my talk at mental health camp yesterday:
it’s not about mental illness. it’s about mental health.
in 1996, 510 murders occurred in canada. taking a prevalence rate of about 3% of violent crimes committed by people with mental illness, at most, 16 of these people were killed by someone with a mental illness. i’m mentioning that because of the tragedy that happened a few days ago where a little girl was killed.
still. i’d like you to get that number. 16.
at the same time, 45,000 deaths were attributed to tobacco, 2,900 to car accidents, and 1,900 to alcohol.
mental illness is not the big problem.
i think mental health is.
an industry that makes products that kill tens of thousands of people in canada alone is not mentally healthy. in fact, it is literally insane.
i’ll tell you what else is insane.
a country that does not extradite someone who has been judged responsible for the death of at least 25,000 people is insane. the country is the united states, the person in question is warren anderson. he was the executive in charge at the time of the bhopal disaster.
who else is insane?
a company that disregards safety just like union carbide in bhopal did. the company is BP. it is insane.
a police force that is more concerned with turf wars than preventing disasters is insane. the police force is the RCMP and the disaster is the air india crash.
i’m not here to say that mental illness is not important, that all of us here who are dealing with depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder or whatever, either ourselves or through our loved ones, are not important because otherwise we wouldn’t have mental health camp.
but right here, right now, i want to talk about mental HEALTH. because i’ve looked at all these things and all of a sudden, i realized something enormous:
the vast majority of big disasters nowadays, from environmental crimes to wars to major health problems such as lung cancer and diabetes – you know where most of them come from, or more precisely, where the decisions are made to go ahead and do or not do things that have vast negative consequences?
they are all fomented in the work place. union carbide, the RCMP, the cigarette company philip morris, BP – all the decisions that have a horrible effect on countless people are made at the workplace.
those workplaces are insane.
who here has worked in an insane workplace?
who here is working in an insane workplace right now?
what type of insanity do we find in the workplace?
- abusive supervisors
- never being appreciated
- distrust, always on the lookout for trouble
- focusing on shortcomings
- obsessed with reputation
- reluctance and lack of cooperation
- fear of disappointment
- extreme vigilance
- being a “hard-ass,”
- playing favorites
- scrutinizing everything for hidden meaning
- closed mindedness
- uneasy relationships that never get repaired – toxins build up
- layoffs and other painful measures that are being pushed through disregarding the effect they have
- disconnection from reality
- in-groups and out-groups that fight each other
- differential treatment from bosses
- active and passive provocation
- not admitting problems
- not asking for help
- lack of meaningful relationships at work
- getting blindsided
- lack of fairness
- nobody listens
- deflecting responsibility
(adapted from an MIT sloan management review article)
there’s quite a bit of research on the dysfunctional workplace, for example on violence in the workplace, or the effect abusive supervisors have on turnover in the workplace. however, i haven’t seen anything yet on how the dysfunctionality that seems to be the norm in many workplaces makes it possible for disastrous decisions to be made.
but i’m just going to go out on a limb and say that someone who is in complete and optimal mental health cannot make the kinds of decisions that end up killing people, destroying the environment and otherwise compromising the wellbeing of people and the planet.
let me use the air india disaster as an example. reading through justice john major’s report, we see that these things happened at the RCMP and CSIS
- not communicating effectively with each other
- RCMP not sharing information with CSIS when they clearly should have, and vice versa
- not respecting each others’ rules and requirements – e.g. RCMP was often careless in protecting CSIS sources
- a culture of managing information designed to protect individual institutional interests and not the public interest
- compromising the need for reliable proof (when the parmar tapes were erased)
- misunderstanding or dismissing that the relevance of information, not who has the information, determines what happens before the court
- institutional lack of self-restraint and self-discipline
- overstating the need for secrecy
i propose that all of these things are signs of dysfunctional mental health. i propose that most people would say that these are signs of mental health:
- open and honest communication
- reflecting on the consequences of one’s actions
- having a degree of basic trust towards others
- working hard to resolve any tensions that arise
- co-operating for the common good
- a degree of maturity that includes self restraint and self discipline where needed
and i propose that if these and other indicators of mental health were present, there would be less, and probably far less, calamities in the world.
i have to tell you that these ideas are still pretty new to me. as some of you know, i was going to talk about a different topic. but then one day, interestingly enough, when i was preparing a talk somewhere else about mental health in the workplace, i saw this connection between war and destruction and the workplace.
a book i have been reading avidly lately is tony schwartz’s the way we’re working isn’t working. (you can follow tony on twitter, it’s @tonyschwartz.)
let me read you just a few excerpts. here is the one that may have triggered all of this:
not a single CEO or senior executive at a large bank ever stood up and blew the whistle on the practices that led to the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008. nor has virtually any one of them ever explicitly acknowledged any personal responsibility for what happened.
we tolerate extraordinary disconnects in our own lives, even in areas we plainly have the power to influence.
human beings have continued to evolve by leaps and bounds in terms of what can be externally measured and observed. but for all these extraordinary external advances, we’ve devoted remarkably little attention to better understanding our inner world.
[we have a] tendency to default to impatience, irritation and even anger as a way to mobilize others to action
no single behaviour, we’ve come to believe, more funamentally influences our effectiveness in waking life than sleep
the survival zone is an acceptable place in which to operate in most organizations
[when a amy pascal needed to implement some major changes at sony] she began by asking herself a simple question: “what is the right thing to do here? … everybody knows that it means to do the right thing. it means serving the greatest good even when it doesn’t seem to be in your immediate self-interest. it means you don’t make choices out of fear of failure or just because they seem expedient, you don’t make choices that are quicker or easier because that’s what everyone else is doing.”
okay, so now we’ve spent about 35 minutes on doom and gloom, and that’s just about all i can handle. i want to talk about more positive things now. like mental illness.
actually, about the experience and wisdom of people with mental illness. more precisely, the experience and wisdom of people with mental illness who are working hard at making the best of their lives. i’ll assume there’s a few of us in here right now, and more who may have friends or family who have learned to manage mental illness.
part of that management is medication. but the other part of that is therapy and even more importantly, leading a life that strives for as much mental health as possible.
in the course of managing mental illness, we have learned some valuable things. so what i’m saying is that precisely BECAUSE we are forced to manage mental illness we have gained tools that can make a difference, a big difference.
my final point then is, seeing that the world needs help, and seeing that in managing mental illness, we have gained these valuable tools, how can we practically, day by day, today and not tomorrow, use these tools to influence our places of work? because i think that’s one place where we can start. make it our responsibility to make our places of work places where we can be in what tony schwartz calls the performance and renewal zones, where we can be calm, engaged, invigorated and peaceful, mellow and receptive. and even more specifically, how can we use social media to make this happen?