contracted out to an insurance company.

When a employee takes leave due to mental illness they must give the insurer permission to have access to all confidential psychiatric files, which is different from information that would confirm cancer, for example. How can we treat mental illness the same way as physical illness, yet still respect the patient's privacy rights?

Bill Wilkerson: This question goes to the fundamental challenge of putting mental illness on an even plain worth other forms of illness.

It would surprise me - and I would challenge the insurer if I ran into it - that insurers would ask for medical information concerning mental illness differed in qualitative terms from that required for determining eligibility for STD or LTD due to anything else.

The Supreme Court of Canada has been very clear: mental illnesses can not be discriminated against in insurance policies and that would include the level of probing exercised to verify eligibility for disability insurance (salary continuance) payments. Neither can an employee be excluded from a group health plan at the time of hiring due to a chronic condition they may have. Which includes depression etc.

Insurer questions can become adversarial when treating physicians resist the request for information or the recovery process is both prolonged and unexplained. The employer itself has a right to know 'prognosis' but not 'diagnosis.' That's a clear rule of thumb. The rights of privacy are equally applied to mental illness as any other illness and variance in that should be challenged - first, informally, and, as a last resort, officially.

Dispute mechanisms are unwelcome by most employees who are ill. It exacerbates their uncertainty. Bill

Ken Sears from Lethbridge Canada writes: Mr Wilkerson- From articles I've read I understand that you are a former business executive and CEO . The scope of the people you are trying to get to buy into your concepts concerning mental health and productivity are employers and corporations. As employees, why should we trust you ?

Bill Wilkerson: I am not asking employees to trust me, at least not blindly. My job is to get information into the hands and lives of people so they can better trust themselves. For example, when it comes to the mental health of children, we advise parents - as rule number one - to disabuse ourselves of the myths as to what mental illness is and is not in order to protect the well-being of our kids.

If you are suggesting that my "corporate past" means I am flacking for corporations, that is far from the truth. I talk to executives bluntly and critically. I also talk to unions - employees representatives - the same way because unions are employers in their own right and they are as blind on this issue as employers as the organizations they bargain with. We are trying to reach all employers public and private sector alike. Bill

Christine Diemert, globeandmail.com: Mr. Wilkerson, thanks for joining us today. It's clear from the questions that employers could do better looking after mental health issues in the workplace. Before we finish, is there anything you'd like to add?

Bill Wilkerson: I appreciated doing this. One final point: I encourage all of us not to automatically see in mental illness a source of aggression - or potential threat. That isn't what we these conditions are about. The risk of violence among the mentally ill is less than that among senior citizens, or young children.

Mental illness is a natural thing. It is part of the human experience. It is complicated because it touches about every aspect of our life and because it emanates through our senses, and infiltrates our total person. But it can be treated and defeated and will be when we fear it less, understand it more and realize that among those living with mental illness is some part of all of us. Thanks again - Bill

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