Exposing Your Mental Illness in the Workplace
My schizophrenia diagnosis was disclosed via the employee newsletter. In 2004, I had won the NAMI-Staten Island Volunteer of the Year award for my "courageous accomplishments in improving the lives of people living with mental illnesses and their families." The editor published my honor in the Good for You section of the newsletter.
One coworker told me she felt like a slacker next to me because I did volunteer work and she hung out in trendy cafes all the time. Other people congratulated me. This year when I published my memoir, Left of the Dial, coworkers came to my book signing and bought copies of my book. It feels great to have the support of your coworkers, but that’s not always the case when you divulge about your mental illness
in the workplace.
Things to keep in mind before disclosing your condition in the workplace: You don't have to disclose if you don't want to.
It's up to you. You will have to disclose if you want to be given an accommodation under the ADA Act so that you can perform the duties of your job, but that doesn’t have to be public knowledge. Like with any medical condition, you have the right to choose who you tell, outside of HR. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer over 11 years ago and she told no one because she didn't want them to pity her or feel sorry for her.
There might be no need to disclose.
A former therapist once told me about my coworkers: "You don't have to tell them. They know. It's no big secret." Chances are, they know something, but if you don’t want them to know the nitty-gritty details, they don’t need to. If you feel like there’s an elephant in the room, tell them when you’re ready – but don’t let that elephant dictate when you’re ready to tell.
The environment you work in could dictate how well you fare if you disclose.
I discontinued my medication in 1992 and wound up in the hospital. Once I returned to my office job at an insurance firm people treated me like I had spots all over my body. As a librarian in a public library I have my dream job now—things are quiet and I don’t feel as transparent with my schizophrenia. In the business world, things are much more apparent, word travels fast, and some people are quick to judge. In that case, I wouldn’t be as fast to disclose.
Your intuition or your gut instinct about whether to disclose will often be right-on.
Pay attention to that voice telling you that it's OK or that it wouldn't be a good idea. If you’re ready, you know, and vice versa.
Find the coworker who understands.
Be grateful for that person's role in your life. I once told a coworker that I had bought a homeless person a meal and a soda. The coworker’s response? "People are homeless because they have mental illnesses." Not exactly the person you want to open up to.
When you see a coworker has an open mind and is not judgmental that can be your cue to talk about your own mental health. You can first talk about a person like Catherine Zeta-Jones who is public about having bipolar—see how they respond to this to gauge if you want to talk about your own struggles. Test the waters before you jump in.
Your identity could change and you're treated differently.
At my job I don't want to be known as "the woman with schizophrenia." Instead I identify as Chris Bruni, the career services librarian who creates resumes for patrons that get them job interviews and job offers.
Like it or not, we have a ways to go when it comes to treating people with emotional or mental illnesses with compassion in society. There's a cloud of fog surrounding the truth about what it's like to have a mental illness. Wanting to squash this stigma by telling your story is a noble goal.
Yet jumping in and talking about mental health at the water cooler? You should think long and hard about how you frame what you want to say and the words you use to talk about your experience. I still think it’s dicey to do this on the job, but surrounded by the right coworkers in the right atmosphere might encourage you to open up.
Weigh the consequences of your coworkers knowing—if it’s worth it to feel like you can be your true self and still be respected in the workforce, open away.
You have the right to choose in your private life too.
With new friends I open up in a bare-bones way—I sometimes direct them to read the details in Left of the Dial. You have the right to choose what you tell, the level of detail, and who you tell. Rejection is a two-way street. Often people are a mismatch and it has nothing to do with illness—it’s important to know that you won’t always gel with everyone, illness or not. Keep trying. I found my tribe, and you can too.
It's a delicious freedom for me to sit at an outdoor table at a restaurant and talk with a new friend about mental health even though others around us may hear. Getting fired up about my passion as an activist while we enjoy wood-fired pizza? It's all good, and worth it to open-up…with the right people.