May is Mental Health Awareness Month (Week in the UK). My company’s Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee tried to promote it and mental health support, but I only saw a few posts about it on our Workplace channel. I helped my department launch a campaign for mental health awareness, but I am sad that few people participated. I was the only one to make an individual post in support of the campaign. Now I’m unsettled because maybe my peers assume that I have a mental illness because I showed more support than others, and it feels like I’m standing out too much.
It’s true that I have serious mental illnesses. I share about my bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety here and on my social media channel. So if I’m putting my SMIs out in the web universe, why does this bother me? Am I a fraud because I’m nervous sharing any of this with coworkers? Am I contradicting what I stand for?
I think I am all of those things, but here are the excuses I tell myself when I shy away from talking about mental health in the workplace.
People Don’t Understand Mental Illness
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2020), 13.1 million U.S. adults have SMI diagnoses. While that’s 5.2% of the adult population, it doesn’t mean understanding and recognition is growing at the same rate.
SMIs take many forms. Some people can be high-functioning, hiding their SMIs from others while they control their symptoms with medicine, therapy, and self-care. I don’t believe that you can be “healed” from an SMI. Rather, like a cancer of your brain synapses and chemistry, you can go into remission. That doesn’t mean that you’re healed; it means that you’re not showing symptoms.
Yes, SMIs are being discussed more than ever, but the stigma remains. From misrepresentation in the media to stereotypes about mental health, there are so many assumptions about what SMIs look like:
- Uncontrolled anger
- Irrational behavior
Those are just a few of the assumptions that I’ve heard, and I know there are more. The stigma of SMIs is deafening, and it prevents more people from disclosing their diagnoses.
Disclosing Mental Illness at Work
I’ve been in the professional workforce for nearly 17 years now, and one of the things I’ve carried with me from the beginning is that I’m a failure and a liability if I show too much emotion. Emotion equals weakness, and weakness equals stagnation. But what happens when emotions are tied to SMIs that, at times, have been out of control?
When I had a breakdown in August 2020, I was terrified of taking vacation time. We were in the middle of a pandemic, and who takes a vacation from work then? I was hanging onto my job with my fingernails, even while I had multiple panic attacks daily. Despite hearing that my UK counterparts were taking 4-week-long holidays, people in the U.S. didn’t do that. My boss worked 12+ hours a day, so I needed to do the same. But when I couldn’t function anymore, I knew I needed time off.
So, I made the decision to talk to my doctor about taking a mandatory leave. She agreed. I should have taken more than 10 days, but I refused to allow myself more. My boss stopped me from sharing too much information with her because of privacy laws, so I focused on HR and my doctor shared only the most pertinent information.
I felt forced into a corner to take those steps because I wanted to protect my position at the company. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents firing because of medical leave like mine, and I was afraid of retribution because I was taking time off.
But that’s a bit irrational right? My company was pitching the boilerplate language of self-care, work/life balance, and taking time away. People in other countries were taking PTO and seemed fine with it. But that wasn’t what I knew. After all, wasn’t my boss working tons of hours? Why would I show weakness like that?
I don’t talk about taking that medical leave. I didn’t share why I needed the time. I needed more time, but again, I didn’t want to be weak.
Some things have changed since that time. I have a new boss who actively encourages taking time off. I do the same for my direct reports. The world seems more attuned to mental health in some ways. But, stigma remains. People remain quiet. And I question my actions.
When will we move forward? When will we normalize conversations about SMIs? When will we change the narrative?