Need more care for ASO staffers with mental health issues
Bob Leahy talks to Toronto’s Ed Argo about the mental health issues that plagued him while working in AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) and why he feels more needs to be done for those in similar situations.
Bob Leahy: Hi Ed. Why don’t I start by asking you why you contacted me?
Ed Argo: Many reasons. I’m a person that has lived and lives with mental health issues such as chronic depression, acute anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and I’ve been thinking about how this connects with GIPA (greater involvement of people living with HIV) and people living with HIV working in AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs). I’m a great believer in Ontario’s Positive Development Leadership Institute (PLDI) program - and that’s inspired me a lot. I’m also influenced by what Maya Angelou called “divine discontent”. I just feel that there is something better to be happening around mental health issues for people living with HIV who work in ASOs.
Do you want to tell me your story?
I’ve been involved with ASO work for the last 20 years. I got started when I was diagnosed. I’ve done work for local ASOs and at a provincial level and a lot of what I do is peer work – that’s my favourite piece – and engagement.
You have had a long career in this work, Ed and for most of that career you were able to cope; presumably it was stressful though as most of this kind of work is?
It got worse. But I think I should give you the back story first. I’ve been living with mental health issues for a long time but I was diagnosed only in the last six years. I grew up in a family where there were lots of mental health issues – addiction issues, emotional and physical abuse. Then when I was 13 - I think it was one of the most impactful and dramatic things that happened to me - I came home from school one day and my mother who had been in a psychiatric ward a few times had committed suicide - and I found the body. The reason I talk about this is that at least 70% of adults with mental illness develop symptoms during their youth.
I see. Were you aware though as years went by that you had mental health issues?
Well, about five or six years ago it started impacting my work. It would be a cycle for me. I started missing work and we only had so many sick days we could use. When you go over your sick days you have to meet with management, which would set the anxiety off. It just kept spiraling; it wasn’t getting better.
During that time were you under treatment – pills or talk therapy?
The doctor I was seeing was great. I was on anti-anxiety, anti-depressants. The (HIV) clinic I was going to had managed to get some funding for some mental health work. I was seeing a psychologist for about a year, but then they lost some funding. From there I went to a psychiatrist at St. Michael’s Hospital.
So how did you transition from someone who was working and coping, but barely, to someone who could no longer do that and had to go on disability? And I know you had a suicide attempt when you were still employed. How did all that happen?
I had a gut feeling of hopelessness. A large part of it was about the failure, and the isolation and the anxiety. I discussed it at work but deep down I don’t think I was believed. I don’t think there was a connection with how hard people can be suffering. There were times when my office door was closed and I was crying.
We talked about stigma earlier; it’s usually multi-layered. I wonder how that plays out in terms of disclosure. For example you are a poz gay guy who I think has been open about that but have in the past been reluctant to talk about mental health.
Right, it was easier in the ASO world to talk about HIV. It wasn’t that there was no talk on mental health, but generally it was in terms of the mental health of the clients we served. When I was asked what support I needed, I think my anxiety was so high I was able to give pat answers only sometimes
So was there a defining moment when you realized you couldn’t handle the work situation any longer?
My biggest one was at a meeting with my manager where I told them I had been working on my mental health and the response I received back was “well, it’s not showing.” I did feel isolated from my colleagues in the office; some would just walk by me and not say “hello”. I could tell I was ostracized. I finally realized I needed to look after myself better, so I went on disability. That was in the summer of 2015.
Since then I know you told me you have had a chance to think and you have come to conclusions about the way people living with mental health issues and working in ASO’s are dealt with and how they could be handled better.
It’s really important to me; I really think more mental health work needs to happen. I think in any workplace there needs to be psychological safety, and that’s also key to making GIPA/MEPA work well. There is a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I’ll read the introduction. “The standard promotes a framework to promote the mental health and prevent psychological harm to employees providing guidance and resources to organizations of all sizes and sectors.”
Has that filtered down through the ASO network?
In my experience I don’t recall anything, aside from self-care and care for the caregiver. I don’t recall anything on mental health.
So we are talking about the need for systemic solutions, including awareness.
Yes, also on addictions in the workplace. But in my experience there has been more discussion at the table with peers that I’ve worked with like “when I was using” more often than “as a person suffering from PTSD.”
When we talked to Eric Cashmore about addictions in the ASO workplace he identified the need for accommodation for both addictions and mental health issues too.
I agree with that. I do think it’s important though for a multi-layered approach as not everybody with mental health issues has addictions and vice versa. I think it all comes down for managers to be able to ask the right questions and I think there needs to be a framework for a conversation that includes; “here’s what supports we can provide.” I think there is the need for a proactive piece, about people being able to talk about mental health in the workplace. I don’t think that happens enough. We need a safer place to discuss it. I think there is fear if we talk about it now that we could be judged unproductive or unreliable or untrustworthy, so we need an environment where people don’t feel that way.
So we will need more awareness training for staff.
Yes to be more mindful and more specific about psychological health and safety in the workplace. But I think it’s important to recognize that when you want to speak about your mental health issues in the workplace that the people you talk to who are in power shouldn’t be taking on the role of psychologist. I think that creates an unsafe environment because of the power imbalance there.
I understand Ed. Good thoughts. I’m wondering if there is any positive to come out of your experience. I know your talking to me about it might be one, for example.
I think it’s been a learning experience. I’m learning more every day, more about myself, more about what’s out there. I’ve been able to link with other people living with HIV who have mental health issues, and there is a link, some commonality, happening and I think hopefully with more conversations we will move forward. So watch this space!
I will Ed. Thank you for talking to PositiveLite.com in the meantime.