Is Not Disclosing Mental Illness Perpetuating Stigma?

Tuesday, October 29 2013 Guest Author

I was talking with a friend recently about disclosure related to our mental illnesses. We were trying to figure out how and when you tell someone that you have a mental illness. It is a difficult problem, not only for those of us living with mental illness, but also for family members, because mental health stigma still exists. We were specifically discussing how, when, and if we should tell a potential employer about our mental illness.

Most Businesses Aren't Ready to Hire Mentally Ill

By not disclosing my mental illness to an employer or other person, I feel I am somehow perpetuating the shame of mental illness. I won't do that.Iʼve found organizations and businesses which serve mentally ill people are not prepared to actually hire a mentally ill person. I have also discussed this with my therapist and her advice is usually to NOT disclose until I know someone pretty well.

I understand that stigma exists and why people should not disclose right away, but for me it still feels like in not disclosing I am somehow perpetuating the shame of mental illness. I truly believe that in living openly about my mental illness I have gained way more than I have lost. Still, is there ever a “right” time to say “oh, by the way, I have schizophrenia?” Not to downplay the significance of other disorders, but when you tell someone you have schizophrenia, all sorts of “crazy” stereotypes pop into peoplesʼ heads, even if they are compassionate and knowledgeable people.

Mental Illness Stigma on the Job

In the past, I had a job working for a theoretically progressive organization. I only disclosed my mental illness after being hired. One day, I was on the telephone talking to someone, and my boss couldn't see that I was on the phone. She finally saw me and laughed saying, “oh, I didn't know you were on the phone! I thought you were talking to yourself!” I donʼt actually talk to myself or to voices at all (Iʼve never actually heard voices), but it was in her head that that is what people with schizophrenia are like. Should I have never mentioned my illness?

Well, my friend and I decided it was probably a good idea to handle disclosure on a case by case basis. But, it still leaves us wondering how we figure out each of these cases. If we truly believe in breaking down stigma, does it mean we need to be open about our illness when it is the hardest or only when it is the safest? For that matter, is there ever really a “safe” time to disclose? What do you think and what have you experienced?

(Isn't it time you stand up for yourself, stand up for mental health? Join the Stand Up for Mental Health Campaign. Put a campaign button on your blog/website or a cover/header image on your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter profile. Let others know you're done with stigma.)

The article was written by:

Kristin Bell has been living with schizophrenia since the age of 15. After much trial and error, she has been able to successfully manage her symptoms through the use of medications, therapy, social support, and education. She is currently a post-bac student at Portland State University. You can also find Kristin on her website, YouTube Channel and Facebook.

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Is Not Disclosing Mental Illness Perpetuating Stigma?

emily
says:
October, 30 2013 at 3:49 pm

If we don't hide our illness, we might not get hired- and then how can we fight stigma? It is difficult. Also, in many situations, it is simply not relevant that I have a mental illness, so I don't bring it up. And often when I do, people don't really believe that I was ever was as I was, discounting my illness.

Kristin Farley-Deem
says:
November, 1 2013 at 5:09 am

I believe it depends upon the context, setting and people involved. I have bipolar disorder, and a Bachelor's of Social Work (BSW) degree, so I'm entrenched in mental health issues on several fronts. That said, I would not disclose during an employment interview; I might not disclose once I was hired, either. However, I could (and should) use my own experience and education as part of my job to help other mentally ill people deal with the system. Does this perpetuate stigma? I don't know; perhaps it does. But even if it does, from my vantage point as an employee working in the mental health field, I would have many, many opportunities to fight stigma on behalf of my employer (most probably a non-profit mental health agency). I'll consider it a "glass half full" opportunity. Not ideal, but certainly realistic.

Now, with friends, it's completely different. I am 100% open with people I trust, but it takes a while to develop that level of trust. During the trust-building process I am likely to make a lot of mistakes: being late/no-show; blathering like an idiot, which they won't understand; monopolizing conversations and the like. So, at some point, I will have to disclose or the friendship won't stand a chance of developing.

To sum it up: disclosing may involve personal risk; we have to choose when, and with whom, it is appropriate and comfortable for us to do.

Rob Northrup
says:
November, 1 2013 at 5:26 am

Not to say the situations are the same, but there's a similarity with LGBTQ people deciding whether to come out of the closet. On the one hand, if you're in a situation where you can withstand possible discrimination, it's nice to be open about it, show that you have nothing to be ashamed of, and help demolish stereotypes by showing that you're just regular people. On the other hand, not everyone is in a safe position where they can bravely push past discrimination. Employers can make up a reason to fire you, landlords can make up a reason to evict you or not rent or sell a house to you. Even if you want to sue them, can you afford a long, drawn-out lawsuit? I'm not putting down anyone who feels comfortable being open about mental illness or homosexuality, but I also don't think we should condemn people who choose to stay "in the closet" about it.

Honesty is generally the best policy, at least with people that you respect and trust. But in a society that discriminates, there's no shame in lying to people that you think might discriminate.

Kristin Bell
says:
November, 1 2013 at 5:43 am

Totally Emily! I mean, it is awfully hard to stand up to stigma if you can't find a way to support yourself! I don't know how exactly fighting stigma is done. I haven't figured it out completely. :)

judy
says:
November, 1 2013 at 1:18 pm

Standing up to stigma is only effective when you are in a relatively good place. When you are manic and out of control, or very depressed, people simply will not listen to you (that is, if you even have the ability to discuss ANYTHING). Think about it. The most effective advocates have a few years of recovery under their belts. They talk about the worst of their illness in the past tense. They were free to make a choice about their disclosure. This article, while I understand is really just a topic of discussion, ignores this fact. It is good to know that people have gained recovery - at least I know it is possible. At the same time, each situation is very different and comes replete with its own set of issues that makes recovery a challenge, and regardless of how many people share your diagnosis, these unique conditions can still impart a feeling being alone.

In short, no one should be pressured into disclosing until they are damn well good and ready.

Kristin Bell
says:
November, 2 2013 at 5:57 pm

Hi Kristin FD, Rob, and Judy! You all bring up such good points! I agree. That is a great idea about the glass being half-full that you mention Kristin--strategically using our mental illness in ways that will most benefit everyone involved. I hadn't thought of that one! Also, Rob, yes, I know it is different for LGBTQ+ people, but there definitely are similarities to coming out. I like that analogy! And I agree with you and Judy that people don't need to be ashamed or pressured to "come out" with mental illness. Thank you all for your comments! :)

Bobby
says:
January, 10 2014 at 6:13 am

I'm a visual artist and have fort the good fight since a very young age... Years ago a particularly rare nurse told me i needed to go home and decide whether to be wellness focused or illness focused... She was half right tho as we all know here you can't just click your fingers and suddenly be wellness focused... So I modified her Statment to " you need to decide wether to MOVE TOWARDS wellness focus or no" .

I have done that now for many years and manage to dance with the enemy mostly keeping the trickster at bae and feeding the white dog. Like all of you here I can see the reality of stigma in the community and even when others might mean well the lack of understanding can cause some of us to wide up focusing on the illness when we really just need people to let us feel normal and apreciated for the rest of who we are.

Why am I rambling on here? Because I've been approached by three different film makers who want to make a documentary about my life and art... On one hand I really want to disclose everything and help fight stigma and educate the public... I want to fight for you and me... On the other hand it has taken years and years to ballance the beast to this point and part f the balancing process has been to NOT disclose to people because they most often react in ways that just cause me to focus on the illness. I'm somewhat scaird that the film will mean that a lt of people in the town where I live will judge me with stigma and ignorance. We all know how important a unjudged dayly life is.. That said I will probably go ahead with the film... I would be very thankful for your encouragement guys... None of us asked for these dance partners, we all just got flung onto the dance floor to learn to dance with the beast or die trying. Hugs Bobby

judy
says:
January, 11 2014 at 9:07 am

Ummm...to be honest, being filmed about your disorder can be potentially exploitative. I would never trust a filmmaker who did not suffer from bipolar, or know someone close to them who has. Their level of understanding just wouldn't be enough to actually turn out a movie that can honestly depict bipolar as it truly is - and certainly there is enough stigmatizing imagery coming from all aspects of the media already. And, naturally, if yet another film comes out that is full of misinformation, it can hurt and hinder your cause of ending stigma rather than help it.

On the flipside, there has been one or two tv/film (Homeland and Silverlinings, respectively) that has taken some care in their depiction (neither of which I have actually seen, so I am not stating this as a personal opinion - just reiterating the opinions of others). So the offers may actually be genuine.

Good luck in whatever you decide!

judy
says:
January, 11 2014 at 9:09 am

The importance of an unjudged daily life...very true. Good phrase.

Jane
says:
February, 2 2016 at 10:33 pm

Seems more about relevance, purpose of disclosing.
Personally, I wish we could drop the word mental and just say illness. It's one body, all connected. Perhaps then it would be as every other illness, I have cancer, not I'm cancer, I have manic depression not I'm bipolar.
In this way the subject is more about do I need to disclose I have IBS, hypothyroidism, depression, anxiety, etc? If I wouldn't tell you I had hypothyroidism then why would I tell I had anxiety? Illness is illness. If I felt important to explain being extremely emotional or unusually fatigued was symptoms of my hypothyroidism and I'm working to adjust my medication but I feel lousy right now; it should be the same as if symptoms of anxiety, depression, mania are present and I'm addressing the symptoms to ensure my responsibilities at work are covered and I'm too exhausted to do dinner tonight, how about next week.
The truth is all illness is judged positive/negative, once it's said it can't be undone. The decision to disclose will have an impact and yes "mental" illness does still have a stigma that is different. As a therapist, the more a person hears me address them as an individual and refer to their symptoms separately, the focus is less about the stigma of the illness. This is a common issue and discuss the range of implications of disclosing anything personal to others can be important. Disclosing you have cancer has implications, perhaps compassion rather than stigma but seems the more we refer to illness as illness the less it's about the specific illness and more about the person's comfort in sharing personal information period.
For me fighting stigma is the freedom to make these choices just as you would any illness you face in life.

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