Mental Health Disability Disclosure at Work: A Candid Discussion of Why We Don’t Disclose Part 1

Over the years, many employers have shared their struggles with getting employees with mental health disabilities to identify as an individual with a disability. They have increased opportunities to identify and run campaigns to ensure employees know they are encouraged to disclose. Yet, employees still hesitate to identify due to a perception that if they disclose their mental health disability their colleagues and managers will view them differently.

For people living with mental health disability, they likely have observed how others talk about, or conversely don’t talk about, mental health. Employees who have been exposed to mental health stigma or witnessed someone being treated differently due to a diagnosed or perceived mental health disability, likely will not feel comfortable approaching their employer about their mental health disability.

Employee Concern: What would you say if I told you I have a mental health disability? Would what you think about me change?

I personally have experienced panic attacks since I was in my late teens, following first the loss of my grandmother and then the suicide of a beloved cousin. I will never forget the first time I knowingly experienced a panic attack. I was sitting on the sofa in my living room having a discussion about some trivial matter or another with my mother when suddenly it felt like someone clamped a vice around my heart and started to squeeze. I lost my breath, saw spots dancing in front of my face, and couldn’t speak for several moments. That being said, I was one of the lucky ones when that first attack happened. My mother had experience with panic attacks and was able to explain to me what happened and share with me some of the tips her doctor had shared with her. Whether it was because I finally knew what I was experiencing or because of the stress I was carrying around at the time, it seemed like once I had that first one, I had panic attacks all the time. Afterwards, I always felt so drained. My chest and back muscles would ache. I used to describe it as feeling like someone hit me in the back with a load of bricks. It was exhausting. Not understanding what was causing the attacks was equally exhausting.

It didn’t matter if the situation was stressful or not – I could as easily have a panic attack while writing a research paper as I could while taking a bubble bath. Intense emotions could trigger a panic attack – including emotions like happiness or joy. I became afraid of experiencing any strong emotion and adept at finding ways to push those experiences away – even good ones. One time I had a panic attack hit me so hard I had to sit down in the aisle while out shopping at a bookstore with a friend and fellow bookworm. To this day, one of the times I most frequently have panic attacks is at night when I am sleeping. Conversely, while being in a car triggers anxiety for me, I have never had a panic attack during a flight or while on a roller coaster. Back then, I had no sense of what might trigger the attack and hadn’t experienced them enough to understand the warning signs that I might have one. Now, I better understand that things like a lack of a good night’s sleep can trigger an attack.

One of the first things I noticed was that people asked me questions and made decisions for me that they didn’t do for others. They’d decide for me that they weren’t going to ask me if I wanted to do something or be a part of something because it might be too stressful for me. Instead of talking to me about it, they would decide for me. Their decision often left me out. This happened for me at home, at school, at work, and with my friends. I learned quickly that if I had a panic attack in private that I could more easily move through the situation than if I was around people. The reason? Dealing with other people while trying to manage the symptoms of my panic attack was more difficult than experiencing the panic attack itself.

I had to address their anxiety and concerns before I could address my own. People would hover over me asking what they could do, as if there was some magic wand they could wave to end the panic attack. I realize that people feel helpless during these situations and want to support me, but this support is almost always “me-centric.” Their own needs to feel useful or have their own fears soothed often becomes more important than giving me what I asked for, which was simply space.

I got used to having well-meaning people say things to me like, “I hate when you have a panic attack because I don’t know what to do,” or “Isn’t there something you can do or take to make them stop?” As if I was doing something to them, rather than experiencing something that was both painful and scary in its own right. Less kindly, I would hear, “Do you always need to make a big deal out of every little thing?” Other times it would be whispers of, “she is so weird” or “what’s wrong with her?”

In fact, worrying about what could happen if I had a panic attack in front of others became its own source of stress that could lead to having an attack. It wasn’t even just what people said, it was that people thought they had a right to touch me because I was experiencing a panic attack. Some people would rub or pat my back or arm, while others would try to hug me. While this might be helpful for some people, consent is an important consideration when offering comfort. For me, having someone I knew rubbing my back would make me uncomfortable, let alone a stranger hugging me, increasing the feelings of being suffocated that can accompany a panic attack.

The more I experienced the reactions of others, the more I tried to hide my panic attacks. I would excuse myself to a bathroom or go find something I “forgot” in my car. I’ve sat through many meetings, lessons, bus rides, movies, and parties silently suffering – knowing that my panic attack would be worse if others knew it was occurring. Being seen sometimes as grumpy, cranky, or low energy on occasion was preferable to the response I would receive when I disclosed a panic attack. Even as I grew to understand disability civil rights and spoke more openly about what I have experienced, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve disclosed my mental health experiences and not experienced a change in how that person responds to or treats me.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearing on two years ago now, I have had so many more people talk to me about experiencing a panic attack. So many people have lost loved ones, had their lives uprooted multiple times, lost employment, or just struggled with feelings of isolation. COVID-19 has affected sleeping, eating and exercise habits, work routines, and daily living. It has also polarized people over political beliefs that impact how they respond to COVID-19. All of these things add up to create new and different stressors. Most of the people I talk to don’t know what is happening to them, don’t know how to get help, and are scared of what will happen if they do.

It is time we make a change in how we look at mental health. I’m lucky to have a CEO who cares about this subject and serves on the board of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. We need to create a society where people are able to identify when they need help, how to get help, and feel empowered to speak about their mental wellness concerns. We need more leaders who will stand up to make a difference by speaking about mental health disabilities.

I have been blessed in the past year and a half to work with Colette White and Mary Brougher on creating mental wellness programming that focuses on this critical health area from a different perspective – one where mental wellness is seen as a part of overall wellness and routines and strategies are identified that every person, no matter their background, job role, or mental health understanding, can do to build their mental fitness muscles. Before we lost Mary due to a hiking accident, she often spoke about the importance of providing programming like this to everybody. This is something that isn’t just for people currently experiencing a mental health concern – it is for everybody.

I am looking forward to sharing more about the iMindCafe, our mental health program, planned to be released later in 2022 as we continue our discussion on self-disclosure. It is my hope that speaking openly about the concerns about disclosure will help to change how we view disclosure and that programming, like our iMindCafe product, will help change how people view having conversations about mental health.

Guest blog submitted by Sherry Lapaglia – Director, Talent Programs and Product Innovation