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Research highlights discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems looking for work

An Australian survey,1 the first of its kind in the world, has asked people with diagnosed mental health problems or high symptom levels how they have been treated by different groups of people including friends, partners, co-workers and others in the community.

‘Encouragingly, we found that for most people and situations, being treated more positively was more common than discrimination or avoidance. The only exceptions were when people with mental health problems were looking for work or in situations involving the legal system, banking or insurance,’ said Dr Nicola Reavley from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health and lead author of the study.

‘This population-based survey of almost 1400 people breaks new ground as it asked people with a wide range of mental illnesses to discuss their experiences as compared with asking about attitudes towards people with mental health problems,’ said SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath.

People who reported being discriminated against were asked for more details on their experiences. As one survey respondent said: “As soon as you mention a period of non work, you are forced to disclose the depression and once they’ve heard that word, that’s it. Sometimes I think it’s worse than telling them you’ve been in jail. Once you mention that, their face changes and their body language changes and you know you won’t get the job.”

The findings concur with SANE Australia’s 2013 report The Impact of Depression at Work: Australia Audit, which found that working Australians were far less likely to disclose their condition compared with their European counterparts.

According to the SANE CEO both studies suggest stigma surrounding mental illness is still playing a big role in attitudes in Australia.

‘Improved understanding of mental health conditions in the workplace can reduce stigma – a major barrier for employees, let alone potential employees, who feel they can’t disclose their mental health concerns without fear of discrimination.

‘With one in five Australians affected every year, it’s no surprise many of us will face this challenge at work. We need to develop mentally healthy workplaces, that have positive and supportive attitudes towards mental illness,’ Heath added.

Another key finding according to Dr Reavley was respondents’ experiences with family and friends.

‘The study found that friends and family were more likely to avoid the person than to discriminate.

We had a separate question on avoidance, but people still talked about this when we asked them about their experiences of discrimination.

‘I think this highlights the importance we place on maintaining social connections,’ she concluded.