Mental health — the new ‘coming out’ story

When we thinking about coming out in the context of equity and inclusion work we are normally talking about people coming out as being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Trans, right? The stigma surrounding these identities, while not uniform, has meant that people have had to demonstrate a moment of heroism when they finally share with the world or just their family or friends who they really are as a whole person.

There are still many countries where being gay is illegal and there is a long walk to freedom ahead still but I think there is a new coming out story emerging. So my theory is that talking about hidden disabilities, and in particular, mental health is the new coming out. I was shocked when visiting Bangladesh last year to learn about how discrimination against people with mental health problems is structured into the constitution. When I came back and started researching I was further saddened to find this is commonplace! There is a huge gulf between the rights that people with disabilities have and the reality of our day-to-day lives. Having protection under the law can often be of little comfort as widespread discrimination, conscious and unconscious biases play out in everyday situations.

Stigma and discrimination

Experiencing stigma can drag you down, feeling judged and stereotyped because of the label of a particular mental illness, for example, can end up being the prism through which many day to day encounters are viewed. The stigma and discrimination are so ingrained that they are invisible to most.

Mental health problems are common but nearly nine out of ten people who experience them say they face stigma and discrimination as a result.

We need a shift in perception to start seeing the everyday latent discrimination about mental illness which surrounds us. It normalizes ridiculous stereotypes about mental ill health and creates the perfect climate for discrimination to flourish. So, people with mental illness and other forms of hidden disabilities are discouraged from ‘coming out’ by this wall of stigma and discrimination. Too much of the time, support if not given, treatment is not received, and that opportunities for early intervention and remedy are missed.

Board game I saw in WH Smith which reinforces negative and stereotypical views on mental health

Enter the legends and pioneers

Like most journeys toward social, political, economic and cultural parity there are always trail blazers. The trailblazers that we tend to remember are the high profile ones like Dr. King or Harvey Milk. I have been so impressed by what Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax have done for mental health, to bring the bleak and dark shapes of mental illness, if not into the light, into the shadow so that they can at least begin to be seen.

In recent times there has even been quite a bit of retroactive role modeling (I just invented this term :) ©). Historical and revered figures are having their mental health discussed and this plays an important role in enabling people to see the fact that a person’s ability to contribute and achieve great things need not be discounted because of their mental health. It is now commonplace for people to speak about Sir Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’, the spectre that followed him around at once both haunting and motivating him.

Ordinary trail blazers

On the periphery of this spectacle there are ordinary folks who may not be in the public eye but who create the glide path for the rest of us. For me there are also the everyday heroes of this coming out story. I want to tell you about one of mine. James is our Director of People, Operations and Change. A big job title, a massive remit and a decent, down to earth guy who lit a beacon for people in the Department for International Development by coming out and sharing his mental health story. The story from a man who is at the top of his game exposes his vulnerability and created the space for others to have conversations about their mental health. I made this video a while back of James giving a talk to a room packed full of colleagues where he ‘came out’. Take the time, watch it, and be inspired. This talk created a safe space for us to start the process of eliminating mental health stigma in the workplace.


Words are good, deeds are better and outcomes are best. Over a period of two years I worked with James with the support of Time to Change (an awesome mental health anti-stigma campaign in England) and See Me (their sister campaign in Scotland) to diagnose what we needed to change in our organization to make sure people with mental health problems got a better deal and to act on a plan to make this change a reality.

We designed our global mental health anti-stigma campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems in the workplace. The programme of work, led by James, ran over the period of a year and was kick-started with a series of expert seminars which brought together HR employees, senior leaders from across the business and our disability staff network. We used this moment as a catalyst to ignite a cultural change within DFID on mental health stigma. We signed up to both the Time to Change and See Me Scotland pledges and made a public commitment to improve our workplace for people who experience mental health challenges. At the pledge signing event James spoke about his own experience of having depression, PTSD and panic attacks.

Our approach had the social model of disability at its foundation and we opened ourselves to a new level of transparency and accountability from our people and our peer organisations.

We saw significant improvements in the level of engagement reported by colleagues with disabilities. We reported the best employee engagement scores and largest the reductions of discrimination of any Civil Service Department. Results matter and that’s why I was so glad when James’ efforts we recognized with his winning the Civil Service Award for Championing Disability.

Further Information

  • Find out more about the work Time to Change and See Me are doing to tackle stigma
  • If you need to talk to someone and are experiencing a crisis the Samaritans are there for you
  • Find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and Medium
  • Find out more about our work on mental health in the workplace by visiting the DFID website below:
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