Last Updated on March 22, 2021 by Morris Green
If you are currently living with a mental illness, it’s important to know how to advocate for yourself and your needs. This can mean educating friends and family about your illness and your needs, speaking up for yourself to your healthcare team, and, sometimes, choosing to tell your manager or human resources department about your mental illness.
In the right workplace, disclosure of your mental illness will be kept private and may lead to better support and accommodations on the job. But is it the right move for you at your job? Let’s look at some of the potential benefits and challenges.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a law that prohibits discrimination against Americans with disabilities in many different areas of public life. Protection under the ADA falls under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which specifically covers how Americans with disabilities are treated at the workplace.
According to the EEOC, an employer may not ask you about any physical or mental disabilities you may have–meaning if you don’t want to disclose your mental illness to your employer, you will never have to. It also means that your employer cannot fire you or treat you unfavorably based on your disability.
However, the EEOC is not perfect, and often does not help people with disabilities as much as it should. Filing a complaint with the EEOC often takes time and energy that people with disabilities lack, and it’s difficult to prove definitively that a person is being discriminated against because of their disability.
While you never have to disclose your mental illness to your employer for any reason, you may want to if you think you may benefit from extra support from your manager or HR team.
The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health lists these examples of accommodations you might request to help work despite your mental illness:
Providing self-paced workloads and flexible hours
Adjusting your job responsibilities
Allowing leave (paid or unpaid) if you are hospitalized or temporarily unable to work
Assigning a flexible, supportive, and understanding supervisor
Changing your work hours to allow you to attend psychiatrist or therapist appointments
Providing more support or supervision, such as writing to-do lists and checking in more often with your supervisor
The website also says, “An employer does not have to provide these specific accommodations, but these types of accommodations are often considered reasonable for some jobs.” While this is a good list of the types of accommodations you could ask for, there is no guarantee that your employer will say yes. The EEOC says that an employer can refuse to meet accommodations if they would be “too difficult or too expensive” to provide.
Stigma in the workplace
The biggest barrier to disclosing a mental illness in the workplace is stigma–the negative beliefs that your coworkers or managers might have about people with mental illnesses. Studies have shown that sometimes, people see those with mental illnesses as dangerous, violent, unpredictable, and emotional. This prejudice exists despite research showing that those with mental illness does not make someone more likely to be violent–and, in fact, makes one more likely to be a victim of violent crime.
Stigma about mental illness can lead to several negative consequences at work (even despite the EEOC):
- Lower wages
- Difficult relationship with coworkers and supervisors
- Fewer advancement opportunities
- Job loss
That said, some surveys have shown that mental health stigma is getting better. People report that they are more likely to talk about their illness with a friend, family member, or therapist–and as more people talk about their experiences with mental illnesses, the stigma will continue to decrease.
A calculated risk
I’m writing this article as a mental health writer and advocate with lived experience managing multiple mental illnesses. I don’t just talk about my mental health on the job–it is my job!
Since it’s something I’m passionate about, I would love to be able to freely encourage everyone reading this to disclose their mental illnesses to their employers. The more we all talk about mental health at our workplaces, the more we can break down barriers for ourselves and others. Plus, you deserve to have reasonable accommodations at your job that help your mental stability–and, often, make you more productive at work.
However, I know I have only been able to pursue this career because of other household income. I’m grateful that my risk paid off–but not everyone has that opportunity.
There is no right or wrong answer to whether you should or should not disclose your mental illness, because every situation is unique.
As stigma about mental illness continues to decrease, more and more people are willing to speak up about their mental illness at work. If this is something your work is already used to, you may find that your supervisor and/or coworkers are empathetic and supportive when you disclose. And even if you are the first person on the job to speak up about it, there’s a decent chance you’re not the only one at your work that could benefit from reasonable accommodations. Your bravery may help give others the confidence to advocate for their needs!
However, while disclosing your mental illness at work should not come at any personal risk to you, it often does anyway. You should carefully consider the potential consequences of disclosure against the potential benefits and accommodations you might receive.