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Concern about employment discrimination

November 11, 2008
Foundation concerned about employment discrimination

The Mental Health Foundation continues to be concerned about discrimination in employment for people with experience of mental illness, following reports earlier this month about a Christchurch firefighter who was allegedly dismissed for his prior history of depression.

“This feeds stereotypes that people with experience of mental illness are not capable of working or holding down jobs,” says Judi Clements, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation. “This is untrue - many work in highly skilled, demanding occupations.”

Cases such as the one reported will continue to impact negatively on people with experience of mental illness, some of whom already fear the consequences of disclosing, either at application time or when in work.

The Foundation’s 2007 research report, “I Haven’t Told Them, They Haven’t Asked”, conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Health’s Like Minds, Like Mine project, investigated the employment experiences of New Zealanders with experience of mental illness.

The research found many had withheld disclosing their mental illness due to fear of the consequences. Those who had disclosed were often turned down for jobs, teased by employers and colleagues, or were treated differently from other employees.

“Access to paid employment and positive experiences at work are important components of life and need to be available on a fair and respectful basis,” says Judi Clements. “Although public attitudes have improved a great deal in the last ten years, prejudiced attitudes and discrimination still exist. This must change if we are to create a nation that values and includes people with experience of mental illness.”

The Like Minds message is “what you do makes the difference”. The Foundation says that employers can make a difference by recognising their obligations under the Human Rights Act, which include making reasonable accommodations in work for people experiencing mental illness.

“Our research showed that when people in work do disclose, some employers are perfectly willing and able to make manageable accommodations such as flexibility in working hours, or part-time work as an option,” says Judi Clements.

“This helps many people with experience of mental illness to remain in employment, rather than on an invalid’s benefit which will further impact on individual well-being as well as costing the taxpayer.”

With one in five New Zealanders experiencing some form of mental illness in any one year, it is important that people feel comfortable disclosing their experiences so they can get help if and when it is required, says the Foundation.

“Fear of discrimination can lead to some people hiding the effect that mental illness may be having on their work,” Judi Clements concludes. “This is not the ideal situation for either the employee or the employer. While some people experiencing mental illness do still face discrimination, our research also shows that there is support out there.”


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