To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

Posted by Stephen / on 08/01/2011 / 2 Comments

The ultimate question in any relationship whether it is a professional or private one; if and when do I let this person know I face mental health challenges?

In a perfect world disclosure would be as simple as you make the statement, they ask a few questions, you answer and everyone continues on viewing each other as they did before but with a new level of understanding and appreciation for one another. Unfortunately that utopia has yet to exist which leaves us with the sometimes overwhelming complexities of disclosure.

Things to consider:

1) Does disclosure have the potential of benefiting BOTH myself and the other individual?

As the one facing the challenge it can be easy to get caught up in a one-sided mindset of how disclosure would benefit or hurt us. However, disclosure involves another person and therefore can be detrimental or beneficial to them as well.

Let's say you have a supervisor you work well with and they often tell you how glad they are you are in their department. Issues begin to rise up with your challenges and this supervisor calls you in to ask you what is happening. You disclose that you face mental health challenges and receive the type of response you expect from such a great supervisor. Is this a beneficial disclosure for both of you? It may not be.

The supervisor may have to report to a not very understanding Human Resources department about your challenges and they may decide to terminate your employment for not disclosing on your application. Now you are out of a job and your supervisor has lost one of their best staff members.

By no means is this always the case, but the example does help to identify aspects of disclosure that should be taken into consideration.

2) Do not be in a hurry to disclose mental health challenges.

Whether it is in the workplace or with a friend take the time to gather information on what type of a reaction you might get. Read through company policies, review employee assistance programs or listen to jokes by the water cooler. Find anything that will help educate you on the mindset of not just the person you would disclose to but also the people who are in authority over them.

Even though we can't see into the future of how people will react, by taking the time to have a general idea of what to expect we can be better prepared to be at our best.

3) Do I wait for problems to arise before disclosing?

It is common training for managers to start even a negative employee review with something positive. The idea being that it helps the employee take the criticism as constructive so that it is motivating and not discouraging. The same principle applies to disclosure. If possible, it is best to disclose your challenges when your employer or friend is not having issues with you.

However, even if you are in the midst of struggles there is nothing wrong with reminding the other person why you are a valued employee or friend. Just as a wonderful coping skill is to remind yourself of your successes as you struggle with some set-backs, you can remind others as well. This also helps reinforce that you have a challenge not that the challenge has you.

4) Well received disclosures do not automatically make advocates.

Often times we are so relieved to have the weight of disclosure lifted there is a tendency to think we have a new advocate in our corner. Every conversation becomes a mental health one, or every inappropriate joke gets reported to the boss, etc.

The truth is that the average person is not looking for a cause to join, especially in the workplace. Be sensitive to the types of questions they ask and try to accurately gage how involved they want to be in this aspect of your life. The average person willing to accept that you have these challenges is only willing to share in them so far. It is important to respect that.

5) Not all disclosures are going to be successful.

Just as in the example, disclosure can often end in loss and hurt feelings. It is important to remember that your efforts to accomplish a successful disclosure are worthwhile but that it is ultimately up to the other party how they will react. That means it is not a failure on your part if an employer pushes you out or a friend fades away.

Everybody faces challenges of different types in their lives. Just as we have to be responsible with our challenges in what type of jobs we choose or friends we keep, others have the same responsibility. It does not mean we failed if a disclosure goes wrong.

The simple fact is there is still a lot to be done in reducing the stigma which makes disclosure such a complex issue. However, I am confident the day will come when it won't be this way.



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  • S. says:

    My son would place many many of applications for jobs when he was NOT working. This topic was conflicted as some government agencies that told him "Not to tell, others said you let employers know up front". He would often handle it depending and how comfortable he was at the time with these employers or possible employers. However Marie Callendar terminated him right after the Lyon's shooting in Grass Valley, as he was late for work and hadn't called. Robert was involved with filing a police report for a break-in on his truck and had not called his employer to let them know he would be late, that gave them care. The manager that was his boss was also not there that morning when Robert was let go. That Manager told Robert had he been there he would NOT have let him go as he knew Robert was usually a great employee and also know that Robert had mental problems as he had worked there for about 4 years prior to that morning. The Lyon's shooting in Grass Valley scared the other manager.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:22 AM | Permalink

  • Stephen says:

    S. Neal
    In the video posted under "Links of the Week" one of the people speaking says this great phrase: "What someone thinks about mental illness can be more damaging than the illness itself." I think that applies to the situation you have described in your comment.

    August 4, 2011 at 10:45 AM | Permalink


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