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.