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The working wounded

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“There's this assumption that people will ‘go crazy' on the job,” Mr. Upshall said. “An employer would never ask a diabetic if he expects to slip into a diabetic coma soon. That would be unthinkable and crass. But they ask that type of question all the time to people with mood disorders.”

According to the Great-West poll, employees feel the workplace is where they are least likely to get support. It's no wonder the majority of those with mental-health problems – 64 per cent – keep their condition secret from employers.

Renea Mohammed, a 37-year-old peer support worker at Vancouver Coastal Health, said secrecy is a defence mechanism: “Mental illness shatters your confidence so the last thing you want to do is tell your boss. You don't want to be judged and you don't want to lose their trust.”

Ms. Mohammed was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic while studying for her master's degree in library sciences a decade ago. She attempted suicide three times in four years and was hospitalized on numerous occasions.

Despite it all, Ms. Mohammed held down several jobs as a librarian. With the help of medication and counselling, she's now healthy and her condition is stable. Along the way, she changed careers.

“If I was still working in a library I would keep this quiet. I'm not sure everybody believes in recovery, even intelligent, educated people,” she said. But in the mental-health field, Ms. Mohammed says, she feels shielded from stigmatization and believes it's important to speak out on behalf of those who can't.

Michael Paré, a family doctor and co-ordinator of the Medical Clinic for Person-Centred Psychotherapy in Toronto, says professionals are particularly leery about admitting they suffer from mental illness.

“My clients are all working people,” he said. “They have really good jobs and provide for their families. But they are also the walking wounded.” Dr. Paré says he urges people to be discreet. “I tell them: ‘You're not keeping it secret; you're keeping it private.'”

Still, he has been open about his own diagnosis of depression and his suicide attempt in university days. He's still in therapy, but not taking medication. He can be candid because he's self-employed, he said, but “there are still pockets of stigma in a society like medicine. It's a paradox: The healer can't be sick.”

Mamta Gautam, an Ottawa psychiatrist dubbed the “doctors' doctor” because she treats only physicians suffering from mental illness, said the “culture of medicine perpetuates the notion of doctors as always being healthy, capable and available.” She said physicians tend to minimize their symptoms and continue to work at a high level; as a result, they often seek help later. “The ability to function well is often the last thing to be impacted,” Dr. Gautam said.

But there is a price. The late treatment, severity of symptoms and easy access to potentially lethal drugs – along with the pervasive stigma in society – means the rate of suicide among male physicians is about twice that of the general population. Among female physicians, it is about four times higher.

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVES

Jacqueline Beaurivage was holidaying in Ontario's Algonquin Park in January, 2003, when an emergency call came from one of her teenage son's best friends.

Her son, she was told, was sending out goodbye notes by e-mail and seemed poised to kill himself. Ms. Beaurivage phoned her son, and her husband dialled police.

Her son, Jonathan Singh, was diagnosed with severe depression. Even though Ms. Beaurivage was not the patient, the illness turned her personal and professional life upside down. A senior executive at CIBC, she called her boss and said she needed time off.

“He said: ‘Take all the time you need,' and I'll never forget that,” Ms. Beaurivage recalled.

She ended up taking three months off work, getting educated about mental illness and caring for Jonathan. “It was overwhelming. Every ounce of me was invested in my son. There was no way I could work,” she said.

But when she did go back to the office, it was cathartic and also a positive message to Jonathan that life was returning to normal. “Three months off was a good investment for my employer,” Ms. Beaurivage said. “I'm a damn loyal employee now because I experienced the human side of CIBC.”

Mr. Wilkerson says that, unfortunately, too many employers are short-sighted.

“We have a knowledge economy, where the heavy lifting is being done by the brain,” he said. “We can't treat mental illness as a secondary or tertiary issue any more. Dealing with this issue in the workplace is essential to our economy and our quality of life.”

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