When to Disclose Your Mental Health Issues (And When Not To)

anxious woman at conference table with co-workers

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues. It can be hard to determine when it’s the right time to talk about your conditions, and when it’s the right time to sit back and stay tight-lipped. How do you decide?

In the Workplace

My clients often discuss the challenges of dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. They sometimes ask, “Should I tell my employer about my depression?” A lot of times, it depends.

There are some positive signs that might foreshadow a favorable reaction when it comes to talking to your employer about your mental health. The first question I always ask my clients is, “What do you expect or stand to gain from making this disclosure?” Sometimes the answer is direct and concrete, such as more time to complete an assignment or task. Other times it might be about being able to schedule a break in the work day to make a weekly therapy or doctor appointment.

Most states require privacy when it comes to health information. This means having a mental health diagnosis (a medical condition) affords you certain protections. One of them is privacy. If you decide to talk to your employer about your mental health status, they have an ethical and legal responsibility to keep the information secure.

Nonetheless, we all know gossip and office politics are a part of a lot of work environments. That is an unfortunate reality, but a reality. The biggest sign that your company can handle your disclosure responsibly is if there is a clear human resources department or representative.

The reason why this is so important is two-fold. The first is that talking with a human resources representative may allow you to speak more freely if you’re uncomfortable talking with your supervisor directly. Also, they are bound by law to help you navigate and manage your condition in the workplace. This may mean making some accommodations like time off for appointments or being able to work from home on occasion without fear of reprisal.

Human Resources can only share information with people who need to know in order to make the necessary accommodations. This means they won’t legally be able to share your health information with other co-workers, aside from your direct supervisor. If they do share your information with others, you may want to consider consulting an attorney.

With some jobs (with smaller teams), you may not have access to a Human Resources department or representative. In those environments, you take a greater risk that the person you disclose to is not familiar with the legal requirements of handling this information ethically. While most employers are going to be as accommodating as they can be, they may be less adept at handling your disclosure in the way that meets your needs.

The reality is that there is no guarantee of protection when disclosing your status. Sometimes even an accidental slip of the tongue might occur among colleagues. Hopefully, that’s not the case, but having a Human Resources department to rely on for support is the best case scenario.

If you don’t have the option of utilizing an HR department, then use your best judgment when considering talking with your direct supervisor. You might want to consider how they relate to medical and mental health issues. Have they been gossipy about others’ health concerns in the past? What have been their reactions to conversations about sick days and general mental wellness? Have they seemed supportive of people’s challenges in the workplace? Do they talk about emotional wellness at all? The answers to these questions might give you pause; find out whether your supervisor can be trusted with such information.

In the event that you have to deal with an emotional crisis, hospitalization or rehab, you will also want to know your company’s policy on that. When you are hired, make sure to review your company’s handbook about health and mental health issues. Do they spell out a specific protocol to address these concerns? If they do, you likely have a supportive workplace. If not, you may have to dig a little further to determine how safe your disclosure really is.

Dating

“I like long walks on the beach and watching baseball games on the big screen. I also live with social anxiety.”

Should that be on your online dating profile?

Maybe. Maybe not.

There’s no doubt that dating is tough, and most dating nowadays takes place online. When I speak to clients about dating, we often talk about what to include in online profiles or not. Should you include a bit about a health condition you live with? You may want to wait on that.

The reality is that online dating is about first impressions. If your first impression speaks of your emotional health, some people may not know what to do with that. In a world that prizes speed and efficiency, you may not get the right-swipes you’re hoping for. It’s not fair, but the reality is that people swipe left for far less these days.

Given that, you may only want to consider speaking about your diagnosis when you know someone a little better. If you’re concerned about being pigeon-holed based on your diagnosis, you may want to consider giving it a few meetings before you talk about your mental health.

On the other hand, some people often speak about their mental illness and want to highlight that as a part of their day-to-day lives. If you’re a mental health or disability activist, you may want to speak more candidly about your mental health early on. You might be the subject of an internet search before you meet anyway. If you talk about depression or mental health online, people are going to make assumptions and judgments based on what you share.

Sharing early on in dating is going to give you a jump on managing perceptions about your condition and how it impacts you. This is not without risk, but it may be more your style, and that’s completely OK. How or when you choose to disclose is up to you.

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With Friends and Family

While friends and family can often be our biggest sources of support, it can be nerve wracking to think about sharing our challenges with them. When we feel we are not meeting their expectations (and feel disappointed in ourselves) it can be hard to think about sharing our problems. But, in the end, it may be the best step to take.

Barring any extenuating circumstances, sharing your mental illness with friends and family members can be a complete game-changer. Often, we don’t understand how our conditions or concerns affect our relationships with others. The reality is, sometimes neither do the people in our lives.

I’ve talked with a lot of clients about their perceptions of their loved ones and their behavior. This discussion often comes with a self-critical lens. Sometimes our self-perception mirrors the interpersonal feedback we receive from those around us. More often than not, the people around us don’t understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness.

Being able to speak openly with friends and family about your challenges, effort, and progress might help put a more realistic context on their expectations and perceptions of you. Ultimately, this will allow them to make a fully-informed decision about how they can best support you and create space for themselves.

It’s difficult to discern when might be the right time to open up about your mental illness. It is also very scary. Talking with a therapist can help you sort out specific circumstances and find the best ways to make conversations about mental health productive for you. Being more open might be the key to getting the support you actually need.

Read about how Talkspace is helping businesses offer mental health care to employees.

Published by

Jor-El Caraballo

Talkspace Therapist