Are antidepressants stigmatised in the workplace?
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Are antidepressants stigmatised in the workplace?

Jul 11, 2023

More people than ever are taking antidepressants. Nearly half a million more adults in England are now taking medication for their mental health compared with the previous year, with 8.3 million people prescribed antidepressants between 2021 and 2022.

It’s easy to see why more people are struggling with their psychological health. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic — the economic upheaval, prolonged isolation, increased bereavement and heightened anxiety of a health crisis — and the current cost of living crisis are thought to be behind the rapid rise in prescriptions.

Yet despite the vast number of people who take and rely on antidepressants, stigma surrounding them still exists — especially at work.

Earlier this year, a woman from Inverness, Scotland, launched legal action against Police Scotland after having a job offer withdrawn because she was taking antidepressants.

In the employment tribunal papers, she described working for the police as her “dream career” and sailed through the application process. But when she underwent a medical — where she disclosed she was taking an antidepressant — her provisional job offer was retracted.

Read more: What are your rights at work if you have ADHD?

Police Scotland's occupational health provider said a policy of two years free of the medication was in place. However, MacKenzie was advised by Citizens Advice Scotland to pursue an employment tribunal case against Police Scotland on the grounds of disability discrimination. She said she was shocked that the force — which has said it cannot comment on the case — showed “such a stigmatising attitude towards mental health.”

One of the key problems is that stigma around mental health still exists, which leads to medication and therapy being stigmatised too.

More than half the population (51%) don’t feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics in the workplace, despite over two-thirds (68%) saying it was important to them to feel able to, according to research by the wellbeing platform Unmind.

In the UK, we’re twice as likely to feel uncomfortable discussing mental rather than physical health at work, with one in three people worrying that doing so would lead to judgement.

A quarter (24%) of those surveyed said they thought talking about a mental health problem would impact their career progression.

Read more: Five science-backed ways to improve your health at work

Similarly, McKinsey & Company research showed more than half of survey respondents feared stigma if colleagues discovered their mental health problems. Studies have also shown that the majority of people believe those with mental health issues like depression or anxiety are treated differently, which is known to discourage people from seeking support or treatment.

Misinformation also underpins stigma surrounding antidepressants. Studies show that medication stigma is linked to myths and misconceptions, including that people who take antidepressants are emotionally weak or that medication is a "quick fix" — neither of which are true.

There is also a lack of belief in the therapeutic efficacy of antidepressants, in part, because we don’t know exactly how or why they improve symptoms.

Although the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain has largely been disproven, research suggests antidepressants are still effective in treating the condition.

In 2018, a major study which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common antidepressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than placebos.

Although there’s still some way to go to remove mental health stigma at work, attitudes are improving.

Some employers have recognised the strain by introducing benefits focused on wellbeing, including access to counselling.

And it’s not just because businesses are more sympathetic — many have realised that good psychological health reduces issues like sick leave and a lack of productivity.

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Steve Peralta, chief wellbeing officer at Unmind, says that providing a safe space and open atmosphere for people to talk about their wellbeing is crucial for tackling stigma. In short, it benefits both employers and employees.

“Providing avenues for people to be open about their physical and mental health helps with employee engagement, productivity, retention and impacts the bottom line,” he says.

Wendy Halliday, director of See Me, Scotland’s programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination, said: “We all have mental health, and big issues such as the cost of living crisis and other daily struggles can make it hard. The figures show that there is still a real stigma attached to opening up about how you’re feeling, and we want everyone to feel comfortable talking about mental health in a way that suits them.”

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