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Coming Out of the Mental Health Closet at Work

Jessi Lepine

Hello, I’m Jessi.  I recently came out with my diagnosis at work on a large scale, by writing an article for our hospital bulletin. The response from friends, coworkers and strangers was so positive that it led me to find the confidence to start a blog about my road to recovery with this illness.  Here is an adapted version of the article I wrote:

I work at a mental health centre in Canada and I have a mental illness. Coming out of the mental illness closet at work can be a terrifying experience but it can also change your life for the better.  This is my story.

Bipolar disorder is in my genes. My father was diagnosed at 50 years old.  One year later, my brother was diagnosed and took his life within three months. He was almost 26 years old. The stress of his death and other family crises lead to my first manic episode one year following my brother’s death.  I was 24 years old, newly married, a nursing grad, working 2 night shift jobs in Long-Term-Care and still grieving my brother when my illness kicked in. After two admissions for severe mania, 3 less severe episodes managed at home and three psychiatrists later, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 1.

Coming out with your mental illness in the workplace can be very intimidating. When you work in mental health, you would think it would be easier, but the worry that you will be stigmatized and discriminated against exists even in this environment.  I believe that people who have mental illnesses can champion the fight against stigma by being open and honest. In a way it starts with us talking about it without apprehension and secrecy and then others will become comfortable, eventually normalizing mental illness as any other medical diagnosis.  

My biggest fear before disclosing was that I would not be seen as an equal.  I thought I would constantly have to prove myself in order to be valued and to succeed.  I became ill again after a med change.  I could tell my behavior appeared bizarre and disorganized. I cared about my reputation as a professional so I decided it was best to disclose to the staff I worked with directly just prior to going on a sick leave.

When I returned to work, I was healthy but felt awkward, thinking “Now everyone knows”.  But staff and were incredibly warm and welcoming, happy to see me back, which put me at ease immediately. Staff engaged me in conversations of their own experiences, seeking advice at times. Others carried on treating me no differently. It was scary walking through the door that first day, but soon I felt liberated knowing that I had no longer had a mask to wear, nothing to hide.

In retrospect, working with a mental illness in secret was much harder , always afraid what would happen when I became ill, how my team would see me, and how I would explain my ‘eccentricities’.  Now that I have been “out” and stable for over three years, I am no longer afraid of stigma at work.  I have proven to myself that I am just as able to be a success as any other. I have more confidence in myself as a professional, a leader, and a mental health clinician than I did before disclosing. I talk freely with my colleagues and patients just as a nurse would share if she also has diabetes while teaching a patient to monitor their own blood sugars. Disclosing at work was for me one of the best ways to create a support network and forge new friendships.

So many of us who work in mental health chose this field because we have been touched in some way by mental illness.  Remember that we are in this together. If we let go of the stigma we project onto ourselves and each other, and start having those initially tough conversations, they will get easier. Those with mental illness will start to feel ‘normal’ and stop being fearful of disclosing. If we who work in mental health are not willing to talk about our own, then we are perpetuating the very stigma we should be fighting.  Sharing isn’t easy, and not everyone may be ready.  A couple years ago I thought I would never disclose.  But if publicly sharing my mental health history today can make a difference, if it can help even one person feel less alone, then I am more than happy to say that I have a mental illness, and yes, we can talk about it. You don’t have to whisper my diagnosis, you don’t have to close my office door to talk to me about it, I am not ashamed. 

Comments

Thanks for sharing your experience! I work in mental health as a social worker and have had a similar experience. We think that our field, or the field of health care in general, would be the most understanding and in some places it is but in others it is not. I too found it better when I revealed it and found my supervisor to be supportive. I think it also helped some of my co-workers better understand me and I too had people come to me after that and share their experiences too. I am diagnosed with Bipolar II and am happy to share the 'coming out' experience too!

Thanks,

Jennifer

Thanks for your comments. Most people are so scared to disclose their illness - they think stigma will change everyone's opinion of them. I realized that the stigma i felt was coming from inside - i was stigmatizing myself by obsessing about how everyone would suddenly view me so differently. Once i disclosed, i suddenly realized that everyone either has a mental illness themselves, or has a loved one with a mental illness so why would they suddenly judge me so differently? Besides, next week something else will happen at work and my mental illness disclosure will be old news. I am so glad i got over my fears.

You are lucky. I hope one day we will be able to talk about our mental diagnoses so open and shameless as talking about any other health problem. I had a sadly experience about coming out. I work in the independent film industry. I was working on the preproduction of a film and I talk about my diagnosis with the director and the producer. A couple of weeks later, I had a little batch because of the medication and they fired me. It was very frustrating, nowadays I feel I can not share and be honest any more in further projects. I guess they would not fired me if I had just lied and tell them I was down because I broke up with my boyfriend. I would never know. But it made me rethink about coming out. Lots of love. Thanks for giving me hope that stigma can still be overcome.

Thanks for sharing your story. I find it so hard to understand how stigma is still so strong but I've lived and breathed mental illness and health for 10 years... even work in psychiatry. .. I'm so open about it that I sometimes forget how scary it is for others to come out. Lots of love right back at ya.

I wish my experience with "coming out" at work had been more positive. I was the Director of Nursing Services at a large Assisted Living community when I was diagnosed, and I kept it to myself because my boss's attitude in life was along the lines of "Life's tough, wear a helmet".

Then I had a manic episode that I couldn't hide and got sent home....that was the end of keeping my illness a secret. Less than a year later, I had a horrendous mixed episode that caused me to go out on medical leave for three weeks in lieu of hospitalization. When I returned, I was fired because my employer "couldn't" make the accommodations my doctor and I requested, and I couldn't work without them. So I got burned badly, and my career really has never recovered.

That's why I stay quiet about my diagnosis in the workplace, or did until I was terminated from my last job. I'm filing for disability now because I don't seem to be able to handle a job anymore. I'm 55 and don't know what else to do. So I keep looking half-heartedly for another job because that's what society expects me to do, and hope for the best when my SSDI case goes to the people who make the decisions. In any case, I will never disclose my illness to an employer again even if I do manage to find a position I can handle.

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