Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s March 7th interview with Oprah Winfrey was a jaw-dropper. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of the tell-all arrived when Markle shared how the racist treatment she experienced at the hands of the UK tabloids while pregnant and the lack of support she received from the royal family and team of people working at the palace (which she called "the firm" and "the institution" during the interview) led her to suicidal ideation.
"Look, I was really ashamed to say it at the time and ashamed to have to admit it to Harry especially, because I know how much loss he has suffered, but I knew that if I didn't say it, then I would do it," Markle said of her thoughts of suicide. "I just didn't want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought."
Markle said she felt compelled to share her experience not only because she wants to be an example for others who are afraid to ask for help, but because she understands the fear of having that request rejected. Markle told Winfrey that she first asked a senior member of the institution for mental health treatment, and when she was denied, she turned to human resources.
Markle explained that her "old job" had a union to protect employees (while she didn't specify, an educated guess would be that she was referring to the Screen Actors' Guild) and make no mistake, Markle's role as a "senior member" of the royal family was a job. It wasn't, however, a paying gig. "[HR] said, ‘My heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is, but there’s nothing we can do to protect you because you’re not a paid employee of the institution,'" said Markle.
Buckingham Palace has yet to release a statement specifically addressing the couple's interview with Winfrey.
While Markle's situation as a duchess is unique, trying to navigate a mental health crisis (particularly one caused or made worse by a toxic work environment) is not. In June the CDC surveyed 5,412 adults on the status of their mental well-being; 40 percent of adult Americans admitted that they’re struggling with mental health issues, and 11 percent reported having suicidal thoughts. Another survey from Mental Health America measured the perceptions of 5,030 employees across 17 industries showed that 3 out of 5 employees believe they’re not receiving adequate mental health support for stress from their supervisors.
"Employers need to understand they can no longer take a hands-off approach when it comes to mental health in the workplace. Today’s employees expect and deserve to work for organizations that care about their whole person," says Lorna Borenstein, CEO and founder of Grokker, an organization that makes well-being resources available to employees on-demand. "When employees are suffering from mental health issues, that has a direct negative impact on an organization. Employee disengagement due to poor health, including poor mental health, costs employers $530 billion each year in the U.S., $280 billion of which is productivity losses. So caring about the mental health of employees should not be an afterthought, it must be a core value of any organization that wants to succeed."
While Markle's HR request was denied, her instinct in this situation was spot on: Your workplace may be able to provide mental-health support if you require it. However, the first step is to ask—and as Markle demonstrated, doing so can require an act of bravery. If you fear you’re not being heard, respected, or accommodated at your workplace, it’s integral to know your rights and how you can proceed.
Don't go into a conversation with HR unprepared; arm yourself with knowledge by following these 5 tips for asking about mental health support at work
1. Get acquainted with your rights provided by the ADA
Many employers are required to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which essentially states that an employee or prospective employee can not be discriminated against because of a physical or mental impairment. This often includes mental illnesses, and in order to qualify for protection, you'll need to provide proof of a diagnosable psychiatric condition (e.g., a letter from a therapist) and that you'll be able to perform the job with or without reasonable accommodations.
Recognizing if your employer is bound to the conditions of the ADA is a great place to start. Off the bat, know that this law applies to companies with over 15 employees as well as all state and local government employees.
2. Ask for reasonable accommodations
Markle's situation shows how frightening it can be to ask for help from your employer. When asking for help, you should start by speaking with your manager and/or human resources department, says Janice Litvin, a workplace wellness speaker and recertification provider for the Society for Human Resource Management.
"Most large companies have a well-rounded suite of benefits and wellness offerings including an EAP, Employee Assistance Program, which offers mental health counseling in private," says Litvin. "EAP’s are not allowed to share the names of employees who have called in, according to HIPAA [privacy] laws."
If your employment is covered under the ADA, you also most likely have the right to a job accommodation. Reasonable accommodations can include things like more flexible work hours, being able to work from home (not everyone can, even in a pandemic!), having a quiet rest space, and more. The ADA National Network has a helpful fact sheet that includes thought starters when it comes to figuring out what accommodations would work best for you. Likewise, the Job Accommodation Network can provide ample ways you can approach and request fair accommodations.
3. Know where to file a complaint if you feel like you’re not being heard
If you feel like your rights under the ADA are being violated and your human resources department isn't of help, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This is a governmental agency that manages claims of employment discrimination. To file a charge of discrimination, you must first submit an online inquiry to determine if the EEOC is the right agency to manage your claim and be interviewed by an EEOC staff member. The charge will launch an investigation into your claim and, in most cases, it's required to submit an EEOC charge before filing a discrimination lawsuit. If you’re employed by a federal government agency, the process is different, but still an option.
If your employment isn't covered by the ADA but has state laws that provide similar protections to workers with mental health conditions, you want to file to your state’s Fair Employment Practice Agency. If you’re still denied, you can file with the Department of Labor.
4. Learn about the Family and Medical Leave Act and how it relates to mental health
What you might need in order to care for your mental well-being is time off from work. If this is the case, it could be worth looking into the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA allows an employee to take time off in order to take care of a sickly or in-need family member, but it can also be used for a mental health leave. It comes with major caveats, but if this could be a meaningful option for you, it’s good to be informed.
In order to be eligible for FMLA, you’ll have to be employed by a company for a year (doesn’t have to be consecutively). Your employer may ask for documentation of a mental illness from a psychiatric professional, and if possible, give a 30-day heads up.
But the major catch is that this law will entitle you to up to 12 weeks unpaid time off. It’s ultimately up to your employer to decide if they’ll keep paying you. Your employer is required to maintain your benefits like health insurance, however.
5. Know what accessible mental health resources are available
If you can't get what you need from HR, there are affordable options you can seek out on your own. For professional help, Open Path Collective offers affordable services at $30 to $60 per session. Since it’s often more difficult for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to find a therapist they connect with (about 86 percent of therapists are white) platforms like Therapy for Black Girls, She Matters, and Therapy for Latinx can point those in the right direction to find therapists of similar backgrounds.
You can also pursue alternative options for accessible care, especially if finances are keeping you out of therapy. During a Well+Good TALK about the state of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Therapy for Women founder Amanda White, LPC, pointed out that nurse practitioner psychiatrists (nurses with additional training and certification in mental health care who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions) are usually a more cost-effective option for treatment. Likewise, Black Girls Breathing founder Jasmine Marie previously suggested universities and state health departments as resources that usually offer free therapy sessions.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with a counselor online.
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