Breaking Stigma in the Workplace


Often times I am met by people in the community asking me what I do for a living, or asking me what exactly being a Certified Peer Support Specialist entails. Moments like these give me a chance to step on my mini-soap box and educate them about Mental Illness, Mental Health, Austin Manor, Thrive, and the impact we have on people’s forever lives.

Approximately twelve and a half years ago I was diagnosed with an SPMI. I thought I would never 'recover', I would never be able to 'get better', and I knew I would surely never be able to work again. I entered into individual psychotherapy, DBT, and started a medication routine trying to find a new 'normal'. Years into my recovery and search for wellness, I found myself wanting to give back to the mental health community and wanting to educate healthcare professionals in not just the mental health field, but in all aspects of medicine.

I have experienced stigma in so many ways. I have had emergency personnel tell me to "Stop being crazy” and had an ER doctor tell me my physical pain was imagined "Because you have a mental illness". These incidents have fueled my passion to create awareness and break stigma.

Many of you may be reading this and asking yourself, “Ok, what exactly does this have to do with me? I am educated! I am aware of stigma and I NEVER participate in things like that!” If that is you, I give you major props and kudos! However, we can admit that it happens, sometimes without us even being aware we are doing it.

Some of the things I have heard in the workplace that come to mind are:

  • "She's just a borderline, she'll get over it"

  • "He's treatment resistant"

  • "Be prepared for the manipulation from that person"

When I hear co-workers saying things like this, I am quick to respectfully correct them and to take the opportunity to explain and educate. I feel a very personal responsibility to educate my co-workers and to protect my peers from stigma and judgement. Even if this is just 'office talk' and my peers may never know, it does subconsciously affect how we treat them.

So, what are some things we can do to ensure we don't continue to feed stigma in the workplace? I have comprised a short list below with explanations. Feel free to offer more suggestions in the comment section if you have anything that has worked for you.

Speak up

If you hear a co-worker or anyone in the community speaking negatively about mental health issues, or joking around saying things like "Eh, I'm crazy", speak up! In my many years with personal experience with mental health issues, and during my short year and a half working with peers I have yet to meet anyone that enjoys hearing voices, or anyone who thinks it's actually funny.


If you ever have a question about anything, we are blessed with abundant resources! All you have to do is pick up your phone, laptop, tablet, etc. and ask it a question to have a world of information at your fingertips. We also live close to the Mayo Clinic and they have an abundance of free resources including pamphlets, DVDs, flyers, booklets, books, and more.

Ask Questions

Make sure you are getting all of the information. Ask detailed questions, use motivational interviewing and active listening skills. Walk away from your computer and or notebook and spend some one-on-one time with your peers! They really are great people and I can promise you not a single one of them asked for this to be their life.

Respect HIPAA

When I first started working in this field, I made a choice for myself that I have noticed not many others, for various reasons, do not make. I do NOT read my peers history or charts unless I have a need to do so. I want to know the information they want me to know. So often the issues that have led someone to be in an IRTS, CBHH, or hospital psychiatric unit, are NOT our proudest moments. They can be very painful, shameful, and embarrassing. Sit down and play a game of dice with them during down time and ask what they enjoy doing in their spare time. Take the time to get to know them. I find that my peers feel a high amount of regard for the staff who choose not to read their file unless it is necessary.

Put yourself in their shoes

I can promise you that there is not a single person who has asked to have a SPMI. When I was diagnosed, I had recently become a wife and mother. To have that big fat label slapped on all of my records made me feel like my life was ending. How would you want to be treated? Would you feel confident in your team if they said some of the things, we as staff are all guilty of saying?

Last, but not least (actually the biggest), Smile!

Smiling creates a chemical reaction in the brain and body and creates positive feelings for both the person smiling and the person on the receiving end of the smile! A person is less likely to speak negatively or participate in stigma-based conversation if they are feeling good about themselves, feeling proud and feeling happy. And the people we serve will be the recipients of those good feelings, resulting in them feeling better about themselves. All because of a smile!