People from all walks of life experience mental illness. Some of the world’s biggest superstars, athletes and business owners have come forward to share their stories of living with mental illness. People we look up to, who impact the way we view and perceive society, are starting to create awareness around mental illness to break the associated stigma and provide advice and guidance to those in similar positions.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, showing off 28 medals achieved in various swimming events, retired in 2020. Upon his retirement, he reflected on his 20+ years of experience as a professional athlete and considered the elements that led to him being the greatest of all time – with all the highs, lows, and the in-betweens. Michael suffered from mental illness for much of his life. After competing in the 2012 Olympics, his depression reached an all-time peak as he began to consider suicide. In 2016, after a few run-ins with the law due to substance abuse, he publicly admitted that he suffered from severe depression and decided to seek professional help. He later stated in a tweet in May of 2019, “It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life.” Michael stated at the 2018 Kennedy Forum conference that the most important thing that you can learn is that “it’s okay not to be okay”. After his public admission, he has helped others who find themselves in a similar position by creating the Michael Phelps Foundation to promote a balanced swimming and healthy lifestyle for youngsters.

Mental wellness – what does it mean?

According to the World Health Organisation, mental wellness is described as “A state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community.”

According to the DSM-5, which is the psychologist’s bible for diagnosing behaviours, mental illness is a broad term that encompasses a long list of mental illnesses and disorders. The definition of mental illness includes the following key elements:

  • The distress that the individual experiences is significant (symptoms meet the diagnostic criteria for a specific disorder).
  • The individual experiences challenges in the areas of thoughts, emotional regulation and or behaviour that is dysfunctional in nature (either impaired or abnormal functioning).
  • The individual experiences a significant amount of distress or debility in social, occupational, educational or other important activities.
  • The individual has a response to an extreme stressor, such as experiencing a loss. In this case, it is expected and culturally approved to experience immense stress and is not seen as a mental disorder because, rather than a dysfunction, it is regarded as an appropriate and temporary reaction to the current stressor they are experiencing.

Therefore, the umbrella definition of mental illness can be described as the distress and dysfunction experienced by an individual that goes deeper than the reaction to the extreme stressors of life. Mental illness is a dysfunction that negatively influences an individual’s thoughts, emotions and/or behaviours that impact their ability to live a fully functional life in society.

Now that we can see the stark difference between mental wellness and mental illness, we can understand the importance of taking mental wellness seriously in our daily and working lives. Understanding the difference between the two is the first step in addressing the issues employees deal with when suffering from mental illness in the workplace. The next gap that exists is the employer and employee perception of support for mental illness in the workplace.

McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare was established in 2020 to build McKinsey’s mission for the Public and Social Sector and Healthcare Systems and Services Practices to enhance and improve healthcare. The Center conducted two surveys which were used where mental illness is inclusive of substance use. One survey was given to 791 full-time employees, while the other was given to 528 benefits decision-makers (individuals in leadership positions in the workplace). The surveys that were conducted allowed for the bridging of the perception gap between employers and employees.

Not surprising, then, that one survey finding suggests a gap in the perceptions between employers and employers across three different components: the level of employer support for mental health, level of access to mental illness and substance use disorder treatment, as well as the stigma, prejudice and discrimination towards individuals suffering from mental illness.

The disconnect is most prominent when looking at the perceived benefits for employees working on the frontline and having access to care for employees dealing with substance use disorder:

Understanding this differential perception of mental illness, the support and access to it, employers can begin to provide support to their employees that will really make a difference. There are five questions employers can ask themselves to create workplaces that support, provide access and break down the stigma associated with mental illness:

  1. Mental wellness becoming a priority:
  • How does your organisation make it clear to employees that mental wellness is a priority?
  • Is someone in a senior position accountable for their employees’ mental wellness?
  • Do your leaders speak openly and honestly with their employees about mental wellness and mental illness?
  1. Enhance mental wellness support:
  • How does your organisation mitigate barriers to the access of mental wellness resources?
  • Is there a difference between medical/surgery and mental wellness benefits in the organisation?
  1. Communication of available support:
  • How frequently and through what communication channels does leadership speak about the mental wellness support available?
  • What enhanced support and communication are provided and available to employees with specific mental wellness conditions?
  1. Foster an inclusive culture:
  • How does your organisation ensure the reduction of the stigma associated with mental illness?
  • What training are you providing to ensure that colleagues understand the signs of mental illness and how to respond to them?
  1. Measurement and accountability:
  • How are you receiving employee feedback about the mental wellness support you are providing?
  • How is the organisation holding its leaders and key stakeholder accountable for providing the necessary support for employees suffering from mental illness?

There is no easy fix to breaking down the stigma or providing the necessary support your employees need when it comes to mental illness. But you can always start. Start by asking yourself the questions outlined above and take decisive action to create a culture that emphatically focuses on creating a space for health of all kinds.

By Nadia Daniel


FHEHealth. (2020). 3 Things Michael Phelps Learned From His Depression Struggles. Retrieved from 3 Things Michael Phelps Learned From His Depression Struggles (

Harvard Business Publishing. (n,d). Mental Health Care in Business. Retrieved from Mental Health Care in Business | Harvard Business Publishing Education

Healthy Place. (n,d). Mental Illness Definition: What is Mental Illness? Retrieved from Mental Illness Definition: What Is Mental Illness? | HealthyPlace

McKinsey & Company. (2021). National surveys reveal disconnect between employees and employers around mental health need. Retrieved from Employer actions to support mental health | McKinsey

McKinsey & Company. (n,d). Center for Social Benefit through Healthcare. Retrieved from Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare | Healthcare Systems & Services | McKinsey & Company

Volunteers of America. (n,d). What is Mental Wellness? Retrieved from What is Mental Wellness? | VOASW

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