Should I be open about my mental illness at work?

This can depend on multiple different factors, the laws and legal precedent where you live, as well as the type of job you have. This isn’t going to delve into any of the legislation or legal structures. Instead, let’s talk about you. A big factor in how you decide to talk about mental health at work will be your own perspective on what you’re dealing with right now. When it comes to that personal perspective, here are four things that I would consider:

1. YOU CAN RECOVER FROM MENTAL ILLNESS. Everybody has varying levels of mental health and fitness they can improve or worsen. You are no different. As much as there’s been increased awareness of mental illness over the past couple of years, there’s also been increased awareness of treatment and recovery. So if you’re at work and you’re struggling with a task because it causes you anxiety, or you’re late for work because you had to go back home and do some OCD rituals, and you tell your employer about your challenges, don’t be surprised if they say something like: “Yeah, I struggled with compulsions and all sorts of anger and relationship issues for years. I got diagnosed with BPD and GAD and addiction. But when I started showing up late for meetings because of those compulsions and getting in fights with coworkers, I realized I had to do something about that. It’s been lots of work but so worth getting over. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today if I hadn’t taken my mental health more seriously. I’ve been compulsion free for five years now. Here’s a great book that helped me and here’s the number of an excellent therapist you can work with to learn some new skills to deal with this. I look forward to supporting you in getting over these challenges.”

You might find acceptance, but also an expectation that you’re going to do something about these challenges. If mental health challenges are interfering with your ability to do your job, that’s something you can change. And it’s going to involve you doing very tough work.

There is a growing community of people recovering from mental illnesses previously considered permanently debilitating. You are not alone in dealing with these challenges and you will not be alone in overcoming them.

2: HALF OF THE PEOPLE IN YOUR WORKPLACE WILL EXPERIENCE A DIAGNOSABLE MENTAL ILLNESS IN THEIR LIFETIME. The statistic that 1 in 5 people experience a mental illness in any given year is often thrown around in the media by mental health charities, but that statistic refers to the number of people with a mental illness in ANY GIVEN YEAR. Lifetime occurrence of mental illness is much higher. A Harvard Medical School study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15939837) identified the lifetime prevalence of mental illness at 46.4% of the population. And that only includes the people who will meet the DSM-IV criteria for a mental illness. That doesn’t include all of the other people that almost meet the criteria. So it’s reasonable to say that at least half of your workplace will experience a mental illness. It’s also likely that very many already have experienced a mental illness or are dealing with poor mental health. Nobody in your workplace has perfect mental health, just like nobody in your workplace has perfect physical health. Everybody you work with has to take steps every day to maintain and improve their health or it will get worse. Seek help with those steps. Also recognize that you can support others in your workplace with taking similar steps to care for and improve their mental health as well.

3. YOU ARE NOT YOUR FARTS. This is a useful lesson for two key reasons:

A) Mental health issues are just like flatulence issues: everybody around you already knows you’ve got a problem. They might not know what the problem is, they might be politely not mentioning that they’ve noticed, but they know. Anybody can smell that a mile away. So being open about how you’re dealing with those issues is going to help you and those around you. If you keep denying that the issue exists, that’s going to lead to people excluding you from things, they’re going to be inventing their own explanations for what’s going on, and they’re going to do all sorts of other things that are only going to feed your anxieties.

B) You are more than your bodily functions and malfunctions. You are dealing with a challenge that is only a tiny piece of who you are. Talking about mental health can sometimes be much more challenging than it needs to be because people conflate their identity with their mental illness symptoms. If you define yourself as nothing more than a bunch of symptoms nobody likes, it won’t be surprising if that affects how people interact with you. It also won’t be surprising if it affects how you relate to your self.

You are so much more than some brain malfunctions you can learn to overcome. Instead of defining yourself by farts, work with experienced professionals to understand what you can do about these issues, how you can change what’s going into your body that’s causing them, how you can make healthy changes throughout your life to eliminate the symptoms, etc. You are not a farter. You are you, and sometimes you fart. Maybe you just had a fart. That’s totally normal. You are not that fart.

4. TALK ABOUT HEALTH, NOT ILLNESS. You’re going to get a very different response from people if you talk about what you’re doing to take care of, support, and improve your mental health than if you talk about what you can’t do. Look at mental health through the lens of physical health and fitness: If you’re struggling with obesity, it can affect your work on a daily basis and, over the long-term, it’s linked to numerous health complications, just like mental illnesses. The causes of obesity, just like mental illnesses, are a complex mix of genetic, learned, environmental, socio-economic, and personal choice factors. Both issues are real, they are biological, they are not things you can snap your fingers and instantly resolve through brute force. They’re not issues you can magically think your way out of. However, with obesity and with mental illness, you can make consistent, holistic changes throughout your life that help you overcome them. So when you’re thinking of being open about the challenges you’re encountering, ask yourself whether you’re looking for support to continue having those challenges, or are you looking for support to overcome those challenges? It’s much easier to talk about being healthier than it is to talk about being unhealthy.

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