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Is It Okay to Disclose Mental Illness at Work?

The Pros and Cons of Opening up About Mental Illness

hoto by Leio McLaren on Unsplash

If you have a mental illness and work at either a paid job or a volunteer gig, chances are at some point you'll be faced with the question of whether to disclose your mental illness at work, and if so, how much. While employers may not be legally allowed to discriminate, the possibility of negative repercussions is still very real.  

Depending on the work environment, colleagues and management may or may not have accurate knowledge about mental illness.  Yet knowledge alone isn't enough to counteract stigma.  As a mental health nurse living with depression, I've observed time and time again that even the people who should be understanding are still carrying stigma around with them.  

Sometimes the effects and consequences of mental illness are sufficiently overt that you couldn't hide it even if you wanted to.  After my first psychiatric hospitalization, conditions were put on my professional nursing license.  One of the conditions was that I needed to continue seeing my mental health team—not subtle, right?  I was required to share these conditions with my employer.  So much for privacy.  Unfortunately, my manager seemed to use this as an excuse to treat me like I was incompetent, untrustworthy, and possibly dangerous.  Luckily, I chose to share with my colleagues, and they were very supportive, which helped me to cope with all that my manager was throwing at me. 

My second depression episode occurred while working at my next job. Initially they were understanding, but that started to wear thin.  After my third hospitalization within the space of a year, my manager tried to prevent me from returning to work.  No one would tell me what was happening and why I wasn't being allowed back at work.  When I found out it was my manager putting up roadblocks, I felt totally betrayed. Again, though, my colleagues were amazingly supportive, which made a huge difference.  

My illness has been used against me again and again by subsequent managers. One manager didn't want to hire me for a job I was extremely well-qualified for, presumably because he'd heard about my mental illness from my current manager at the time.  In another job I disclosed my illness as a defensive tactic to explain why I was crumbling in the face of the psychological attacks that they were hurling against me.  If anything that seemed to just make things worse.  I tried to request a disability-related accommodation at work, which I should have been entitled to by law, but the employer refused to deal with it through the proper channels.

Despite all of the negatives, I still feel like speaking up about my illness was the right thing for me to do.  Despite the stigmatized treatment from managers, I can't think of a single instance when a colleague has given me a hard time about my illness.  In fact, it's been quite the opposite; people usually  go out of their way to be helpful and supportive.  

Being open also feels consistent with my desire to combat stigma.  Stigma thrives in silence, and the best way to counteract that is by telling our stories and creating dialogue.  Yes, there are challenges that come with that, but I think it's important for those of us in a position where we can speak up to play our part and hopefully make things easier for those facing potential risks that are just too high.  The decision to disclose requires a weighing of pros and cons, and that will always come down to what's right for the specific individual.

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