In one of my many jobs I had to look over thousands upon thousands of staff records. I learnt many things. Among them was that plenty of those staff who had had significant time off for stress or other mental problems not only returned to their old jobs and performed satisfactorily but went on to success and promotion. Before this I had believed in my heart of hearts that a month off for stress was about the limit. Anything more than that and the person was a write-off in terms of doing any useful work ever again, although it might not be politic to admit it.
Perhaps not by coincidence a month off for stress was about the limit of what had befallen anyone I knew well enough to be told about it. Since I began to think more deeply about this issue I have twigged that other people I know have almost certainly had bouts of mental illness they did not make public. My impression is that the libertarian and intellectual types likely to be reading this are more likely than average to have experienced mental illness.
There is a lot to agree with in what the Mental Health Foundation says about mental illness – it is common, most people who experience it either get better or can manage it, it need not be a barrier to success in many fields, public fear of the mentally ill is out of all proportion to the risk they actually present.
I just wish they wouldn’t over-egg the pudding. These words from the Mental Health Foundation article I linked to above are typically evasive:
Many people believe that people with mental ill health are violent and dangerous, when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than harming other people.
Pardon me, but the fact that the mentally ill are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than of harming other people says nothing whatsoever about the absolute level of risk that they will harm other people.
Annoyingly, the Mental Health Foundation didn’t have to raise my hackles by indulging in this common evasion. The absolute risk that a mentally ill person will attack you is very low. It is higher than the risk that a non-mentally ill person will attack you, but only slightly. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but I have seen them and that is the position. Why the Mental Health Foundation cannot just show some confidence in their own position and give the numbers I do not know, unless it is that to acknowledge the obvious truth that, yes, a very small minority of mentally ill people really can be dangerous would mess up their nice simple victimhood and “anti-discrimination” agenda.
As a libertarian, I think all forms of discrimination should be legal, including those I find irrational or even morally abhorrent, but put that aside. The link correctly says,
The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly against people with mental health problems in public services and functions, access to premises, work, education, associations and transport.
It is not illegal to discriminate against people with mental health problems when appointing someone to a job, promoting them, or firing them. There is a movement afoot that it ought to be. Many compassionate people, correctly perceiving that discrimination against those who are suffering or have suffered mental illness is often irrational and hard-hearted, are being edged towards supporting a move to make it a crime.
That movement had a setback the other day. A JetBlue pilot suffered a meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers at the request of the co-pilot, who had locked him out of the cabin. Scary. Also memorable and quotable in debate.
Wishing the pilot well for the future is not incompatible with a firm belief that it would be irresponsible to allow him back at the controls of an airliner. There are also a good many less dramatic situations in which an employee being mentally ill ought justly to be grounds for reassignment or dismissal. A pretence this is not so harms the interests of mentally ill people. There is little an organisation fears more than taking on an employee who turns out to be “trouble” and there are good reasons for this fear. That was another thing I learnt from my thousands upon thousands of personnel records. One came to dread the thick files; the ones trailing stapled-on appendices and confidential notes directing you to yet other files; files that bulged with long, messy, sad stories of warnings and final warnings and appeals and getting the union involved and even the union giving up and offloading the troublemaker onto some other department only for it all to start up again.
If ever discrimination on the grounds of mental illness does become illegal, or even publicly unacceptable, be sure it will continue to be practised in secret – and the secrecy will make it more unfair. Instead of basing their assessment of suitability on the plain answers to plain questions in application forms, they will go by code words, or a quiet (and often slanderous) word in confidence at the canteen.