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Erasing the stigma of mental health issues at work

Barbara Wilson is CEO of Family Continuity.

Heightened stress on the job, a dip in productivity, absenteeism — all can indicate an employee is dealing with emotional issues.

“We can’t legally ask if [employees] have a mental illness,” said Barbara Wilson. “But if people are showing a pattern, we can encourage the dialogue and say ‘What can we help you with?’ ”

Wilson is chief executive of Family Continuity, a private, nonprofit mental health and social service agency whose mission is to support strong families and communities.

It serves Eastern and Central Massachusetts at six sites, including locations in Peabody and Lawrence, and has 250 employees.


Wilson, of Salisbury, recently joined CEOs Against Stigma, a statewide campaign created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Massachusetts to promote healthy work environments.

“To advocate for the people we support and not for our own staff would be hypocritical and unethical,” she said.

The initiative is aimed at erasing misconceptions about mental illness so workers can talk freely about conditions that affect them, co-workers, or family members.

Wilson has pledged to encourage dialogue and provide educational information to managers and employees, including through the alliance’s In Our Own Voice presentations.

She said mental health issues affect one in five adults. More than half of adults, she said, have a family member with psychological concerns.

Conditions encountered in the workplace, she continued, can range from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia.

Wilson said people often hesitate to open up or come forward because of fear of being ostracized or even fired.

“Not all employers are sensitive [to mental illness],” she said.

And different cultures have their own prejudices.

“Ultimately, it’s important for all businesses and employers to be aware of this and take the pledge,” she said. The goal of CEOs Against Stigma is to sign 250 executives to the campaign and reach half a million employees.


Wilson, who is in her 60s and has been a licensed clinical social worker and administrator for more than 35 years, said she feels she’s in a good position to help promote change.

“We are purveyors of hope that recovery from mental illness is real,” she said. “I’m very excited, and hope I can make a difference before I retire.”

Wendy Killeen

Wendy Killeen can be reached at wdkilleen@gmail.com.