A public health perspective on mental health recovery: overcoming the obstacles

By Jenny Lujan, BSN, RN (retired)

Chrysalis Board of Directors

Historically, we’ve made progress in supporting people with their mental health recovery. I believe that movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and stigmatizing media stories such as Roasted Nuts are bygones of our past. But I know we still have work to do.

I have first-hand experience of stigma and discrimination in the workplace related to my mental illness. My boss threatened to micromanage my work. According to another boss, co-workers said they were afraid to talk to me – perpetuating the stigmatizing assumption that people with mental illness are dangerous. My union representative tried to help me address the work conditions. I learned other employees experienced similar, more egregious and equally traumatizing workplace conditions than myself. I wasn’t alone:

“35% of employees “always” miss 3-5 days of work a month because of workplace stress.”

A few of my colleagues said that people with mental illness “should just get help”. Referring to a patient, another colleague said, “I hate working with that crazy woman!”. I am fortunate to have insurance, understand my recovery needs, know how to advocate for myself and navigate the complicated health care system. Many people don’t have access to health care, have shame and self-stigmatize related to their mental illness. Even if they seek care, finding a mental health provider is a daunting task. There is one mental health professional per 600 people in WI.

Access to care is only one factor that accounts for poor mental health. Social and economic factors are known as root causes of health outcomes. They powerfully influence the health of entire populations. Two of these factors are racism and employment.

While it will be a difficult and long-term endeavor to understand and apply the knowledge of racism and mental health, the intersectionality of mental health and race and the tragic history of abuse and mistreatment, I have hope we are moving forward. Collective and safe discourse in local, state and national efforts within the public and private sectors is happening. At Chrysalis, staff are participating in Witnessing Whiteness workshops and attending YWCA Racial Justice Summit conferences to further their understanding of racial justice that will build agency capacity toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

Chrysalis’ employees are offered optional participation in twice monthly health circles. Chrysalis hired a consultant who trained a staff member to facilitate the health circles where employees are actively involved in the process of identifying their own emergent needs. Various topics during health circle’ discussions include celebrations, communication, mourning, fear, gratitude, team cohesion and connectivity, and conflict resolution. Health circles are a means of processing job-related stress.

During my exit interview at work with my bosses, and given that one in five people report having a mental illness, I suggested implementing a sustainable method where all staff take the mental health first aid course, similar to the way CPR is required. It was satisfying leaving my job by educating those in power to make change in hopes that others may get support.

Being on the board of Chrysalis is an honor and essential to my mental and emotional wellbeing