Imagine that during a break at work, a colleague mentions she has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure. Most likely, offers of support, suggestions for natural remedies and maybe even some joking about diet and exercise would follow in response. Others with high blood pressure might commiserate in acknowledgement. Now imagine that colleague has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Would the reaction be different?

We’re here to change that. Here are the facts about this scenario:

  • Anxiety disorders, depression and other mental illnesses are illnesses or conditions, just like high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • They can be successfully treated; 80 percent of patients respond to treatment.
  • They are prevalent; 1 in 5 adults in America will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives.

So, why do we respond so differently in these situations? Like physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, the facts of diagnosis and treatment are clear. Still, discrimination against people with mental health challenges persist. Why? Misconceptions about mental disorders, and the stability of those with them, abound. Those misconceptions compound the challenges of living with mental illness, and blind us from comforting those in need and helping them find a solution.

Discrimination against an employee with a physical ailment is not allowed, and is not condoned. In fact, it is against the law. In those cases, support and help from social circles are routine, and the employee remains productive, protected by company policies and acceptance. The same empathetic structure needs to be in place for employees with mental health needs.

It is difficult to admit you need help, especially if others see the ailment as strange, dangerous or just another form of malingering. Suffering in silence because of shame has a snowball effect—the internalized pain grows and the person’s mental wellness, in turn, suffers more. Often self-criticism, blame and shame surround the victim—they feel bad for feeling bad to begin with.

Now, imagine that you are the one recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. You confide in a colleague and they say, “Gosh, that sounds challenging. My old boss went through that, and I know they had some rough days until they found the right treatment. I hope you are getting treatment, because there is so much out there that is really effective. Let me know what I can do to help.” How would this response help?

In addition to supporting and accepting your colleague, you could initiate change in your workplace culture. Besides an increased feeling of acceptance, you could help the company’s bottom line. Untreated mental health challenges are a leading cause of productivity loss and the No. 1 cause of worker disability. Open conversations about mental illness are a great start for change. Begin with a conversation regarding stigma in the workplace and take advantage of existing resources provided by NAMI. We also offer a 25-minute HR presentation, often delivered in a staff meeting, and materials for a detailed, attainable plan to help companies combat stigma. This approach provides a better environment for all employees, and mitigates or even eliminate the business costs of mental illness.

You can introduce the stigma-free concept to your workplace by inviting colleagues to join you on NAMI’s Biking for Mental Wellness, a StigmaFree ride. This is a fun, family-friendly bike ride put on every May for Mental Health Awareness Month. This year it will take place on Saturday, May 18, and we are teaming up with every city in the valley, passing proclamations across the county, partnering for the bike ride and inviting all to further elevate the conversation to improve mental health.

Reconsider a judgement, reach out to a co-worker, support a friend, begin a conversation—there is much to be done to break down the barriers of stigma and shed the shame, but together we can achieve it.

Christina Cernansky is executive director of NAMI-Wood River Valley.