Ruby Wax & The Employers and Mental Illness Debate

Ruby Wax, comedian, actress and mental health activist caused quite a surge of comments on social media yesterday and quite a backlash in the newspapers today after her very candid comments in The Times on what people with diagnosed mental illnesses should, or in her view “should not say” about their mental health problems when disclosing medical history to a potential employer:

Wax said:  “When people say ‘Should you tell them at work?’ I say ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema.”

“Mental illness is like the situation used to be with gay rights. Like being in the closet, but mental illness is now the taboo instead.”

But many people with and without lived experience of mental health problems immediately hit back, saying that we will never progress away from stigma and taboo subjects if we aren’t willing to talk about them.  

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Ruby Wax, TED Talk:  What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?

Eleanor Morgan in The Guardian responded:

“Here are the facts: it’s illegal to be dismissed from your job because of a mental health problem. The Equality Act, bringing together the laws that were found in the Disability Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act and Sex Discrimination Act, protects people from discrimination on the grounds of disability. If you have a mental health problem you may not think of yourself as disabled, but if it has a significant impact on your day-to-day life for a period of time, it will probably be considered a disability under this law. It’s a very detailed law, but Mind provides a legal briefing about how it works.

Most important, an employer should not treat you unfavourably because of a disability, and must make “reasonable adjustments to work practices, and provide other aids and adaptations” – for example, being flexible about hours, and temporarily allowing you to work part-time, or have a period of sick leave with the clear reassurance that you are still valued as an employee. If you feel as if you’ve been fired under the cloak of “something else”, chances are you will be protected”.

It is true that historically, talking about taboo issues openly has been a major driving force in normalising those issues and reducing stigma.  But, on an individual basis, some people with mental health issues or indeed any problem may not want to disclose it to a potential employer for fear of the consequences – just in case.  Then again, if everyone did this, we would be at a standstill in stigma reform – or worse, going backwards.

Where do you stand on this issue?  Is Ruby Wax right or wrong?  Does she have any valid points?  Is the debate not as simple as that?  

Would you or have you ever protected yourself individually while still trying to fight the battle against stigma – and is that really possible, does it work?  Or should we make a stand and demand that no subject is off-limits at any time, including mental health?

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