Disclosing your mental illness to other people is a huge decision. You have to consider not only whether your friends/employers will support you after you disclose, but also how and when to do so.
I tend to disclose within the first or second meeting, before I’m even attached to a friend. I am open about my bipolar disorder to almost everyone I meet.
Bipolar disorder is just a label; it’s a part of my life but it isn’t everything, and it explains why I’m sometimes unpredictable. And I have a strong support system, so I have little to lose by disclosing.
For further reading on how I became more comfortable sharing my bipolar diagnosis, click here.
I live in a liberal area of the U.S. and have had various reactions to my admitting that I have bipolar disorder, most of which were positive but some of which were disheartening. There are often three ways that friends and family react:
- They are comfortable with your disclosure, nothing changes for the worse, and sometimes they’re better at supporting you.
- They are incredibly uncomfortable and take steps to end the relationship with you.
- They say that they are comfortable with you telling them this and then proceed to fade slowly from your life.
Obviously the first outcome is the best and most hoped for. While ending relationships are a concern, it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t have been able to support you anyway, so it’s probably best that they disappear from your life.
When to Disclose Your Mental Illness
Telling someone about your mental illness takes a lot of courage. And you don’t have to tell anyone right away–or at all. Not everyone can live as openly as I do.
If you want to tell someone about your mental illness, tell them when:
- You are well. You don’t want to wait until a mental health crisis hits to disclose to your friends that you have a mental illness. Disclosing when you’ve got your illness under control will give the people you disclose to time to adjust to the fact that you suffer from a disorder.
- When you need people to understand. Sometimes, people who suffer from mental illnesses need special accommodations at work or school. Letting friends know the reason behind why you don’t want to hang out with them during a depressive spiral can prevent them from thinking you’ve grown distant. Telling people you have a mental illness is better when it serves a purpose.
- When you’re ready. Disclosing your mental illness to friends, family, or even an employer is an intensely personal decision. Write down exactly what you want to say, and practice your words, either in front of the mirror or with a licensed professional. Talking to a therapist about your concerns may help put your mind at ease.
Although the “perfect” time to disclose depends on your relationship to the person and whether you’re well, honesty is almost always the best policy.
People don’t “need” to know that you’re mentally ill. Disclosing is your decision alone. But it may help explain some of your more erratic behaviors to the people you impact with them, which may help them give you grace when you suffer mood episodes.
When you choose to disclose is up to you. I’ve personally found that letting people know upfront that I have challenges they (usually) don’t is beneficial to both of us.
And if you’re dating someone, it’s always best to disclose that you have mood episodes sooner rather than later. For a more specific post on when to disclose your mental illness to your dates, click here.
Now that you know when to disclose, how do you do it?
4 General Tips on How to Disclose Your Mental Illness
You may have been curious to know how to disclose your mental illness to the people around you. Here are some tips to do just that.
1. Bring Your Disorder up in Casual Conversation
When I disclose my mental illness, I tend to bring it up in casual, low-stakes conversation.
If a potential parent friend asks about my children, I tell them a few facts about them (I have two, these are their names and ages, blah blah blah). Then I sometimes mention that the baby years were especially difficult because the sleep deprivation tended to make me manic, because I have bipolar disorder.
Despite its massive effect on my life, treating the illness as just something I have to deal with on a regular basis helps me.
I try not to trivialize the disorder–which is why I also sometimes bring up my postpartum psychotic break and how serious and painful it was–but I also tend to talk about my disorder as just a part of me.
This strategy normalizes the mental illness and allows you to determine the terms of how others perceive your bipolar disorder. If you treat the illness seriously but with grace, then other people may as well.
2. Describe the Steps You’re Taking to Manage Your Condition
Bipolar disorder is only as shocking as you allow it to be.
If you describe your bipolar disorder as this awful, paralyzing albatross, then both you and the person you’re talking to will form an opinion of you as being ravaged by your disorder and out of control.
Don’t let bipolar disorder rule your life even in the way you talk about it.
Try to describe the steps you’re taking to manage your bipolar disorder. Try to say things like, “I have bipolar disorder, which means I have to take medication and be vigilant about how much sleep I get.”
This lets people know you’re actively working towards stability, a heartening sign. Being friends with someone who’s unmanageable may scare some people away, as they might not be ready for a commitment like being constantly impacted by your wild moods.
Remember, managing bipolar disorder successfully is work no matter how you slice it, so be proud of that work!
3. Demonstrate How Your Bipolar Disorder Gives You Empathy
Even when getting to know my close friends, I would say things like, “Oh, yes, I understand a lack of focus–I have bipolar disorder and that makes focusing difficult.”
Mental health challenges are growing more and more common. A huge percentage of people struggle daily with problems like inability to focus, insomnia, or even mild, high-functioning depression.
Because your bipolar disorder is a series of mental health challenges itself, it has likely given you empathy for people who currently struggle with them. Don’t be afraid to show that empathy and let people know you understand their issues.
This shows them that you will not patronize them for their struggles, which may endear you to them.
4. If You Need it, Ask for Help
If you have a close relationship with someone, don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from your employer (more on that below). If you believe they will be receptive, suggest ways your audience can support you.
This can involve asking for more breaks or other accommodations at work or school, or simply asking a friend to understand why you can’t hang out as long, especially at night, when you need more sleep.
You can also ask your loved ones to help you find a doctor and follow through with an appointment, if you feel that your friend or family member will understand and be helpful.
Set boundaries here, too: you know yourself best, and you need to explain whether you need advice or just need your audience to listen.
I have often “vented” to my close friends about how my mania makes me feel, especially when I’m in a manic state. I am upfront with my friends and family about whether I’m entering a mood episode, especially mania, and I describe the steps I’m taking to stabilize again.
4. Keep in Mind Your Boundaries on What to Share
You definitely don’t need to share everything. Plan ahead as to what you feel comfortable sharing about your experience. It’s perfectly reasonable to explain that you don’t feel like talking about something in particular.
If you do feel there are good parts to your illness, like things you’ve learned, try to share those. Remember, how others perceive your bipolar disorder is often about how you frame it, and what details you are comfortable sharing will shape how others feel about you.
I rarely have reservations when talking about my bipolar disorder, but there are friends for whom I wouldn’t go into detail about my postpartum psychotic break.
When I asked friends to read my book about the experience in the past, they frequently couldn’t read past the first paragraph because it was too painful for them to think of how much agony I experienced.
Some people can’t handle the nitty gritty of my illness and that’s okay. I still refer to my breakdown in general terms, but I don’t tell certain friends everything about it unless they express interest in reading my book (at which I warn them about how intense it is).
When sharing details about your mental illness, consider not only your comfort levels, but also your friends’, and what opinions you want them to have of you.
Disclosing your mental illness can be a deep and intense process, but it doesn’t have to be. Try bringing up your bipolar disorder in casual conversation, describe the steps you’re taking to manage your condition, demonstrate the empathy the illness has given you, and keep in mind your boundaries and your friends’ comfort levels.
If you’re disclosing to an employer, however, that’s a completely different ballgame. Here’s how to do that:
How to Disclose Your Mental Illness to an Employer
You know how and when to disclose your mental illness, and even if to disclose to family and friends. But what about your employer? Read on to learn how to protect yourself.
When choosing to disclose a mental illness at work, there are several factors to consider. You might face stigma from your coworkers–or worse, your bosses. Those you work with might not understand, or even want to understand, your daily struggle.
However, with disclosure might come special accommodations–like extra breaks–which are part of your civil rights. There are certain protections available to you.
You absolutely deserve those protections. If you’re in the US, don’t be afraid to disclose your condition to your employer so they can treat you fairly under the law.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a protection that you should be familiar with. The ADA is just like it sounds like: a federal law that protects Americans with disabilities at private employers with more than fifteen employees, as well as state and government employers. There are two conditions you must meet for the act to apply:
- Your disability impairs your life, essentially making working difficult. This condition applies to difficulties with regulating emotion, concentrating, and other ways your mental illness interferes with your ability to work.
- That, while your illness makes working difficult, you can get the work done.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act)
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Rehab Act, is a federal law very similar to the ADA that applies to schools. Any agency that receives government funding is covered under the Rehab Act.
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a useful law that helps people keep their jobs while taking an extended leave of absence. The FMLA only applies to companies with over fifty employees, and after you have worked for the company for a year minimum. The FMLA lets you take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or recover from an illness yourself.
States also have their own protections for Americans with disabilities.
What Accommodations Can I Receive? How?
Under these laws, you can receive special accommodations: working from home, flexible start times, written directions, feedback from your bosses and coworkers, more breaks, and quiet places to take those breaks. These changes to the workplace are intended to be an aid for you so that you can complete your tasks.
But how do you apply for these accommodations? The process isn’t difficult, but the onus is on you to ask. Once you do, your employer is mandated to talk with you.
- First, contact the human resources (HR) department and ask them what channels you need to go through to apply.
- Write down your request. Be very specific as to what accommodations you need, and explain to HR how these will help you in the workplace.
- Talk with your treatment team–therapists and psychiatrists–to see if they can offer any proof that you suffer from a mental illness.
- Take notes at every conversation you have with your boss. Do not delete any emails that apply to the request.
- Be reasonable and flexible. Your strongest advocate is you, so be prepared to negotiate.
What if you’ve been discriminated against because you suffer from a mental illness? There are legal protections available for you:
- If the employer is a private one covered by the ADA, then you have to reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). File a complaint at the EEOC’s website, www.eeoc.gov.
- If, however, the employer is a federal agency, like a school or governmental employer, then you must reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO). File a complaint at the EEOC’s website, federal division.
- States have protections as well. If you’ve been discriminated against despite these laws, look up your state’s Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA).
- The Department of Labor manages the FMLA. If you’ve been denied your legal right to twelve weeks of unpaid leave, then contact them.
There are several protections available to you should you choose to disclose your mental illness to your employer. Whether or not you should is completely up to you. As we said, you might face stigma from your coworkers or bosses, but if you’ve been discriminated against, you can file complaints. You have a right to accommodations. All you have to do is take that step forward.
How and when to disclose your mental illness can be intense, deeply personal decisions. But they don’t have to consume you. Here’s an overview of the masterpost:
When to Disclose:
- Whenever you’re well.
- When you need people to understand.
- When you’re ready.
How to Disclose to Friends:
- Bring your bipolar disorder up in casual conversation.
- Describe the steps you’re taking to manage your condition
- Demonstrate the empathy the illness has given you.
- Keep in mind your boundaries and your friends’ comfort levels.
How to Disclose to Your Employer to get the Accommodations you Deserve:
- Contact HR
- Write down your specific request.
- Get proof of your mental illness from your treatment team.
- Be reasonable and flexible in advocating for yourself.
Only you can decide when, how, and to whom to disclose your mental illness. You may face stigma and discrimination for it. But those true friends who do stick around–and those accommodations you’ll earn from your employer–are worth it, in my opinion.
Best of luck disclosing your mental illness.
I wish you well in your journey.