A few weeks ago I called out sick to work and while there was a physical component to my illness, there was also a mental component. But when my boss asked what was wrong, I described only my physical symptoms and didn’t dare mention my mental suffering. The previous night I’d been considering asking for some extended time off of work for mental health reasons, but I found the thought of  doing so terrifying. I feared I would be judged negatively and would lose my job permanently.

When I talked to my mom about it, she cautioned me against telling my employers about my mental illness, because they might think I was crazy and would hurt the children in my care. She suggested I stretch the truth and say I needed time off for “female problems.” I replied that I found the euphemism “female problems”revolting, and would rather just say I was experiencing mental illness. She said that if I was going to do that, I should specify that I had depression, so my employers didn’t assume I had a scary, dangerous mental illness like schizophrenia.

I countered that most people with schizophrenia are not dangerous and do not harm others and I said how frustrating it was that mental illness was not met with the same kind of acceptance and understanding that physical illness is met with. My mother acknowledged that all of that was true, but felt that since the fact is that mental illness is surrounded by misunderstandings and stigma, I would do well to protect myself from the consequences of that stigma.

A few weeks ago a coworker was overcome by headaches and vomiting in the middle of the workday. She told the boss she would have to leave early. I wish it would be as natural and acceptable for me to tell my boss I had to leave because my mind was hurting from all the bad thoughts and feelings I was having as a result of my mental illness, that continuing to work was impossible because I was incapacitated by all the mental vomiting going on within me.

I had to tell my boss I couldn’t stay late one day because I had an appointment. I wish I could have mentioned it was a therapist’s appointment, as freely as I mentioned previous dentist appointments. My bosses are really kind, understanding people, so it’s possible mention of my mental health issues would be met with compassion, understanding and accommodation, but I’m afraid to take the risk.

It’s a moot point for me right now, because I’ve realized not working is worse for my mental health than working is, but I know that’s not the case for everyone and it might not always be the case for me. So many people are suffering in silence.

I don’t think anyone would blame me for being reluctant to discuss my mental illness with my employer or coworkers, but in being too afraid to challenge the status quo regarding mental illness in that respect, I’m part of the problem and I’m reinforcing the vicious circle of stigma and isolation.

Although I started this blog in large part to speak openly about my mental health struggles, since getting a job, I’ve held back, for fear that my employers or co-workers will stumble across it.

At least I have the courage to post this blog. As a wise man once said, courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it .

And I’ve discovered that for me, wellness is not the absence of mental illness, but the mastery of it.

2 thoughts on “Mental Illness in the Workplace

  1. I think, I hope, more people are starting to understand that mental and physical health are just as important. People aren’t afraid to talk about physical illness, they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about mental illness. Neither are a choice or character flaw.

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  2. It is a very hard decision when you feel like you have to either hide your mental illness from your employer or tell them. I once had a boss whose wife was a psychiatrist, and so I felt comfortable letting him know about my illness when it was beginning to be too much. Another time I was doing poorly at work and was missing days on FMLA and my boss was on my case. I decided that I needed to tell her what was going on, and when I did it was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders… apparently her best friend had bipolar disorder (I dare not mention the schizoaffective part), and she urged me to take as much time as I needed to get my meds right, even approving a three week leave of absence. But, alas, that is not the case with most employers… I hope that you find the balance that you need.

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