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By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity, and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.

The Icarus Project

When a member comes to you

In some situations, a member may disclose that they are living with a mental illness or are experiencing a mental health issue.

In other situations, members may not disclose, either because they are not aware themselves, or because they fear for what will happen if they do. They may worry that people will treat them differently or that they will be fired.

Having a conversation

It can be difficult to know how to start the conversation when you suspect – or know – that mental illness is a possible factor in a workplace issue, such as discipline or termination, a return to work situation, or discussion about a possible accommodation.

Here is an approach that can help. Ask yourself, who is the best person to have the conversation? Think about:

  • Privacy and confidentiality: Who else knows? Who needs to know? Who doesn’t need to know?
  • What is your relationship like with the member? Is there trust?
  • Is there another steward or union executive member with a better relationship with the member?
  • Who might the member respond well to? Who might they not respond well to?
  • How is your own state of mental health at the time? Are you available emotionally? Do you have time to really listen?
  • Know that the person might or might not agree to talk with you.
  • Know, too, that it might take more than one conversation.
  • Know that this isn’t about the outcome - it’s the process that’s important.

After the conversation, follow up on any solutions that you discuss. No matter how the conversation goes, check in with the member later. 

How to talk about mental illness

People living with mental illness may face multiple intersecting layers of discrimination because of their mental illness and their identity – particularly when people experience racism, poverty and economic insecurity, gender oppression, and/or are from the gender and sexually diverse community.

The language we use to discuss mental illness can have a big impact.

  • Avoid labelling someone according to their mental illness, for example “he’s schizophrenic” or “she’s OCD.” We don’t say “she’s a heart condition” or “he’s cancer.” People are not their illness.
  • Instead, say “living with (the illness)” or “has (the illness).” Treat it the same way you would any other illness or injury.
  • Avoid calling people – or yourself – “retard,” “mental,” “spaz,” or “OCD.”
  • The language we use around certain incidents is really important. Suicide is a symptom of a disease, not a crime. It is important to talk about it that way. Consider saying “died by suicide” or “died as a result of suicide” instead of “committed suicide” or “killed him/herself.”
  • Be thoughtful about your own choice of words. Use accurate and sensitive words when talking about people, especially if they are or might be dealing with a mental health issue.

Medical privacy and confidentiality

If you are aware that or believe that a member may have a mental health condition, the union needs to represent them properly. In these situations, our duty of fair representation means applying an “extra” duty of care.

Treating the member “the same way as everyone else” is not enough. If we think a member might have a mental illness that is having an impact on their situation at work, the union needs to address it. 

This means we must ask the member if they might have a disability, or if something might be going on with their mental health. We need to do this in a way that builds trust, which means respecting high standards of confidentiality.

Respecting the member’s privacy doesn’t mean not bringing up the things that you are noticing. You must bring them up.

Here are some tips:

  • Ask yourself: Who needs to know what, and when?
  • Ask for the member’s permission to speak confidentially to the person who can help support you in representing this member. In your local it could be your local president, a chief steward, or servicing representative. Every local is different.

Let the member know that:

  • They can have someone else at the meeting for emotional support if they wish.
  • Sharing information about their health may help avoid discipline and ensure that they are accommodated in the workplace if necessary.
  • They are entitled to a reasonable amount of privacy, and as little information as possible will be shared. 
  • The more complicated a situation becomes, the more information will need to be shared with more people - but not without the member’s consent.
  • Even if the employer requires some information to drop the discipline or facilitate an accommodation, they are not automatically entitled to detailed information on the situation or the diagnosis. The union must help protect the member’s privacy as much as possible.