Mental Health Disability Disclosure at Work: A Candid Discussion of Why We Don’t Disclose Part 3

As we continue the discussion of why employees living with mental health disabilities aren’t comfortable disclosing their disability, I want to focus on understanding that mental health really is a disability.

Employee Concern: People think I’m making it up.

When it comes to mental health, people can’t see it, so they don’t always believe it. Even if you do have documentation, people struggle to put their biases and preconceived notions aside and focus on what they should – providing accommodations to ensure job equity.

As with many other nonapparent disabilities, people with mental health disabilities are often dismissed when disclosing. There is so much stigma around mental health, that the gut instinct is for people to want to assure you that you aren’t one of “those people.” You come to expect to hear some iteration of the following statements when disclosing:

  • “You don’t look like there is something wrong with you. I would have never guessed.”
  • “But you always seem so happy.”
  • “You just need to try harder, not give up so easy, or be more positive.”
  • “This is just a stage – you’ll grow out of it.”
  • “Everybody feels sad sometimes. You’ll be fine.”

Yes, all of these are things that people actually say when learning a friend, family member, or colleague share that they have a mental health disability. At work, we don’t have to disclose anything to learn how those we interact with feel about mental health disabilities. People say things every day that underscore that mental health disability is something to laugh, scoff at, or be used to describe passing moods or habits. This type of language minimizes what are serious health conditions:

  • “I like to keep my desk organized. I’m a little OCD like that.”
  • “You never know how he’s going to react when you ask for his help on a project. He is so bi-polar.”
  • “That customer was so angry – he was a total psycho.”
  • “Our boss is a total nut-job. She’s crazy if she thinks we can meet that deadline.”
  • “I’m so depressed I have to work this weekend. They are releasing the next season of my show on Netflix.”

As an avid reader and creative writing graduate, I love a good metaphor, but equating being startled to a panic attack is the equivalency of equating a paper cut to an amputation. It demonstrates that people believe that mental health is trivial. If you are struggling to see the relation here, I understand. I have been known to say that my favorite ice cream flavor is “crazy good” or that if you keep talking about needles, I’m going to “have a panic attack.” Though to be fair, as someone who has panic attacks, talking about needles enough might actually trigger one if I’m not careful.

Putting the two together really didn’t hit home for me until someone I was close to started sharing concerns about mental health. I watched this person be fed the same rhetoric I had growing up and I started advocating that if they said they needed help, then they should be allowed to do so. That it wasn’t just that they were “being dramatic” or a “bit of a hypochondriac.” This person was indeed experiencing real signs of mental health disability and did need the help. She has gone on to be a mental health advocate and was the person to bring how casual use of these terms impact people with mental health disabilities. It is so easy to dismiss these things by saying “I don’t mean anything by it” or “don’t be so sensitive.” However, we must remember that words have power. They have power to promote or reduce stigma, ableism, and discrimination. When we say these things, we promote the belief that mental health is not important, and that they aren’t important. Just like we tell them to “get over” their mental health disability, we tell them to “get over” being hurt. We reinforce that we don’t believe mental health disability is serious and we reinforce the idea that they are in it by themselves.

I can remember being told by friends to “snap out of it” and family that I was just “experiencing growing pains.” I was also taught to believe I wasn’t “sick enough” to warrant connecting with mental health professionals and that mental health was really “just a state of mind” and I could “will myself to feel better.”

There were two categories I was exposed to – those who could get over it and those who were locked up. I don’t say this to minimalize the experience of those who need the around the clock care provided by mental health programs and facilities, but to underscore that getting help was defined as something super scary to me from a young age. These stories came from a mix of fact and fiction, as my grandmother was institutionalized for a period of time in the late 50’s or early 60’s. Learning about her experiences were akin to stories about the boogie man, except in these stories the boogie man was real.

All of these have become barriers, not only to talking openly about mental health, but to seeking help from professionals. I can use this lifelong rhetoric to convince myself that I can get by for a just a little longer or that these issues will resolve themselves if I just give it time. However, I know, as anybody else who deals with mental health struggles, that it doesn’t work like that. I’ve become the first person who urges someone I care about to get help, while being the last person to get that help for myself. After all, I can get by.

There are so many people out there that are experiencing mental health concerns, especially since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. So many people that, like me, are capable of convincing themselves that they can get by but aren’t living their lives at their full potential because they are experiencing something that is beyond their control.

At work we are told to disclose our disability because that is the first step in getting accommodations. The second step is documentation. However, how do you get past that for many people experiencing mental health concerns, they haven’t even gotten to the stage of getting help?

People with mental health disabilities, we test the water. We admit to maybe feeling a bit run down or not like ourselves. We wait to see what the response will be. We see the eye rolls and the dismissive expressions. More often than not, our concerns are dismissed. Each time this happens, it underscores the feeling that nobody will believe us.

We notice that those who disclose in the workplace have to go through an arduous process where accommodations have to be fought for. We notice that even when accommodations are granted, that people act like it is special treatment. We wonder if it is worth it when so little changes and we can “just get by” as many of us have for years and years. There is really no incentive to disclose in the workplace for people living with mental health disabilities. There is little evidence that things get better. Our trust is expected, with no reason to believe that trust is warranted.

The conversation around mental health needs to change. If employers want to be seen as trustworthy, they need to be a part of what creates that change. Steps need to be taken beyond just saying mental health is important. That’s akin to a pat on the head and a lollipop. It changes nothing. It means nothing, especially when day-to-day employees and supervisors see it as something they have to talk about and not something they want to talk about. Leaders need to put themselves out there and talk about their mental health journey. Right now, many won’t. They won’t because they don’t want to be viewed as a lesser leader among their peers or weak to their workforce. Accommodations need to be seen as ways to partner in an employee’s success and not a legal burden.

Real steps need to be taken to change these perceptions, not just of mental health in the workplace, but mental health perception at a global level. That’s why I’m so excited to be a part of the team developing our iMindCafe™ mental fitness program. It changes the dialogue. Mental health is as real as physical health and it needs to be attended to, just like physical health. It gives real advice and tangible actions to take. Saying you need help, is no different than seeing a specialist for any other health concern. No boogie men invited.