Mental Health Support: Stigma, Barriers & Strategies

As we all know, mental illness is often negatively portrayed within society – the media, social groups, and yes, even in workplaces. It is often incorporated in our everyday language and referenced in a negative manner. I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “crazy” or other similar ones being thrown around commonly within conversations.

Mental illness is an invisible illness that is often not well understood by the public. For example, “46 percent of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour” and “27 percent are fearful of being around people who suffer from a serious mental illness” (CMHA, 2015b). Mental illness does not discriminate (it can be experienced by anyone), however, the workplace might.

What is stigma?

Stigma: “The negative and prejudicial ways in which people living with mental illness are labelled. Often that means being labelled as nothing more than the disease itself. Stigma is an internal attitude and belief held by individuals, often about a minority group such as people with mental illness” (CMHA, 2015b).

Although there is no right way to approach the issue of stigma associated with mental illness, the following tips may help. The tips are focused around changing the workplace culture to be more accepting of mental illnesses and remove negative associations and attitudes towards individuals living with it. An organization’s culture can be changed at all levels within the workplace.

The individuals experiencing mental illness experience feelings of isolation and embarrassment. Often they will be inclined to hide their illness to avoid experiencing loss of credibility and respect within the workplace. This leads to the following:

  • Delayed access to treatment that promotes disability and impedes recovery
  • Weakened social support
  • Hindered social integration
  • Prevention and obstruction of the performance of social roles
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Increased unemployment

(CMHA, 2015b).

Stigma creates barriers for individuals with mental illness from seeking the help they need due to a fear of experiencing ridicule, bullying, exclusion and devaluation within the workplace. The negative stigma associated with mental health prevents workers from seeking early intervention. Often times, people are afraid of what their co-workers may think of them and fear that their jobs may be compromised if they admit to having a mental illness. This is a problem because seeking early intervention is shown to be associated with better outcomes and quicker recovery (CMHA, 2015a).

We must recognize stigma as a barrier to seeking interventions for mental illnesses. Anti-stigma policies and procedures can eliminate or reduce stigma, which will promote early intervention for employees to get the help they need early on. There is a statistic from the Mental Health Commission of Canada stating that only 23% of people who required mental health services will seek support due to stigma (MHCC, 2013). This statistic indicates there is a large proportion of individuals who are dealing with MI in silence, as the iceberg photo alludes to. Early intervention is important and beneficial for both the employers and the employees. Research indicates that the earlier an intervention begins, the better the results and faster the recovery process. The earlier an employee seeks the necessary help, the faster they can return to work and the less likely they are to go on long term disability (CMHA, 2015a). From this information is it clear that addressing the negative stigma around mental health within workplaces is beneficial to both employers and employees.

Tips to address stigma in the workplace

1)      Educate, educate, educate! Mental health literacy is the first step to combating stigma. Few managers and employees have the knowledge of mental illness and employee equity programs to effectively approach these situations. Providing employees and management education on mental health and recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illnesses is an important place to start for organizations.

Managers are key players in influencing the culture of a workplace. Managers that are well informed and educated about mental illnesses and open to approaching the sensitive topic with their employees are better equipped to deal with it. Employees will also feel more comfortable approaching management and dealing with issues they are experiencing before it escalates.

Employees that are more informed about mental health are more likely to be accepting of coworkers that are experiencing the illness. Spending a few minutes during team meetings are a great place to start. Educating employees on the topics such as realities of mental illness, providing mental health coping strategies and recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness, can reduce the negative stigma.

2)      Take a pro-active approach by implementing and promoting policies and programs that encourage positive mental health of employees and support early identification, treatment and recovery of employees experiencing mental illness. Put up posters that raise awareness of mental health resources i.e.:  HR, OH&S, EAP, community resources etc. Having mental health articles, newsletters available in lunchrooms, lunch & learns, health fairs etc., are also great ways to reduce stigma (CMHA, 2015b).

Stigma continues to prevent people from seeking treatment for mental illness. Are you doing your part in creating a culture of anti-stigma and acceptance within your workplace? Please share your thoughts on this important issue in the comments below. We would love to hear ways that you have changed your organization’s culture to be more open and inclusive.



CMHA. (2015a). Early Intervention. Retrieved May 31, 2015, from 

CMHA. (2015b). Workplace Mental Health Promotion. Retrieved May 31, 2015, from

MHCC. (2013). Changing directions, changing lives. Retrieved May 31, 2015, from