A woman's tweet about taking a mental health day went viral. Here's why it shouldn't have

KHOU 11's Doug Delony reports on a woman's email exchange with her boss about taking a "mental health day" away from work.

The Internet is fixated on a boss’s reply to an employee who took time off for her mental health,and the viral response reveals much of what is right and wrong about mental health care in America.

Madalyn Parker, a Michigan web developer at live-chat platform Olark, who suffers from depression and anxiety, sent an email to her team saying she’d be off for two days to focus on her mental health. Afterward, her boss thanked her for the candor. She shared the exchange on social media in late June, and it's now been tweeted more than 14,000 times.

Parker is far from alone. Millions of Americans experience mental illness each year. A stunning statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 17% of U.S adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health.

We see it in the headlines.

In May, Washington Nationals player Trea Turner was given a "mental day off" after going hitless in three games. Model Chrissy Teigen wrote about her postpartrum depression in Glamour this March. Lena Dunham has spoken out about her obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Prince Harry, who recently opened up about struggles with mental health after the loss of his mother, Princess Diana, said in July that we need to “make conversations about mental health as commonplace as those about physical health.”  

Mental illness is not an obscure affliction, but mental health experts say it remains deeply stigmatized. When a story like Parker's goes viral, it shows how difficult it is for many people to talk about their mental health and how rare compassionate responses from employers are. That Parker explicitly named her "mental health" day was seen as an act of courage. Mental health experts say they wish it needn't be.

"Without mental health there is no health," said Allison Abrams, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. "Just as we have sick days for medical issues, there is no reason that we shouldn't have sick days for mental health issues. There is no difference between the two."

The big picture

Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) . And according to the World Health Organization, what happens in the workplace is key to a person's overall mental health.

"If you have a cold, or have the flu, or you're feeling under the weather, most employers say don't come to work," said Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. "But yet we treat mental health differently, we act as though if you're having a bad day, or you're feeling depressed or you're having anxiety, that you should just toughen up and come to work anyway."

Many employees do not believe their employers value their well-being:

  • 2016 survey from the American Psychological Association found less than half of working Americans say their organization supports employee well-being, and 1 in 3 reports being chronically stressed on the job.
  • Only around half of working Americans say senior management considers employee well-being to be of great importance.
  • Only one-third of American workers say they regularly participate in health promotion programs provided at work.

The stigma

Despite millions of people experiencing mental illness, troubling stigmas remain.

Research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that 58% of Americans don't want people with mental illness in their workplaces, and 68% don't want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family.

"A lot of [the stigma] has to do with family culture, your histories, where you live, and it varies greatly based on income as well as gender," Morin said. "I think in a lot of places saying that you need to talk to a professional or that you need to take medication would still be frowned upon greatly."

Being explicit with your employer

When Parker emailed her team to say she was taking two days off work, she used the words, "mental health." Experts consider this a courageous and crucial move.

"I'm taking a mental health day.' That's how it should be," Abrams said. "The only way to reduce stigma is by normalizing. I think when you are explicit you are also giving other people permission to be open."

Why employers should care

More and more employers acknowledge the connection between their employees' well-being and their bottom line. 

"Research shows when you're dealing with a mental health problem you're not likely to be as productive," Morin said. "Your head is not in the game when you're struggling."

 

Research from Gallup shows that work stress can lead to employees becoming disengaged at work, and disengaged workers have 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents and 60% more errors and defects. 

What employers should do

Morin and Abrams said there are several things employers can do to show employees they value their well-being at work:

  • Create a culture where talking about mental health is OK. 
  • Offer trainings on stress management.
  • Consider providing programs to help decrease stress, including mindfulness or meditation classes and seminars.
  • Offer free mental health screenings.

Why we all need mental health days

Untreated mental illness costs individuals and society. People with serious mental illness are more likely to have chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and obesity, and serious mental illness costs the country $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.

"Taking a mental health day is taking care of your emotional well-being, which is no less important than your physical well-being," Abrams said. "We know now the interconnectedness between the physical and the emotional. Physical illnesses are tied to emotional health."

When you need a mental health day

"When you notice the stress that comes from work is bleeding into other parts of your life," Abrams said.

  • When you're not able to be engaged.
  • When you're physically there but your mind is elsewhere.
  • When you notice you're treating your loved ones differently.
  • When you're displacing anger.
  • If you notice you're getting sick more often than is usual for you.
  • When you're depressed and isolating.
  • When you're not doing the things you love or getting as much pleasure from things that used to bring you pleasure.
  • When you're not socializing as much.
  • When you don't feel like yourself.

Psychotherapists say when you do take a mental health day, think about what you find relaxing and re-energizing. If it's food shopping, do it. If it's a walk in the park, do that. We all have different ways of caring for ourselves. 

Men, take mental health days, too

Approximately 12 million women in the United States experience clinical depression each year, according to the NIMH. The rate for American men is about half that, however men are much less likely than women to seek help.

"There's definitely a gender factor," said Abrams, who sees far more women than men in her practice. "I think it is harder for men just because of the way men are conditioned and the messages they receive that you're supposed to be strong. ... I don't think it's because men need it less and women need it more. I truly believe they feel more hesitant to reach out and seek help."

Mental health is more than just a day

"You need enjoyable activities in life to balance out a lot of the stress," Morin said.

  • Each day, make time to do things you love. 
  • Take care of your body. It's part of taking care of your brain.
  • Attend doctor appointments regularly.
  • Talk about mental health. "So many people feel the need to say, 'I'm fine,' even when they're not," Morin said.

For many, mental health days are a luxury

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, more than 41 million people don't have a single paid sick day. 

Those of us who can take mental health days shouldn't take them for granted.

"Think about all the people who can't afford to take a day off," Morin said. "Hopefully if we acknowledge that and talk about that more it will eventually go up the ladder and we will see bigger changes, so more people will have better access to health insurance, sick leave and mental health care."

If you're thinking about suicide, get immediate help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor right away.  

For general information on locating mental health treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

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