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To the Writer Who Called Mental Health Days a 'Sign of America's Wussification'

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You might have seen it in the news this week: a woman tweeted out her CEO’s reply to an email about taking a mental health day, and it went viral. This story resonated with so many people because 1) the woman, Madalyn Parker, was refreshingly honest about why she needed a sick day, when many in her position would have made up another excuse, and 2) her boss’s reply showed compassion and understanding, an unfortunetly surprising reaction when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

As publications began to cover this tweet, it sparked a mostly positive discussion about mental health in the workplace. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg shared the story on her Facebook page, and the CEO featured in the story, Ben Congleton, has done follow-up interviews about his philosophies about mental health and leadership.

Not everyone has been celebrating this discussion, though. In an opinion piece for The Washington Times, columnist Cheryl K. Chumley wrote a response to the viral tweet called, “Mental Health Sick Days a Sign of America’s Wussification.”

You can probably guess the rest. In a predictable, “tough it out and get over it” manner, Chumley writes:

Let’s just nip this crazy in the bud. This is a mark of America’s wussification — nothing to cheer. Taking a day off because you’re feeling depressed or anxious or otherwise unhappy and distressed is the stuff of Millennial Madness. Suck it up. Go to work. And do what the rest of us do when we don’t feel like going to work — go.

“Suck it up.”

“Millennial Madness”

“Do what the rest of us do.”

Points practically copied and pasted from the book of stigma. And, staying true to form, she perfectly follows dismissal with a large dose of guilt.

What a sad moment for America. Just think back on the generation upon generation of hard workers who braved the likes of the Depression and meager work opportunities and conditions to take whatever jobs were offered — and then think of the plight of Parker, who’s feeling a little down in the dumps and needs a day or two to nap it off, or do some therapeutic ceramic-making. And, oddly enough, who has to share that very private personal health information with work colleagues — instead of, once again, keeping it private.

OK, let’s nip this “crazy” in the bud: this opinion is boring. Sure, it’s anger-provoking. Sure, it’s ignorant. But more than that, it’s unoriginal. Using a story like this as an opportunity to call out millennials for being “soft” and entitled is something we’ve seen again and again. It conflates struggling with a mental illness with not feeling like going to work, as if someone who takes a day off because they’re depressed is like a teenager playing hooky because he didn’t do his math homework.

What a simplistic opinion like this doesn’t want to acknowledge is that under federal law, employers are required to accommodate workers who live with mental illnesses. Parker, who Chumley claims was “feeling a little down in the dumps and needs a day or two to nap it off” (because apparently they’re close, personal friends and she knows this to be a fact), has been open about living with depression and anxiety, so under the Americans with Disabilities Act, has a right to accommodations. And because we are humans and not robots, part of these accommodations can actually be creating a safe and welcoming work environment. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) recommends just that when they lay out what these accommodations look like. Along with offering flexible schedules and being mindful of extra workplace stressors, SAMHSA suggests, “Creating a supportive environment – It is critical for individuals with mental health conditions to work with colleagues and leadership who are positive, open, and welcoming.”

Mental illness or not, this sounds like pretty good advice all around. Creating an open work environment where people are allowed to talk about their mental illnesses and, god forbid, feelings, isn’t a millennial “snowflake” phenomenon, or even just a simple way to adhere to ADA standards. It’s actually a strategy that makes companies better. Shaming people into not taking days off, or forcing them to be secretive about the reasoning, makes it harder for an employee to succeed — which isn’t good for the individual or the company.

In other sectors (although it isn’t always perfectly executed) “mental” health and “physical” health are supposed to be treated equally. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 requires that insurers offer mental health and substance coverage comparable to coverage for general medical care. If your insurance company should treat mental illness like they would a physical illness, shouldn’t your boss?

As predictable and boring Chumley’s opinion is, in an amazing turn of events, she completely backtracks at the end and in one paragraph sums up her true opinion: OK fine, take a mental health day, but for the love of god at least keep it to yourself.

If you’re that down and need personal time to deal with your mental health, for goodness sake, just call in a sick day. No need to explain. And certainly, no need to take to social media to applaud how everybody, including your boss, thinks you’re great for speaking so openly about your mental disorder. All this open embrace of weakness is just making the American work force look bad.

And there, right there, is what actually bothers me about opinions like Chumley’s, regardless of how boring they are. Because it’s not about work ethic. It’s not about how lazy millennials are. It’s not about the Great Depression. At the core of these opinions is an insecurity, rooted in the misconception that mental illness is a weakness — that showing mental vulnerability is weakness. Underneath all the talk, this isn’t about being strong — it’s about being too afraid to be seen as weak. Because when you value external strength over everything else, it’s not about how you feel, it’s about how other people perceive you. Internal strength, the kind of strength that involves embracing your weaknesses, communicating clearly and honestly with your superiors and knowing when you need a break, that’s the kind of strength that makes employees great. Maybe if we actually want the American work force to improve, we need to send more emails like Madalyn’s.

Lead screenshot via The Washington Times

Originally published: July 13, 2017
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