Crazy Talk: Do I Disclose My Mental Illness to My Boss?
Welcome to Crazy Talk: a mental health advice column written by yours truly, a mentally ill and queer writer reclaiming his “crazy” to educate and empower. In a world that tries to push us to the margins, I’m all about getting loud and kicking the stigma where it hurts. In this column, we explore what it’s like to live with mental illness without shame or apologies. Expect frank advice, a little self-deprecation and a good dose of humor.
As with most columns I write, I’ll start this one off by saying that when it comes to mental health, there are no easy answers. So when this question popped up in my Twitter inbox, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even sure where to begin — everyone’s situation is different, so there’s really no simple response to this question.
I have been completely open about my mental illness with every boss I’ve ever had, which I know is a pretty unique situation. Sometimes this opened us up for a more honest, supportive relationship. Other times, I’m pretty certain that this factored into decisions to let me go. Nowadays, because my work in mental health is so public, any employer could easily find this information about me — so moving forward, it’ll never be a secret.
I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to hide my mental illness in the workplace. For most of my adult life, my mental health struggles have deeply impacted my abilities to do my work, and I felt it was better to navigate that transparently with my employer rather than trying to hide it. It was also important to me to destigmatize conversations about mental health, hopefully opening up a path for my other colleagues to find support as well.
In some workplaces, I was able to work with Human Resources to create support systems — like a quiet room, or an informal self-care brown bag — for anyone and everyone who needed support from the team. I explained that I wanted to embed self-care into the company culture, and I’ve found that with many of the places I’ve worked, I was applauded for taking the initiative.
But let’s be real: I have a lot of privileges that allow me to navigate this with relative safety. If I lost a job due to my mental health status, I have the financial safety net from my community and an impressive work history that would allow me to survive and find another job. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which on the whole is more progressive and accepting of my psychiatric history. And as white, my mental health status is not perceived as a threat to the other people that I work with.
Not to mention, having published a lot of writing on the subject, I have a lot of control over the narrative that people read — which largely portrays me as the protagonist in a successful recovery, someone to be applauded rather than feared.
In terms of the risk of disclosure, being open about my mental illness doesn’t jeopardize me in the same ways that it might jeopardize other people. And I think that’s what motivates me to be open about it: I’m in a position where I can be, and I’m trying to leverage that privilege to make it possible in the future for other folks to be open as well.
I can’t tell you what the right decision is in your particular case, but I can encourage you to be prepared. If you’re debating disclosing your mental health status in the workplace, here are some questions to consider:
- What is my motivation or end goal? Am I trying to access more support? Am I looking to take time off? Do I need to disclose in order to meet those goals or do I have other options?
- Is my mental health status relevant? Does it impact my work? What kinds of positive changes might happen for me if I share my status?
- What are my legal protections in my state or country? Do I know how to contact Human Resources if the response I receive is unfair or unjust?
- Do I have an ally in the workplace who can support me as I navigate this? Someone that I trust, someone who I know I can count on?
- What is the existing policy at my company or organization around mental health and disability, if there is any?
- Do I need to leave a paper trail for this conversation in case the response is inappropriate? Do I need someone else present to act as a witness or mediator?
- Am I comfortable educating my boss and colleagues? Are there trainings that I could propose, or outside organizations that might be able to support me?
- What are the risks? Am I prepared if something goes wrong? Can I afford to lose my job or damage work relationships?
Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised; I’ve had bosses connect me to resources and update company policies to ensure that I’m supported. Sometimes I’m blown away, like when I was able to take a long (and paid!) disability leave when I needed it most, no questions asked.
Other times, I’m disappointed — like when a boss of mine openly made a comment about my taking psychiatric meds at a meeting with two of my colleagues (she thought it was funny… yes, seriously), or when an employer suggested that I was using ADHD as an excuse for unskillful work.
For me, it’s always been an ethical goal first and foremost, trying to push back on the silence around mental health in the workplace. I’ve had coworkers approach me after hours, quietly sharing that they struggle with depression or anxiety, and that they feel safer at work knowing that someone is in their corner. It’s a battle and a role that I eagerly take on, both because I feel relatively secure and prepared in doing so.
It’s up to you to decide if you’re in a position to stick your neck out. There are often legal protections for disabled workers that are supposed to back you (mental illness, after all, is a disability), but we all know that employers don’t always comply; they can find sneaky ways of dodging accountability. That’s why I think it’s important to have a paper trail or an ally (or both!) before proceeding.
I disclose because there are a lot of people who can’t, and because I believe that we all have the right to advocate for ourselves. I believe that workplaces should be accessible to and supportive of mentally ill folks. I know that my personal battles are always going to be political ones.
But you get to decide if it’s a battle worth fighting. Not everyone has the privilege or safety they need to disclose. And no matter what, I support your right to decide what’s best for you.