Why I Disclosed My Mental Illness To My Employer

Cate

Click to read Cate’s bio

It’s a difficult one.  To disclose or not to disclose?  There are plenty of articles around about the issue of whether to tell your employer that you have a mental illness.  I came across a recent one and it got me thinking.  I disclosed in the past but would I do it again?

The article, Deciding Whether to Disclose Mental Disorders to the Boss by Alina Tugend (for The New York Times) got me thinking.  Has my mind changed?

You see, in 2009 I chose to tell my prospective employer that I had a mental illness.  I know my approach on this subject is different than most.  I respect that, and I respect your right to have a different opinion than me.  But I want to share why I did what I did.  Maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision I ever made.  That’s debatable.

At the time, I had finished university (finally!) and wanting to use the skills I had gained (aside from researching and writing essays!).  I was also looking to return to the workforce after a 14 year gap.  Most of that time had been spent dealing with severe mental illness, the rest being the time I spent at university.

It would have been relatively easy to explain the gap to a prospective employer.  I was at the age where I could have just said I was having children (a lie but what could be a believable, convenient lie).  It was explaining that gap in employment which was perhaps the biggest issue in my mind at the time.  But the real issue, in deciding just what to say, was that I didn’t want to lie. Not about having children but more importantly about what I had been doing in the past years and who I was now.

And so I told my prospective employer.  And BTW, I really wanted this job!

I didn’t go into details (and she didn’t ask), nor did I list off all my psychiatric labels (I simply said I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and that I had that completely managed through medication and therapy.  We discussed briefly what would happen if my mental health deteriorated. I undertook to let her know and that I would seek help immediately from my doctor.

I could tell that she was wary.  I could also tell that she didn’t know much about mental illness.  But I got the job.

I didn’t want to deny who I was, and my mental illness was (and is) very much part of who I am (good and bad).  We spend a lot of our time at work, and I simply didn’t want to be someone I’m not for such a big chunk of my day.

Not being able to identify, and be who I am, was actually one of the triggers that sent me into an initial spiral of depression back in the early 1990’s.  I had been successful in my career up until then.  But I was constantly scared of being found to be a fraud (a common fear with BPD).  People might find out who I really was.  It’s not that I was living a lie, simply that there were really two Cate’s.  One seen on the outside, but someone quite different living on the inside.  The pressure of those identities, along with a number of traumatic events, sent me into depression, and then anorexia.

When I went back to work in 2009 it was important to me to be who I am, and if part of that included a mental illness, then I needed to be that person.

I get that there are all kinds of risks in telling employers about our mental illnesses.  I know the risk I took, and actually I know the price it cost me too.

I eventually had to resign (or be pushed).  My mental health was consistently fine, but when a dispute between me and another employee arose 18 months later, my mental illness was used as an excuse.  I was said to be in the wrong (I still believe I wasn’t).  Between that, and the other employee being more senior, I was encouraged to leave to solve the problem.

Yes, I was very upset but I knew I no longer wanted to work for an organisation that would make its decisions simply on the basis of an illness, which had never interfered with my ability to do the job.

Maybe you think that proves I should never have admitted my mental illness.  I don’t agree.  I agree that it shows that there are still significant risks attached to coming out in the workplace.  But I still know that I did the right thing for me.

It’s important to me that my family, my friends and my employers know of my mental illness.  I don’t want to hide.  I hid for too long.  I couldn’t bear for people to see me (the real me).   It’s all just as crucial to why I blog using my own name.  I’m not prepared to hide if I can possibly help it. Yes, I take precautions and yes, I know there might be a price to pay (as there has been in my blogging and in my employment) but after spending so many years trying to destroy myself, I simply have to be me (including my mental illness).

Currently I am not working (because of my physical health) but I intend that if, and when I return to work, I will disclose my mental illness again.  If they choose not to employ me because of it, I will be quite okay because I simply would not want to work for an organisation who would judge me on such a basis. It might take me longer to find a job, but I have always believed that the recruitment process is about two parties deciding whether they can work together.  On that basis I am choosing (or not) an employer as much as they choose me.

Stigma is a huge factor in this whole issue and that makes it a very difficult decision.  While doing what I can to reduce the stigma of mental illness is very important to me, the most important issue is that I be true to myself.  And for me, that includes admitting to my mental illness.  I might pay a price, as I have, but the much greater price would come if I could not be who I really am.  My mental illness is part of me, for good and for bad.  Without that, I am not me.

The approach I take is admittedly different to most.  I accept that, and I am not trying to convince anyone of my view.  Actually I am convinced that the decision of outing ourselves has to be an individual decision.  You have to decide what is right for you, just as I decided what was right for me.

©Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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38 thoughts on “Why I Disclosed My Mental Illness To My Employer

  1. Yes, tough decision but a worthy one. Sad that your employer finally used your health against you but I think it’s easier to deal with the truth than a lie.

    • Hi Helen, It is sad. You know I don’t mean to sound above myself or anything but I truly believe that my employer lost out that day. Yes, I lost my job but I had been honest with myself and with them. I think that’s what counts.

  2. I think it’s wonderful you disclosed to your employer. I did not in the beginning and when I got to the point of becoming agoraphobic, I had to admit everything. My boss was unbelievably confused that she didn’t know this about me and wished I had come to her sooner. I took an 8 month hiatus, and now I am back with the company and I feel better now knowing that they know. Excellent post and I am proud of you for speaking up right from the beginning

    • Thanks. It was hard and while ultimately I lost the job because of it, I can live with that. That said, at the time I was so angry! All the bad parts of my mental illness were coming out by then (thankfully not that I let the employer see). 🙂

  3. Good for you. I spent many years fearing that somehow my boss would find out what medications I was on, through my insurance company. Which was silly, but that’s how deep the fear went. It is hard to be two people, isn’t it?

    • Hi April, yes it is SO hard to be two people and I think you hit the nail on the head talking about your fear. It’s not just that they will find out about our meds (and that is a big one) but that they will find out about who we really are. And that is really scary, for good reasons.

  4. I’ve always believed that if I disclose (and really they do not need to know details) and I do not get the job, am let go, or my work is automatically modified then I do not want them as an employer.

    I recently resigned from a part time job I had for 3 years because when I disclosed my financial troubles as reason I may not be able attend a training I was told it wasn’t a valid reason to miss a training. I’m outraged at their lack of understanding, especially since we work with low income families. There was no offer for support so I decided it was time to move on.

    I think employers need to reevaluate their role in their employees lives. They are an important and vital piece.

    • Hi Kirsten, that is so crazy that they did not support you. Dare I say, while many would think it would be otherwise, the social work industry seems to me to be fairly uninterested in their staff’s needs. Is that too harsh? I know for me that I got a strong sense that my employers could cope with clients having issues but they really didn’t want to know about staff having issues. It’s so sad (and maddening). I totally agree with you that employers need to rethink their roles in our lives.

      • This was a children’s after-school program but yes, social services and helping professions seem to forget that their employees are not always at their best. I agree and do not believe it’s harsh at all!

  5. I’ve been waiting for this post, Cate – either waiting for someone to write it, or waiting for myself to write it! I’ve thought about this many times in the course of the past couple of years, spending much of that time seeking employment. Not surprisingly, the reason I was out of work was that my mental health deteriorated to a point at which I couldn’t do my job as well as it needed to be done. By the time I got a note from my doctor stating that I was to have a six month leave to get better, it was too late. I did get the opportunity to give my employer the note, but they rejected it on the grounds that as such a small employer they weren’t subject to the rules that would have allowed me to keep my job. Since then, I’ve thought every time I interviewed about spilling the beans, so to speak, but never have. Don’t know if it’s been a good decision or not. I’m glad it worked out well for you, at least for as long as it did, Cate! If we were all so brave, the stigma would be much, much less than I know it is still.

    • Hi Sid, firstly you know I think you should consider writing a post about this yourself. You offer a different perspective from me, and it is also such a big issue for people that I think it would be good to have other people’s take on the issue. I know it’s a really hard one because there is so much at stake. I think one of the reasons I disclosed (but didn’t say so in my post) was that I truly believed that my experience with mental illness would add to what I could offer in the job. I still believe that, but I am clear that wasn’t the opinion of my employers. While their clients were often people with mental illness, they didn’t get (ever) how it enabled me to relate better to those people than perhaps anyone else in the organisation.

      I really hope you can work out what is right for you in terms of disclosing. Perhaps it’s a thing that you won’t know until you’re in the interview and you know a bit about the company. Perhaps too, your choice might be different in each job application. And that’s okay.

  6. I admire your choice. I try to do something similar with my dyslexia, and question the wisdom of doing so because of how others perceive it and how they misunderstand my reasons for revealing the information. Often I experience a big silent nothing, or from being an equal I am suddenly demoted even though nothing has actually changed.

    I saw a documentary of sorts about this issue – to disclose or not disclose. It was part of a BBC awareness drive a few years back. It tried to show that mental illness sometimes adds to rather than takes away from ability, such as the ability of an employee to perform their work. And other things along those lines. It was, perhaps, like you, ahead of its times. Ready to accept where people are not quite ready to accept – because of misinformation and other very human things.

    I think, ultimately, we need to trust ourselves, and do what feels to be right to us even if it is something others view as wrong. Accepting ourselves as we are can sometimes take us a long time, when we do, we need to keep doing it, even if it means others may not accept us. If we change ourselves to suit them, therefore hide who we are, then we retrace our steps back to not accepting ourselves. And when we don’t accept ourselves, we don’t accept others.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • I think you’re right on so many counts. It is really hard to do and I say good on you for doing it with your dyslexia. I suspect the wisdom is mixed. There are costs, as you say but there are hopefully benefits too. It’s not fair to be demoted because of it, but maybe inside you, you can feel good that you were honest to yourself as well as them? Maybe. I hope so anyway.

      I like what the BBC programme was showing. I didn’t see it but it is something I wanted to put across in my post (but probably missed), that people with mental illness actually add to the job by their understanding of self and others. It’s not all negative, but I get that we are far from getting that point across in the employment market as well as the general public. I strongly believe that my mental illness contributes good things to me as a person. That said sometimes I feel like a one person band with that thought.

      You’re so right about our need to trust ourselves and to do what it right for us. That is more important than anything.

      Thanks for your comments. 🙂

  7. Cate, you were very brave to disclose your mental illness to an employer. We have to continue to break the stigma that mental illness continues to carry wherever and whenever we can.

    • Hi Erica, you are so right that we do need to continue to fight the stigma but we have to take care of ourselves first. I did what I did because at that time I was strong enough to do it, and it was important enough to me that I be true to myself.

  8. It is really difficult to know whether to disclose mental health issues or not, luckily for me, I am very close to my assistant manager who also has some mental health problems and she understands completely. My manager on the other hand does not understand and I haven’t told him about my problems because of that. I make excuses up a lot to cover my strange behaviour and need to take breaks to compose myself.

    This was a great piece, very insightful. As much as fighting the Stigma is important to me, I think sometimes, knowing when and who to tell about things is also important. After all, I will fight the stigma as much as I can, but I wouldn’t want to work in a volatile work place.

    • I agree with you. I think it is ultimately important that we put ourselves first. We need to be, at least relatively, sure that we are safe. Hopefully too, we will be in an environment where we feel respected. It sounds too me like you have made a good choice for you. There are other ways we can fight stigma too.

    • Hi Janet, I guess you’re right that I do feel strongly about what’s right for me. Maybe I’ve been through enough to kjow what isn’t right for me. But yes, even stronger is that I believe it is a personal decision. I know that for many, what I did would be completely wrong for them. We can’t just read someone else’s account and think that must be the right thing to do. Actually I believe that applies to a lot in terms of mental illness.

  9. I’m not sure that’s a decision I could make simply because I know what people assume when you tell them you have a mental illness.

  10. Well said, I don’t feel quite as confident to acknowledge my depression yet, but I’m slowly working up to, starting my blog was a way for me to help overcome it. I haven’t told many people yet because I’m a little afraid of being ‘pushed out’

    • That makes sense Dawn. It’s a scary thing to do, whether it’s starting a blog or telling someone about your illness. I believe that you’ll know when and if it is the right time to disclose, regardless of who it is. Trust yourself. You know best.

  11. A very tough decision. Of course there are risks to disclosing to a boss, but unless people are willing to be as brave, the stigma continues to live on. In saying that, I would struggle disclosing mental problems. It’s similar to coming out as gay in the early 80’s. Luckily for me, they stopped burning people at the stake a long time ago! Telling my boss – a Church of Scotland Minister – and the charismatic congregation was certain to lose my job, but it certainly did contribute to where we are today with gay-equality. Being true to ourselves does challenge the stigma. Great post, Cate.

    • Hi Cat. You know I think that while they have stopped burning people at the stake, in many ways they still do it. Physically they might not harm us, whether it is mental illness or being gay, just for being different too often people are harmed mentally. emotionally and socially. I’m also inclined to think that it is often the people who should least be judging us, who come out condemning us. It’s so sad.

  12. It’s a difficult choice, but the more that people are honest about their health – mental, physical or emotional – then the more open-minded employers are going to have to become. Especially when more and more people are having issues with their mental health due to the pressures and stresses of 21st Century living.

    • You’re so right Faith but unfortunately it doesn’t make it any easier. I knew that for my own well-being I needed to be open about my mental illness. And I knew that it would challenge stigma, particularly in that organisation. But there were costs and of course, I risked not getting the job (or keeping it). As you say mental health is becoming a bigger issue in society, but unfortunately we continue to face the costs.

  13. Reblogged this on What's Rattling My Cage and commented:
    Cate I loved this post. I am a 48 year old gay man who has been living with HIV/AIDS for over 17 1/2 years. I also have struggled for years with alcohol and cocaine addictions. I always considered myself to be functioning. I have always been open about my sexuality and my HIV/AIDS status.

    In August 2012 after a four day bender I disclosed to my director and associate director about my issues with alcohol and cocaine, This could have been a good thing if I had continued to follow through with their recommendations, however I did not. In November 2012 I lost my paternal grandmother and then in February 2013 I lost my maternal grandmother whom I spoke to on a daily basis. In both cases I did not take time to truly grieve and take care of myself. Because this over the next few months I self-disintegrated and wound up losing a position that I loved dearly after over six years at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

    Finally in the summer of 2014 at the behest of my Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor I began seeing a psychiatrist and have been officially diagnosed with bipolar depression disorder – which I have probably been for years which contributed to my trouble with addictions. I am still unemployed but I have some things on the horizon.

    Would I ever self-disclose again – absolutely! I do believe that if we are not completely honest with ourselves and other regardless of the setting then we are opening the door for our mental illness, addictions and etc. to creep in and raise their ugly heads and disrupt our lives.

    Thanks again for the great post!!!!

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