It would be ideal if everyone understood mental illness and had no prejudices against people with them, but this just isn’t the case.
Bias, stereotyping, and mistreatment still occur, and sometimes you might decide it’s best not to share your diagnosis with some people. But how to decide?
First off, you don’t have to. You have the right to keep your medical status private. In addition, federal law usually prevents employers from asking you if you have a history of mental illness when you apply for a job (there are exceptions for certain jobs, like law enforcement and armed services). Employers can ask you about drug/alcohol abuse, but not about legitimate use of prescription medications.
A job interview is not usually the best time to tell people. If you get the job, then you can get to know the people and the situation, then decide if it’s in your best interest to tell them.
Some questions that might help you make your decision are:
- Is there a reason for them to know? If you need special accommodations, like a flexible schedule at work so you can see your therapist, etc., this could be a good reason to tell your employer. You cannot be fired for telling them of your illness, though employers have the right to ask for a letter from your doctor or other documentation. (The employer has to keep this information confidential, they aren’t allowed to tell your coworkers.)
- Is the person likely to find out anyway?
- How understanding do I think they would be?
- Will it make things easier for me if they know?
- Have I known them long enough to tell them this kind of personal information?
- What are the risks of my telling the person? What could go wrong?
- How well can I handle it if the person judges me as a result of telling them?
- If I don’t want to tell them, do I think I can continue to maintain it as a secret, even if I have to lie?
You may want to ask someone you know and trust what their opinion is of whether they think you should talk about your illness.
When you approach the conversation about your illness, decide how specific you want to be:
- very general: refer to a “medical condition” or “illness”
- a little specific: refer to a “neurological problem,” a “brain disorder,” or “difficulty with stress”
- more specific: mention “mental illness” or a “mental disorder”
- most specific: give them your exact diagnosis
Pick a quiet time without a lot of distractions if possible. Tell them you want to talk briefly about something important. Think about what information will be helpful for them to know. Use that to help you decide what details you want to tell them.
You might want to make a comparison to diabetes–it can be well-treated with medications. Finally, remember to remind them of who you are as a person–this will help them remember that you are not your illness.
It’s not a bad idea to practice this, to do a role-play with a friend or family member who already knows about your illness so you can try it out.
Introduce the topic with something like, “I wanted to let you know about a challenge I have. I have a mental illness. It’s not like in the movies, I’m not a criminal or scary or anything. But sometimes the symptoms of my illness get more severe, and then (you might notice I’m very quiet/I might have to take some sick leave/I might have a harder time getting things done).”
Tell them as much as you’re comfortable with and as much as they need to know. Be ready to answer questions, and be ready to refuse to answer questions if they get too personal for you.