Talking to members about mental health

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Talking about mental health

Avoid labelling someone according to their mental illness, for example, “he’s schizophrenic” or “she’s OCD”. We wouldn’t say “she’s heart condition” or “he’s cancer.” People are not their illness.

Instead, say “living with … (the illness)” or “has (the illness).” Treat it the same way you would any other illness or injury.

Avoid calling people – or yourself – “retard,” “mental,” “spaz,” or “OCD.”

The language we use around certain incidents is really important. Consider saying “died by suicide” or “died as a result of suicide” instead of “committed suicide” or “killed him/herself”. Suicide is not a crime – it was removed from the Criminal Code in the 1970s. Suicide is a symptom of a disease. It is important to talk about it that way.

Start with yourself. Be thoughtful about your own choice of words. Use accurate and sensitive words when talking about people, especially if they are or might be dealing with a mental health issue.

Having a conversation

It can be difficult to know how to start the conversation when you suspect – or know – that a mental health problem is a possible factor in something you are working on. It might be a discipline or termination grievance, a return to work situation, or discussion about a possible accommodation.

Here is an approach that can help:

Who is the best person to have the conversation? Think about:

  • Privacy and confidentiality: Who else knows? Who needs to know? Who doesn’t need to know?
  • What is your relationship like with the member? Is there trust?
  • Is there another steward or union executive member with a better relationship with the member?
  • Who might the member respond well to? Who might they not respond well to?
  • How is your own state of mental health at the time? Are you available emotionally? Do you have time to really listen?
  • Know that the person might or might not agree to talk with you.
  • Also, it might take more than one conversation.
  • This isn’t about the outcome, it’s the process that’s important.

After the conversation, follow up on any solutions that you discuss. Get back to the member.

No matter how the conversation goes, try to check in with the member later. 

Medical privacy and confidentiality

If you are aware or believe a member may have a mental health condition, we need to represent them properly. In these situations, our duty of fair representation means applying an “extra” duty of care.

Treating the member “the same way as everyone else” is not enough. If we think a member might have a mental illness that is having an impact on their situation at work, the union needs to address it. 

This means we must ask the member if they might have a disability, or if something might be going on with their mental health. We need to do this in a way that builds trust, and this is where privacy and confidentiality come in.

Respecting the member’s privacy doesn’t mean not bringing up the things that you are noticing. You must bring them up.

Building trust means respecting high standards of confidentiality.

Here are some tips:

Ask yourself: Who needs to know what, and when?

  • Ask for the member’s permission to speak confidentially to the person who can help support you in representing this member. In your local it could be your local president, or a chief steward or servicing representative. Every local is different.

Let the member know that:

  • They can have someone else at the meeting for emotional support if they wish.
  • Sharing information about their health may help avoid discipline and ensure that they are accommodated in the workplace if necessary.
  • They are entitled to a reasonable amount of privacy, and that as little information as possible will be shared. 
  • The more involved a situation becomes, the more information will need to be shared with additional people. But not without the members consent.
  • Even if the employer requires some information to drop the discipline or facilitate an accommodation, they are not automatically entitled to detailed information or the diagnosis. The union will help protect their privacy as much as possible.


Source: CUPE National