Biden Should Discuss His Mental Health, for Americans' Sake | Opinion

President Joe Biden has inherited an America where equality is dominating the national conversation, after recent progress made by both the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. But there is another frontier of hidden bias and discrimination in the U.S. that Biden may be uniquely suitable to take on, transforming lives and careers in the process: mental health bias.

As president, if Biden was open about his previous struggles with issues that impact one's mental health (from his childhood stammer to the sudden loss of his first wife and two children), he could lead us to have more open conversations about our struggles, with better resources set up in schools and workplaces. As the COVID pandemic threatens to unleash a mental health pandemic, this could exactly be the kind of authentic, vulnerable leadership America needs—and one very different from his predecessors.

The combination of social isolation, disrupted routine and health risks unleashed by COVID are all risk factors for increased anxiety and depression. A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showed how in the last year levels of anxiety have tripled, and levels of depression have quadrupled.

Not only are sufferers on the receiving end of bias against mental health, there is also "bias within bias." A study by BMC Public Health found that racial minorities experienced more stigma than racial majorities for common mental disorders.

Crucially, this may lead to discrimination in the workplace—while action has been taken against companies that engage in gender and racial discrimination, it may also be common for those with mental health conditions to face prejudice at work.

This affects millions. In fact, one in seven people suffer from mental health issues in the workplace, with those who suffer from depressive, manic or anxiety disorders particularly stigmatized. We need to give workers the same acceptance for caring for their mental health as we do their physical health.

If I went to my boss and told them I needed the day off because I broke my arm, I would likely be met with total understanding. However, if I said that I needed a day to care for my mental health because I was suffering from anxiety, it could be a career-ending move. My supervisor could perceive me as being unable to handle my job. Why should mental health conditions be any different from physical health conditions?

For too long, employees have been implicitly told that they should only be human in their free time. CEOs and leaders—from small business owners up to the president—work ungodly hours and portray themselves as invincible. Those who look to them for authority are pressured to follow their example.

Some leaders are bucking the trend: The CEO of British Bank Monzo, Tom Blomfield, recently stepped down from his position citing mental health issues due to the pandemic, rather than the commonly cited and euphemistic "personal issues" or "spending more time with family."

I'm hopeful after that announcement his employees will be closer to treating mental health more openly and fairly as we do physical health—to being as comfortable telling their boss that they are suffering from depression as they are telling them that they are suffering from COVID.

Biden speaking
President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

This is the kind of shift that Biden can usher in—at the national level—and become a truly transformational leader who creates systemic change.

Biden has faced more than his fair share of mental adversity, and he is living proof that it is possible to come out stronger on the other side.

As a child, he suffered from a bad stammer and was called names like "Joe Impedimenta." Then in 1972, a personal tragedy struck when his wife and three children were involved in a fatal car crash, which killed his wife and daughter, and severely injured both of his sons. Biden openly said at the time "I began to understand how despair led people to just cash in; how suicide wasn't just an option but a rational option."

Tragedy is something millions of Americans will experience at some point in their lives. Biden's statement on experiencing loss is not what we would expect from either of his two predecessors: Donald Trump was the archetypal, dominant alpha male, while Barack Obama was the ultimate poised politician.

Yet Biden's presentation of superhuman strength is at odds with our experience of what it is to be human. We need to enforce the idea that we are allowed to suffer and have bad days and need help, and that it is nothing to be ashamed of—at work, at home, or in the White House.

It's also beneficial to companies' bottom lines to address mental health in the workplace, as workplace stress is estimated to cost employers $500 billion annually in the form of decreased performance at work or absenteeism (and that was before COVID-19), according to a Mind the Workplace report.

Biden is uniquely placed to send a clear message to America: open up about your mental health and call out bias against it. Rather than being a weakness it can be—as in his case having just won one of the toughest elections in U.S. history—a source of strength.

Mental health counselors should be as commonplace as gyms in schools and workplaces. Mental health management should be as practical and uncontroversial as physical health. Like with much change, this needs to come from the top. Biden could be the man to lead it.

Ashish Kaushal is the founder of Consciously Unbiased. He has written for The Globe and Mail and the i paper.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.