We’ve made progress on destigmatizing mental illness in recent years. I’ve made strides of my own, and the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues have given me not just hollow hope, but concrete confidence that things are headed in the right direction. There has been one conversation, however, that I have still shied away from until now—telling my boss. In recent months I’ve read articles from well-intentioned advocates who are quick to claim that mental illness is not a weakness.
Though I agree with these advocates’ aims (namely normalizing talking about mental health in the workplace) and understand where they are coming from (a long history of mental illness being perceived as a sign of weakness), I disagree with the content of their claims. To remove the shame from mental illness, we need not sugarcoat its effects. They are real and pernicious, albeit wide-ranging and idiosyncratic to be sure. For my part I can say that I have been reluctant to share my mental illness with my boss precisely because it is a weakness in the workplace. When I am feeling low, I am a worse employee. I am less creative and less productive than usual.
Of that there is little doubt. But, of course, everyone has their weaknesses, even the highest performers. I’d argue a lack of self-awareness or emotional intelligence should be of far graver concern to any employer than a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. At any rate, no employer gets to cherry-pick the best parts of people and discard the rest. We bring our whole selves to work, warts and all. Besides, good employees know how to turn their weaknesses into strengths.
Though Bipolar Disorder and creative genius by no means go hand-in-hand, I’ve come to embrace the idea that it helps fuel my creativity. The experiences I’ve been through have opened my mind to ideas I may have never discovered on my own. If mental illness is a double-edged sword, I leverage the upsides to the hilt. To help manage my mood, I exercise regularly, eat well, and meditate. However, I do believe that I could likely do an even better job of managing the downsides if my boss, and the rest of my team, were aware. The problem with feeling as if you can’t disclose your mental illness to your employer is that you’re not able to have an open and honest discussion about how you could best be supported.
Weaknesses can be worked around. But only if they’re acknowledged. I’m writing this because I believe when my boss reads it, he will understand. I believe he’ll walk into work today or tomorrow or the next day, shake my hand and ask how he can help. We may even hug it out. And then we’ll have a long overdue conversation about my mental health that will leave me feeling better supported than I did the day before. I am lucky. This I know. Unfortunately, many others likely have good reason not to share my level of confidence.
They will go to work today in places where, if they were to share their whole selves, their mental illness might very well be blown out of proportion—if not overtly, in the reactions and responses of their peers and superiors, then more discreetly, in their perceptions and silent judgments. I don’t believe the risk is in any way imaginary. Sharing a mental illness could, undoubtedly, adversely affect the trajectory of one’s career. It may very well affect my own—if not today, then in years to come.
But thanks in part to initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk and the work of organizations like the CMHA, the risk assessment is changing. I, for one, have now decided that the risk is worth the reward. It is 2019, after all. We should be able to talk about these things.
About Steele Roddick: Steele Roddick is a writer based in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Kaavya, and pupper named Cozie. He writes a weekly email newsletter about living a better life and making a better world that you can subscribe to here.