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Mental Illness in the Workplace

I once worked with two schizophrenic men.  When I say “worked with,” I don’t simply mean I was employed by the same company as they, or that I vaguely knew them.  I mean that I had occasion to work side-by-side with each of them for several weeks, as part of a five-man production crew in a manufacturing plant (a paper mill, actually).

I shall call them Carl and Renaldo.  Carl was 33, and Renaldo was 30.  Both were decent workers, both were unmarried (Carl had been married but was divorced), both were polite and earnest in manner, and, in a plant that had enormous tolerance for eccentric behavior, both stood out as slightly “odd.”  Not odd enough to alarm anyone, but definitely odd enough for people to notice and, on occasion, odd enough for people to be made uncomfortable.

Carl would easily become over-animated.  For example, he would laugh way too hard and too loudly at things that weren’t funny.  He also had a habit of standing too close to you when having a conversation, and of looking into your mouth as you spoke.  Instead of looking into your eyes, as most people do when you’re talking to them, Carl stared intently into your mouth, fixated on the place where the words originated.

Although this behavior was unthreatening and harmless, it was a bit distracting and, after a while, fairly annoying.  People were uncomfortable around him.  In truth, most people, especially women, tried to avoid him.  But again, his idiosyncratic behavior never reached the point where people felt it should be reported to management.  Yes, he was a strange duck, but there were plenty of strange ducks working there.

Renaldo was quieter than Carl, but no less “odd.”  He often talked to himself—mumbling, grousing, chuckling quietly, appearing to be engaged in private conversation.  Some crew members generously referred to him as “intense,” others referred to him, less generously, as “psycho,” and because Renaldo was young and had longish hair, others naturally assumed he was on drugs (“Look at that kid,” a middle-aged mechanic once said to me with disdain, “he’s as high as a bleeping kite.”).

How did I know these men were schizophrenics?  As president of the union I was given access to their confidential medical records when each of them was fired.

Carl was fired, technically, for a safety violation.  He had injured himself by reaching into a piece of moving equipment, and was formally suspended (pending an investigation) while still hospitalized.  I didn’t witness the accident, but those who did told me it was the scariest thing they’d ever seen.

He was standing quietly in front of a high-speed packaging machine, when he deliberately reached into it, shattering and splintering his arm.  He went into shock.  When the company informed us he was being terminated for medical reasons, we insisted on knowing what the problem was.  You don’t fire a guy without a specific reason. Because they couldn’t legally share that information, Carl’s mom gave us written permission to see the psychiatrist’s report.  Reading it was heart-breaking.

Renaldo was fired for fighting.  According to the formal write-up, after failing to take his medication for several days, he reported for work on swing-shift and, for no apparent reason, attacked a fellow employee and attempted to choke him.  No one was hurt.  In fact, the employee who was attacked, sensing that something very serious was going on, went to the company and asked that Renaldo not be punished.

At the discharge meeting we were stunned to learn that Renaldo had been hired into the facility already diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and that this fact was known only to the company nurse.  No one in the union or management—not the supervisors, not HR personnel, not even the plant manager—was aware of his illness.

The company’s chief medical officer had made the determination that, so long as Renaldo (whose father worked in the plant) stayed on his meds, he was capable of functioning in a big-time industrial setting.  It was a noble and worthwhile attempt to “mainstream” someone who had a serious but treatable personality disorder.  Alas, neither Carl nor Renaldo ever returned to work.  The union arranged that both be given medical disability retirements.

I don’t know if there’s any “moral” to this story.  While I’m not sure about Carl, had Renaldo continued taking his meds it’s very possible he could’ve kept his job.  After all, he’d already been there a few years, and, other than his “oddness,” was a decent worker.  Not all schizophrenics turn violent or self-destructive.  On the other hand, an HR rep suggested that Renaldo (or Carl, for that matter) could have just as easily carried a gun into the plant, hidden in his lunchbox, and shot someone.

Following these incidents, the union was criticized for not having reported these guys to management.  People said it was our job to protect the membership, and that because Carl and Renaldo were clearly “messed-up,” we’d been derelict in our duty.  But the notion of a union “policing” its own membership—of running to the boss every time someone appeared depressed or was acting “strange”—seemed not only impractical but invasive.

Also, was this solely the responsibility of the union?  What about the people nominally “in charge” of the operation—the shift supervisors and asset leaders?  Didn’t they have an obligation to do something?  No one will ever convince me that they didn’t see the same “peculiarities” we saw.  In any event, even though this all happened a long time ago, memories of those two gentle, well-meaning young men still haunt me.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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