Should someone with a mood disorder disclose her condition to her manager or anyone with whom she works? After more than twenty years in the professional world, having worked a variety of occupations in different kinds of settings, I still don’t know the answer to that. I experienced thick stigma and shame when I disclosed my bipolar disorder; however, I also received support that I wouldn’t have if I’d kept everything to myself.
For her doctoral dissertation in psychology, professor Lisa Clark Keith interviewed five women with mental illness who disclosed their conditions in their workplaces. The final product, “A Phenomenological Study of Women and Mental Illness: Stigma and Disclosure in the Workplace” is a fascinating analysis of the modern workplace with regard to mental illness, valuable information young women should know before symptoms get to a crisis point. Lisa graduated in 2013 from Alliant International University, California School of Professional Psychology. She is now Assistant Professor of special education at Fresno Pacific University, specializing in working with students with emotional disturbances. I have the pleasure of interviewing her here on the topic of stigma and disclosure in the workplace.
1. What was the most difficult part of disclosing a mental illness for the five women you talked to? In what ways did they feel stigma?
The most difficult part for the women I spoke with was that they had to do it during an episode or crisis. They were already experiencing poor mental health, and then had to ask for time off or accommodations. Their coworkers were surprised, ignorant of the meaning of the illness and generally unsupportive. Their ability to come back from an episode, to work to their fullest capacity was doubted. They were joked about and gossiped about in hushed tones. The “realness” of their illness was in doubt.
2. What advice would they give a young women suffering from a mental illness who doesn’t know whether or not to inform her manager about it or how to do it?
All of the women quit the job that they had when they came out during crisis because of the stigma they experienced. When they changed jobs, they came out either in the interview process, or shortly after, when they were experiencing positive mental health and could better control the information flow and educate their coworkers regarding mental health. My suggestion is, that when the subject of mental health comes up, speak up and share…. normalize your chronic illness…then people begin to open up about their experiences as well. I found many people would come and talk to me about their family members or themselves after I came out. When they see you experiencing positive mental health, then if you have an episode or need accommodations, people are not caught off guard, or surprised. They are more likely to be empathetic and compassionate. Of course, there will always be that one or two persons who are just plain ignorant. But, that hasn’t been my experience often.
Originally published on Sanity Break on Everyday Health.