The Disability Mindset: What It Is and How to Overcome It

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Dan Jolivet
By raising awareness, people are pushing for more acceptance and open lines of communication.

We’re currently in the midst of a cultural shift: More people are fighting for awareness and acceptance of behavioral health conditions. Whether it’s events like World Mental Health Day or celebrities speaking publicly about their struggles with depression or substance abuse, we, as a society, are hearing more about behavioral health and its far-reaching impacts.

Throughout these awareness campaigns, a common piece of the conversation is how people with behavioral health conditions — including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse issues — frequently struggle with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. These individuals often cite a fear that others may label them because of their condition, so many suffer through their conditions in silence. This is a major reason these awareness campaigns exist. By raising awareness, people are pushing for more acceptance and open lines of communication.

This shift toward awareness and acceptance is a good first step, but how can being supportive of behavioral health conditions be addressed in the workplace?

The Shift Toward Workplace Acceptance

While our culture has made great strides in recent years to become more accepting of people with behavioral health conditions, the workplace adds another layer of difficulty. Many people with behavioral health conditions still struggle with rejoining or remaining in the workforce after experiencing a behavioral health condition.

In my experience, a significant factor for this is how employers approach or support an employee experiencing this type of condition — especially if they have taken a disability leave. Employers may be unaware and well-intentioned, but some assume that an employee with a behavioral health diagnosis won’t get better. This may be caused by the misconception that a depressed or anxious employee will always be depressed or anxious. This way of thinking is misinformed and can be harmful to the employee and their success in the workplace.

The Disability Mindset

A “disability mindset” in employees is another outcome of this way of thinking, hindering their ability to remain in the workforce. The disability mindset happens when an ill or injured employee becomes focused on their disabilities instead of capabilities. If an employer speaks to or treats an employee in a way that fosters their feelings of shame or inadequacy, that mindset can be hard to overcome. At its core, this mindset can make an employee feel as if they won’t be able to get better and resume their normal predisability life.

A person experiencing this mindset can easily spiral downward. If an employee thinks they won’t be able to rejoin or stay in the workforce because of a condition — and the employer has written them off as permanently disabled — it’s easy for them to feel hopeless and stop trying.

Although we’ve come a long way with cultural awareness and acceptance for behavioral and mental health issues, we have room to grow in the workplace. Employees with behavioral health issues can and do get better. But as long as these preconceived notions still exist, it can be more difficult. The help of a compassionate employer can mean all the difference for employees to remain in the workforce. The opportunity for employers lies in supporting an employee with a behavioral health condition and understanding that these employees can contribute to the workplace — just like an employee with a physical health condition.

Stay tuned for more on the disability mindset, as I explore how to provide support and establish a culture of acceptance in future posts.