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CEOs Against Stigma

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

SMASHING STIGMAS IN PEABODY

BY GAYLA CAWLEY

PHOTO BY BOB ROCHE

COO Tamara Lange, left, helps CEO Barbara Wilson of Family Continuity sign a workplace pledge against the stigma of mental illness.

 

PEABODY — A Peabody chief executive officer has inserted herself into a statewide fight against workplace mental health stigma by pledging to join CEOs Against Stigma.

Barbara Wilson, CEO of Family Continuity, is one of over 50 CEOs who have joined CEOs Against Stigma — the statewide campaign created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts (NAMI Mass) — and promoting a mentally healthy and stigma-free work environment for her employees, according to a release.

Family Continuity is a private, nonprofit mental health and social services agency supporting Eastern and Central Massachusetts. Offices are located in Peabody, Lawrence, Whitinsville, Worcester, Plymouth and Hyannis, according to company information.

“I am pleased to join my business colleagues in this important initiative to end the stigma associated with mental health,” Wilson said. “Based on the mission of Family Continuity, we would be remiss if we did not also focus our efforts on this important initiative in the workplace. To advocate for the people we support and not for our own staff would be hypocritical, as well as unethical. It is important for us to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Wilson said her decision to sign the pledge for CEOs Against Stigma was the result of a presentation by NAMI Mass for the staff at her organization. She said her chief operating officer saw the CEOs Against Stigma campaign following the presentation and told her about it. She said joining the pledge was a “no brainer for me” and “I certainly believe in recovery from mental health.”

Although Family Continuity is a mental health organization, Wilson said she doesn’t believe it’s true that her workplace is without stigma regarding mental health. She said employees may bring in their own preconceived notions surrounding mental health. By signing the pledge, she said she wants to educate her workforce and “provide an environment where people are comfortable having the conversation,” if they are struggling from mental health issues.

By creating a more open environment, Wilson said people would be more likely to seek help, which would improve workplace productivity and enhance the company’s bottom line. She added that it would stabilize the workforce.

Wilson said people who may be struggling with mental health issues still fear that their bosses will hold that against them and that they could lose their jobs as a result of disclosing their condition.

“There’s a lot of misperceptions and myths about mental illness,” Wilson said. “Part of this campaign is to help educate the greater public, so people (with mental health issues) aren’t seen as hopeless, lost or incapable of recovery.”

Karen Gromis, deputy director of NAMI Mass, said about a year and a half ago, her organization decided to do a survey to find out where the state was, in terms of their mental health perceptions. She said when people were queried about if it was best to tell their family about their mental health condition, 92 percent said yes. She said 76 percent of respondents said it was best to tell friends. However, she said only 27 percent of people said it was best to disclose their condition to co-workers.

“We realized there was a real disparity here and a problem in the workplace,” Gromis said. “In terms of disability, mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the workplace.”

From there, Gromis said NAMI wanted to focus on the workplace and make it a stigma-free environment. She said her organization felt it had to be a “top down approach,” starting with the CEO, which would trickle down to the Human Resources director and then funnel down to all employees. Hence, CEOs Against Stigma was born.

Gromis said the goal is to have 250 CEOs take the pledge, which would include about 500,000 employees. Currently, 53 CEOs are signed up, including 100,000 employees. Although she said the process is taking longer than expected, she is committed to reaching the initial goal.

“This program isn’t going to go away,” Gromis said.

As part of taking the pledge, Gromis said every CEO must have “In Our Own Voice” presentations done at their company, which she said is one of NAMI’s signature programs. With that program, she said NAMI trains two individuals who are in recovery from mental illness.

Those two people go to various organizations and talk about their recovery. Gromis said they discuss their initial onset of the illness and their treatment, along with their hopes, dreams and successes during a 75-minute presentation.

Wilson said she is kicking off CEOs Against Stigma at her organization in February. She said that will include informing staff that there will be some employee training, with a goal of working towards creating a “supportive, welcoming, honest environment for people to have real conversations” about mental illness. She said employees who want to seek help for their condition would also be connected with an employee assistance program, which includes four free counseling sessions.

“Mental health providers have to be the purveyors of hope,” Wilson said. “It really is an illness and nothing to be afraid of.”

Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com.

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