Television's The Apprentice Sets a Bad Example of How to Handle Mental Illness in the Workplace
North Americans are increasingly inundated with reality television programs and sit down on a weekly basis to watch and enjoy their favourite slice of life. One series that appeals to a "most-desirable demographic" - 18-49 year olds with households incomes over $75,000 - is Donald Trump's The Apprentice. The Apprentice is a six-week long job interview, where 18 aspiring entrepreneurs compete for a dream job with the Trump Organization and a comfortable six-figure salary. Each week, the candidates are divided into two teams and given rigorous business tasks that test them on their business-world savvy, teamwork and creativity. Every episode ends with Donald Trump firmly stating, with a flourish of his right hand, "you're fired" to one unfortunate candidate from the losing team. Judging by the popularity of the show, we are certain that many people tune into this program to provide them with the guidance and wisdom to survive in the corporate world. We can only hope they missed last week's episode.
As employees of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and people who work in the addiction and mental illness field on a daily basis, we were outraged by what transpired in the boardroom when Stacie J. was being fired on last week's episode. For those who missed the program, here's a quick recap. During the final boardroom scene with the three final candidates - one of who was going to be fired - Stacie J. was accused of being 'crazy'. In an unprecedented move, Donald Trump brought all the team members back into the boardroom and asked each person whether they had witnessed anything disconcerting about Stacie J.'s behaviour. What was most disconcerting was the complete misunderstanding and discrimination demonstrated by every person in that boardroom.
The language used, the assumptions made, the inappropriateness and incorrectness of the statements being uttered was irresponsible and beyond justification. In one brief defining moment, viewers were given a glimpse into what those suffering from a mental illness fear the most when they head off to work in the morning - alienation, name calling, fear of being fired, stigmatization and shame. You name it and they feel it. We believe Donald Trump aptly summed his feelings up when he bellowed, "I cannot have a crazy person working for my company." You would never discriminate against someone because they had cancer or diabetes, or needed a wheelchair to get around. This kind of discrimination is intolerable.
To add insult to injury, Stacie J. defended herself in her post-firing interview by associating mental illness with violence. "I'm not crazy," she stated. "Crazy people blow up buildings, (are) murderers, don't pay their taxes." The truth is those suffering from mental illness are more statistically likely to have harm done to them than do harm to others. For the vast majority of people struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, eating disorders or psychosis, aggression and tax evasion are not part of being "crazy".
This is not about whether Stacie J. deserved - based on job performance - to be fired. This is about the fact that these attitudes about mental illness are still so rampant in 2004. In fact, 1 in 4 of Canadians will face a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime. Think about it - that's 25% of your friends, family, work colleagues and neighbours.
This was the worst example of how to deal with these issues in the workplace. It's no wonder that two-thirds of people who require treatment for a mental illness don't seek help and that the majority of people living with a mental illness avoid disclosing their illness to anyone outside their immediate family. We know that with early detection, people with mental illness can be active and important contributors to society. However, left undiagnosed or untreated, mental health problems cause large productivity losses. In many cases, the workplace is the first, or the only, place for early detection.
The extraordinarily high prevalence of mental illnesses in Canada means that Trump's policy of "no crazy people" working in his company is bankrupt not only from a humanitarian perspective but also from a business vantage point.
For those of us in the mental health and addiction field, this episode of The Apprentice serves as a reminder of the need to continue addressing the stigma and harassment that our patients and clients face as part of their daily lives. Here at CAMH, we have made significant progress in building awareness and developing programs around mental health in the workplace. Our goal is that one day all Canadians will be sensitive to mental illness and addiction issues, and treat people with the dignity they deserve. To those who live with a mental illness and find the courage to face the world each day, be it at home, on the streets, in factories or office towers - you are an inspiration to us all.
This Opinion piece ran in the September 28, 2004 issue of the Toronto Star.