Whistleblowers have to have a lot of courage to step forward and expose the ugly underside of their employing institutions—and most do so knowing that they’re likely to be called everything from a turncoat to a tattletale.
However, it tends to take even the most emotionally prepared whistleblower by surprise when they’re suddenly labelled “mentally unstable” by their employer—the same employer that’s always treated them as valued employees before that point.
Unfortunately, a study commissioned by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants that looked at the real-life experiences of 25 whistleblowers found that accusations of mental illness were a common method of retaliation.
The accusations often came alongside more ordinary forms of retaliation, including things like pay cuts, negative performance reviews, transfers to less desirable positions or locations, demotions and dismissals—but they may have ultimately done more damage than those forms of retaliation ever did.
Whistleblowers in the study were often portrayed as mentally ill in order to cast doubt on their claims. Those who stayed in their positions were often forced by their company to take mental health counseling treatment, even if they didn’t want or need it. Organizations often used the mental health allegations to try to divert attention away from the company and throw the focus on the credibility of the whistleblower instead.
Perversely enough, the accusations often worked on their targets. Some of the whistleblowers in the study became demoralized, feeling such intense pressure by the accusations that they ultimately did develop depression, panic attacks and drinking problems.
The study further indicates that there’s a lot of work to be done in order to give whistleblowers the sort of protections that they’re entitled to under the law. According to global fraud and risk reports, whistleblowers are the most effective method of exposing fraud, so they are valuable assets that deserve those protections.
Until those protections are realized, however, anyone who is thinking about taking the brave step forward to expose an institution’s wrongdoings should consider talking to an attorney before they start.
An attorney can advise you about your rights as a whistleblower, help you make sure that you properly document any retaliation attempts, and work to protect your reputation and career. For more information on how our firm may be able to help you, please visit our page.