It came out the other day and I’ve wanted to write about it then but on Friday the New York Times had an article on whether to discuss mental illness at work. It’s worth a read and offers some great perspective on what can be a complex topic. Let me start my own discussion of the article with a quote, then dive into some of my own experiences and thoughts.
The problem too often becomes a Catch-22, experts say. People associate mental health issues with those who act out and do not see those who successfully manage their problems, because they often keep them private. Yet if there is to be more acceptance and understanding of psychological disorders, those are the very people who need to speak out.
This is the crux of the whole thing. Those of us with mental health issues demand (rightly) that our health problems (which is what they are) are treated with the same attitudes as other health problems, and ought to be accommodated, understood and that above all we are treated with respect as people. But that means we need to be open and willing to discuss those issues, and that can be really hard.
The article has several anecdotes about people who struggled with telling their boss or their co-worker, and several people who faced some really horrible consequences for sharing their mental health issues. It also offers some resources for those who are trying to decide whether to be more open with their coworkers, and I’ll re-post them here if anyone reading this may find it helpful:
Susan G. Goldberg, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Duquesne University, who has studied the issue for years, suggests five factors before deciding to make a psychiatric condition known on the job:
■ How supportive is the person you are disclosing to likely to be?
■ What type of culture does the company have? Sometimes big companies are more open, sometimes it’s mom and pops, she said.
■ Do you have a proven track record?
■ What is happening in the society as a whole? “You probably don’t want to disclose after a mass shooting,” she said, when people tend to connect mental illness with violence.
■ Do you need to disclose everything about the condition, or would it be better to be selective?
I think that these are all good questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not to disclose, but I’ll note that relative to other health issues, mental health still has a stigma that doesn’t accompany, say diabetes. After all, while other health issues can certainly be awkward to talk about with people you work with, it’s pretty much universally recognized that there are treatments and medications and therapies available for cancer, heart disease, liver and kidney problems, etc. etc. etc. But we still live in a world where otherwise smart people will treat depression, anxiety, bipolar and other mental health problems as personality issues that require little more than “an attitude adjustment” or “a little self control.”
I’m very fortunate to be working in a family business where my bosses are close relatives who I didn’t need to schedule a meeting with to disclose my health issues and they have been incredibly supportive and understanding throughout. I had no problems taking time off following my suicide attempt, to make accommodations that allowed me to return to work incrementally as my recovery allowed and who grant me time to meet with my therapist. I am very lucky and grateful to be in the situation that I am.
Where I can relate to the struggles of those mentioned in the Times article has been how to disclose my illness to co-workers. While we had discussed letting them know a minimal amount about my diagnosis when I was out of the office and then when I initially returned to reduced hours, but it wasn’t until this past August when I “came out” to them about my depression and anxiety, and that I had attempted suicide in March.
In the list above about factors to consider when deciding to disclose mental illness, it asks you to consider what is happening in society as a whole. I let my co-workers know in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. I had been bothered by some of the coverage and decided to make my voice heard when I saw the media treating his mental health issues with a ten-foot pole, referring to “his demons.” Euphemism is almost as bad as stigmatizing when it comes to mental health issues. So I shared with my co-workers an article in USA Today about how his death was spurring conversation about mental health, which I had been quoted in. It was in many ways a huge relief to talk to them about it. In some ways I think it may have been a relief to them as well- they knew something had happened, but not what, and now it was out there. Nobody had to dance around it. Occasionally we’ll talk about how I’m doing and it’s been great knowing that they’re supportive of me.
Of course, I guess you could argue I was never hiding anything seeing as I’ve been blogging about it since June. But talking about it face to face with people you see almost every day is different than writing about it. I sometimes wonder if people we do business with, clients, vendors, etc. have ever stumbled upon the blog, or if they saw the article and have just never said anything. There’s also a whole other set of questions about how much you discuss about it with them. My approach thus far has sort of been, well, it’s out there, and I’m not hiding it and I’d be happy to discuss it if it comes up, but don’t rock the boat.
But seeing this article makes me think the boat needs to be rocked a little bit. I’ve used the coming out analogy on the blog before, and if you pay attention to the civil rights cause of LGBT people you may have noticed that one of the reasons they’ve been able to win so many political victories over the past few years is because so many people have been coming out. People were no longer sitting on the sidelines when they found out a family member, a friend, or a coworker was LGBT. They became allies. And all of a sudden there was a lot of positive momentum towards equality. I think for there to be changes to the way we treat mental health in this country, including in the workplace, we need to take a page from that book. People with mental health issues need to be open about them, and not be afraid to discuss them. We need our families and our friends and our coworkers to become allies. If we can do that, we can help people seek the help they need, we can make sure they have workplace protections and we can find better and more effective treatments for mental health issues.
So what can I do to help create allies and awareness of mental health issues? Well, this blog is one thing. Speaking out when we someone stigmatizing mental illness. I use Facebook and Twitter to talk about it. In fact, that was how I got the opportunity for the USA Today interview- tweeting responses to members of the media who were using euphemism to discuss Robin Williams. I’m also participating in the #Movember campaign to raise awareness and funds to help programs that support mental health. So I’m growing the (silly?) moustache you see here as a way to start conversations. So if one of those business associates sees me this month, it’s a way to introduce the topic and start the conversation about mental health.
If you’d like to support me, you can visit my fundraising page here. (I know this was a longer post- thanks for sticking with it to the end!)