How Mental Health Prejudice is Perpetuated by the Internet
by guest blogger Richard Saville-Smith MA, MSc.
In mental health week it’s bright being upbeat, but better being realistic. There seems to be general agreement that work is good for mental health, adding purpose, routine and social qualities; a certain stability in which even stress is measured and managed; and where respect is both given and received. There is no scientific way of comparing and contrasting the net benefits of medical approaches to mental well-being – pharmaceuticals, therapy etc. with the ‘health’ effects of a decent job. There is no incentive for any kind of medical lobbyist to advocate ‘getting a job’ (except to pay their fees) so there’s not much research to go on. However data in the UK shows that 80% of people with a mental illness want a job, but only 20% have one. This suggests that perhaps employment really may be a significant healthcare issue.
Getting a job is tough in this economic climate but the internet makes pretty much everything worse if you’ve got a mental illness and happen to have stuck your head above the digital parapet. It doesn’t matter whether employers are legally allowed to check you out on Search and Social Media, do you really think they don’t? If you are down to the last choices for a position…put yourself in the employer’s shoes…of course they’re going to look; they may be after specific inconsistencies in your resume or just a general view of how you’ve graffitti’d cyberspace with your life story so far.
And this is where it all gets just a little bit tricky. When you came out as mentally ill to your family and friends, perhaps you hadn’t considered the consequences. When you blogged about the inconsistencies of mental health policy were you thinking that the potential audience included future employers. If your affiliations to mental health organisations can be seen, they will be. Feeling paranoid? Paranoia is a reasonable response.
Of course organisations cannot refuse to employ you on the grounds of mental illness, on the basis of information found online. But who’s there to police that? It may be that LinkedIn leaves a trace of those who read your profile and that you effectively manage your security settings on Facebook, and the like, to keep your views on mental health private. But what happens on twitter? Do your tweets on #mentalhealthweek reveal more about you to a potential employer than might have been prudent?
But the big beast of unwanted disclosure is search – Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest. They scoop up all of your finest moments but also those you’d prefer to suppress. Suppose you fight a disability discrimination case and it gets reported in newspapers which are indexed to the web, the story stays with you like halitosis; bad breath that can’t necessarily be fixed by a trip to the dentist.
The gurus of search engine optimization will tell you they can fix any problem but all they can do is pile up entries in the hope of burying your past – a bit like treating your breath problem by eating mints or gargling mouthwash.
The only way that newspapers unwrite the news is if they’re feeling kind, or if you threaten them in such a way that the cost of resisting your request makes it worth their effort. And if the story is materially true you don’t have the leverage of a law court and a libel suit because it’s a free country and they can print what they like, within the law.
I’m not an important person but I was dismissed from a high profile PR job for being psychiatrically ill. I have a long term diagnosis of bipolar disorder so I took legal action on the grounds of disability discrimination. During the proceedings the employer’s lawyer accused me of fabricating job applications. This accusation was reported by a news agency and ended up on the website of the BBC.
I’ve complained to the BBC twice and they’ve cosmetically adjusted the wording on the article each time in response. But the essential charge is still there because, as they say, they are correctly reporting a claim made by a lawyer and lawyers are better respected than the mentally ill. In the eventual judgement I am explicitly cleared of any such charge. It was wholly trumped up by the lawyer to damage my character. But the judgment isn’t on Google whereas the accusation is still on the BBC website and they won’t take it down. So I lose. I’m about to embark on a new attempt to get the BBC to remove the whole article – the extraction technique – so wish me luck!
The difficulty about this is that the lawyer’s accusations were about the completion of job applications when I was not ill, matters not specifically related to my mental illness. The accusations impugn my general integrity. I could certainly argue my position with a potential employer if I knew that they knew that this was an issue. Perhaps I should just ask potential employer’s what they’ve read on the internet, but it’s a bit like asking if they knew about my whole psychiatric backstory, introducing a subject about which they may be oblivious. The risks are enormous and all thanks to the instant sharing of information which I can explain and which I’m not ashamed of – when approached in the right context. But honestly, if you had ten candidates and one of them fabricated their job applications according to the BBC – would you put that one into your final group for decision? I have no platform from which to defend my reputation.
In the meantime, I can now prove that the same lawyer colluded in lying in court about other aspects of the case. The Police and his professional authority are going to investigate. So, hopefully, some kind of justice will be done – but it still won’t clear my name on Google and I’ve had to go back to University because I can’t get a job.