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 that, all too often, the people who should “get it” really just don’t.
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. 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). 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?
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.