Written by Allison Tunis, an award-winning visual artist and community arts facilitator working on Treaty 6 land in Amiskwaciwâskahikan. She is also the Administrative Backbone Support for the Community Mental Health Action Plan and active in community organizing.
When we think about disabilities, especially in the workplace, mental illness is often overlooked . While we may recognize that mental illnesses can be difficult to cope with and impact someone’s ability to work, employees with disabilities are often under-supported. Layers of ableism (the discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or perceived to be disabled), ignorance, misinformation, and lack of consideration have created barriers to accessing supports for people with mental illnesses. When we talk about equity for people with disabilities in the workplace, we need to include people with mental illnesses and include disabled people of all backgrounds in the creation of policies and supports.
Over the last 14 years, I have worked 15 different jobs, with many resulting in burn-out and mental health decline. Despite being diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses in my early 20s, for a long time I thought it was just me—that I just hadn’t found the right work or maybe everyone felt like this about their jobs and I just needed to learn to cope.
Even as a trained mental health therapist and frontline social services worker, I did not have the resources or supports to effectively care for my own mental health and was not supported to work in ways that might promote better personal mental health.
For instance, many Employee Assistance and benefits programs have strict limitations for counselling and mental health support, with maximums of $350 per year, even for those working in high trauma work. For many years, I alternated between working full-time (struggling with mental health because I needed to work to survive), and not working at all (or working very minimally) while recovering from the mental health episodes and reduced capacity that that would inevitably come from working in ways that my body, mind, and soul could not sustain.
After repeated burn-outs and added trauma from frontline work, I finally had no choice but to start working in ways that actually prioritized my mental health needs, such as reducing my hours per week, flexing my days and hours based on my day-to-day health, and working from home (an option that has been much more common since the pandemic began and which has made work significantly more accessible for many people). However, most workplaces don’t support these types of accommodations or don’t plan to indefinitely. This means that out of necessity, I am now self-employed, less stable in my financial security, and without benefits. Yet, I am paying $180 per session for counselling and nearly $200 per month in mental health prescriptions, as these are non-negotiable in my treatment. I still struggle to effectively take care of my mental health, mainly because I do not have the resources to do so, even when making it the top priority in my life.
I am not unique. There are millions of people who live with mental health-related disabilities, and many of them are not able to access the needed supports, health benefits, or accommodations to allow them to contribute in the ways they are able to. The barriers of conventional, inaccessible workplaces are actually part of what is contributing to people with mental health disabilities being “unable” to work.
If we put more consideration into making workplaces inclusive for people with mental illnesses, ultimately we end up with a larger, more diverse, and healthier workforce. I see no downsides. I want to work, but I don’t want to make myself sick to do so.
To read more about implementing innovative and evidence-informed practices around mental health, please visit the Community Mental Health Action Plan’s Shared Wisdom Guide.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada also offers Workplace Mental Health toolkits and resources to help workplaces support the mental health of their employees.
Learn more about mental health disabilities:
‘Internal Thoughts, mixed media and gel transfer on mylar, Allison Tunis, 2007.
An exploration of my intrusive thoughts and complex feelings when I was first seeking treatment and support for mental health issues.
‘Untitled’ Chronic Illness Self-Portrait, mixed media and embroidery on Aida cloth, Allison Tunis, 2020.
The first of a larger dual-sided embroidery portrait series that explores multiple individuals’ experiences with chronic illness, including mental health. Supported by the Edmonton Arts Council, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Series completion expected end of 2022.