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

More articles by:

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

March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It