Disclosing Mental Illness at Work: The Good and Bad

Disclosing mental illness at work: the good, the bad, and the ugly - image of person with a briefcase on a tightrope

If you have a mental illness and have a paid job or volunteer gig, chances are that, at some point, you’ll be faced with the question of whether to disclose your mental illness at work, and if so, how much to disclose.

Yes, there may be laws in place to keep employers from discriminating against mentally ill employees, but that doesn’t necessarily mean disclosing mental illness at work is going to feel safe or be free from negative repercussions. And, working as a nurse in mental health care, it’s become clear to me that, all too often, the people who should “get it” really just don’t.

Forced disclosure

After my first psychiatric hospitalization, I had no choice about disclosing my illness. The provincial nursing regulator put conditions on my professional license; one of these was that my employer needed to be informed of the conditions. You can read more about why I see this as legislated stigma in the post The Health Professions Act and the Fight Against Stigma.

My manager used this as an excuse to treat me like I was incompetent and dangerous. I decided that I might as well be open with my colleagues, and luckily they were super supportive. Without that support I don’t know know how I would have been able to handle my manager’s passive-aggressive BS.

When recovery is messy

At my next job, they were initially supportive when I got sick.  But that changed when I didn’t make a neat and tidy recovery. After my third hospitalization in just over a year, my manager tried very hard to block me from returning to work. I had no idea what was happening or why, and when I found out, I felt completely betrayed.

I felt desperate to leave that job, but it was hard because managers gossip, and they talk about things they have no right to gossip about. Thankfully, my coworkers were amazing, although I did find out later there was some slightly inaccurate information that got passed around as gossip.

One of my current employers seemed to use my illness as an excuse to step up the psychological assault. I had disclosed my illness as a defensive tactic because I was experiencing severe psychomotor retardation, and I figured they would be petty enough to assume I was abusing drugs or something like that. They then seemed to turn it around and used it as a weapon against me.

Duty to accommodate

Under Canadian law, employers have a duty to accommodate employees with a disability unless it causes undue hardship (and from what I understand the bar is set pretty high for what counts as undue hardship). You can find out more about workplace accommodations for mental illness in an article I wrote for Disability News Wire.

A year ago, I had requested a formal accommodation from one of my employers. I was grasping desperately for any possible measure to prevent the psychological attacks they were launching at me. My request was supposed to be passed to the 3rd party agency that provides disability management services, in keeping with what was laid out in the nurses’ contract. Did that happen? Nope. Management and HR wanted to deal with it themselves; given that they were the source of the problem, it went nowhere.

I’ve chosen to be open about my mental illness, although some of that is a positive reframing of the times when I really didn’t have any other choice. I can’t think of a single instance when a colleague has given me a hard time about my illness. Managers have been an entirely different story, though. I really can’t say that I have any advice to give others on whether or not to disclose at work. It’s hard to predict how people are going to react, so I think all you can do is go with what feels right in your gut. And despite the crap that I’ve had to deal with, I still think I made the right decisions for me.

Have you had the experience of disclosing mental illness at work? What was it like?

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

36 thoughts on “Disclosing Mental Illness at Work: The Good and Bad”

  1. I always thought you were in England. And I took a job after I felt recovered but noticed I would fall back into old patterns on occasion and knowing they stem from my breakdown, i “hinted” at what was causing the change in behavior. It wasn’t used against me but people treat you differently. I eventually left on my own. Don’t work now. Tension and stress would cause me setbacks. I feel strong enough to take a job… but how long that would last I am unsure. I volunteer and someday hope to work. Fill up my time with activities other than writing, painting and other creative endeavors. Which bring me calm and satisfaction but I love people and want to help them overcome their obstacles too!

    1. It’s so sad when people’s behaviour changes when there’s any hint of mental illness. I’m glad you’ve got other more positive things going on now.

    1. I think that would depend on the nature of the blog. I’ve chosen to keep my blog reasonably anonymous because I don’t want people in my real life to know my innermost thoughts, mental illness or not.

  2. I’m not working at the moment but I will have to consider this if I do go back to work. Prospective employers will presumably want to know why there’s a big gap in my employment history.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have chosen to change my profession entirely. I have been in the spa industry for over 15 years and I just dont see how I can go back. The hours are not condusive to a regular sleep schedule and the sales stress gets more and more intense with each year. How do you tell an employer that you sometimes require ‘quite time’ in order to get through the day? Or that you couldn’t make quota because your med change left you grasping to make sense of reality? The gossip makes things so much worse. Feel so good to kick someone while they are down doesn’t it? Sexist comment – Female dominated industries are ruthless in this respect. I admire your bravery in disclosing. It’s not easy.

    1. I hope that someday, eventually, there won’t the stigma and employers are more receptive to accommodating people with mental illness and other chronic conditions.

  4. I don’t tell my supervisor shit about anything. I think he’s only here to climb the corporate ladder and pretends to care as long as you make him look good and he gets his bonus. If you mess up though? Watch out!!
    They talk the talk regarding mental health, caring about wellness and use all the catch phrases but nothing is really done about it–it’s all lip service in the end.
    Truthfully, I don’t trust many people I work with–secrecy is not something held in high regard–and it seems like everyone is just waiting to find out the next juicy piece of info on another employee so they can spread it like wildfire.
    I try my best to keep my private life private (it helps that I have an office door I can close when necessary). If push comes to shove, I have 4.5 months of sick leave I can use and as long as I have a note from my doctor, I don’t have to tell them anything.
    I’m sorry you’ve worked for shit managers! It makes life so much more difficult than it needs to be.

  5. I work in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, so I feel very worried about disclosing my anxiety disorder. I have definitely made excuses a few times to not come in, when really the anxiety was simply all too much to face while at work. I have slowly disclosed my condition through my blog and sharing it with my friends/co-workers, but I think I will always try to “sugar coat it.” Much respect for anyone who feels like they ARE able to talk about it at work, as you should be able to.

      1. I agree. However, it motivates me even more to be compassionate and understanding toward my patients, since I have been (and am) in their shoes most of the time.

  6. I think it is a joke. I was teacher and won a wrongful termination lawsuit because they fired me and the attorney told me school districts do not want teachers teaching in their schools because parents do not want teachers with severe mental illness teaching their children. So they get rid of them if and when they can. These same schools are now on the news talking about how much they are doing in regards to mental illness. The same superintendent is still there so I know how he really thinks. I know the truth. As you know I am a very open person and I have found out the hard way too many times that is it is better to not disclose at the work place. I have done it in the past but I have not disclosed at my new job yet. I have been bit in the butt to many times for being so open and honest about it. I will not lie and I am not ashamed of myself or my illness at all. I am just aware of other people’s ignorance and cruelty. My illness does not define me. It is not who I am. I want to work and have people make an opinion of me right now free and clear of a label. This is who I am .My label is not me. Too many people stigmatize too much because of labels and I am not ready to disclose my labels yet. If they know then they do, but I have learned after many years it is so not necessary to share everything about my past life. I am there to work and help others. My story is not necessary for me to do my job well. I am not telling right now. One day if it seems right I will. Not right now. When it is appropriate I can and will share. If they find my blog then they can read and hopefully become educated. People talk too much and gossip and I learned at my job that so many people are angry and angry people try to make themselves feel better by belittling and destroying others. I do not want to be part of that. I am not ready to give them any reason to talk about me. Great post by the way. I think it is great advice that there are no right answers and to play it by your gut. It is unfortunate that is our reality but it is right now. I lost trust in telling others and found out that what they say to me is different than what they say to others. Ugh. Yikes and yuck… I have just learned to be more cautious but I AM NOT ASHAMED!!!!

  7. I always appreciate your honesty about your mental illness and how it has affected you in the world. I did not disclose mental illness during my internship, and I find that I will work hard to conceal it during my job, for many of the reasons you discussed. The people who should get it the most rarely seem to, and I’m not willing to risk it.

  8. Great post! I too work in mental health as a therapist. I am cautious about disclosing to coworkers, as there seems to be a double standard about mental illness. From my understanding, a lot of people are in mental health jobs because of their own experiences. I have disclosed small pieces about my anxiety or experiences with therapy with clients as a way to normalize or validate what they’re going through. Clients are always surprised and relieved that I can understand what they’re going through. Now I want to read up on the laws in my area!

    1. In my country Cameroon, I am so open as a CBT Therapist about my own journey with mental health challenges and not once has any client intimated being put off. Actually they and their care givers have been relieved to know I don’t treat them like ‘losers’ and that I have and still sometimes go through ‘stuffs’.

  9. Ashley, I like the picture you use of trying to balance yourself on a thin rope. Once wrote a post on that. Now, I don’t know what I would have done were I working in any formal structure…the bar council doesn’t care what your health is as long as you don’t jeopardize a client’s interest or theirs hahaha. But then again, given vocal me, even when I worked in house back in 2006 when I didn’t quiet know what was going on, I told my supervisor about the ‘plenty crying and constant worrying’. Great reflective post indeed

  10. To be honest, good for you for being able to share that and not put up with a lot of the bs. And I definitely think managers overreact way more than coworkers but that also can be an age gap in my situation at least, where my manager is almost 15-20 years older than me and brought up with different values. This year, I just started coming to terms with my mental illness. At one job I was pretty open about it since it was all happening at that time, some of my coworkers were meaner as in a bully and kind of rude because we were also friends (so I thought). But the manager was just really worrisome at first but after a while didn’t bring it up again I felt like it was a professional thing. Now though I am interning for a nonprofit where I had to open up to my boss because I just couldn’t really deal with it seeing as I moved to a new place and knew no one after I just recently came out of my hospitilization. She is awesome though very caring and always looking out for me. So so far I feel like it really depends on the person and how well you think you know them. I want to be open about it but I also don’t want to feel as if I’m being judged or punished because of it.

    1. I totally agree, and that’s great you’ve got a boss now who is accepting. Hopefully as time goes on there will be more and more bosses who choose to be supportive rather than the opposite.

  11. Hi Ashley,

    Great piece around this topic! I have EUPD and haven’t previously disclosed this to my employers, then end up burning out and quitting, rather than being open about it.
    I feel so fortunate now to work for a company that is heavily invested in mental health, and to have to a manager who has gone above and beyond in order to help me through some particularly dark times.

    I’ve even given up hiding my scars if it’s too hot and I don’t want to wear a top with sleeves. My blog is public on my social media accounts, and I personally feel that it’s only through trying to communicate and raise awareness of the different types of mental illnesses, that we can help to reduce the stigma around them 🙂

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