Mental Health Awareness campaign at work. People outing themselves.
October 23, 2019 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I work for a large health insurance company. They are running a campaign for mental health awareness and posting write-ups by employees, with their pictures, talking about their mental illnesses. I'm off on disability due to a flare up of my bipolar II. I'm going back in December. I'm inclined to think this is a terrible idea, but I'm looking for your thoughts, and also articles written on the subject. We can't be the first workplace to do this, so there must be some things written about this type of campaign?

Another question I have is - why are they doing this? What is the benefit to them? I guess I'm also feeling a bit anxious because it's going to be very hard to hide my reason for being off work and I am doing a gradual return, which will make people awfully curious. I'm sure people will be thinking - I bet she has a mental illness - will she tell us about it? And the answer is mostly likely 'no'. So now I feel - damned if I do, damned if I don't. When I heard they were doing it I thought - there is no way anyone is going to talk about anything other than anxiety and depression, but my colleague (who does know about my illness) sent me a write-up by a man at my work with bipolar II and I was shocked. I want to understand more about this phenomenon. It's one thing for celebrities to talk publicly about their mental illness struggles, but another for a woman to out herself in her workplace - and that could follow me through the rest of my life. The parents of my children's friends could find out, my neighbours, who know. I..t could affect future job opportunities, volunteer opportunities. It seems like such an obviously terrible idea, but I want to learn more. Can we not raise awareness without talking about our personal lives?
posted by kitcat to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a fellow mentally ill person, that idea made me cringe to the extreme. I don't tell my coworkers about my mental illness. I understand the intent to fight stigma but that's information that could easily be used against you.

For the record, I would also avoid telling my coworkers if I had a physical condition, for the sake of my own privacy.
posted by noxperpetua at 9:12 AM on October 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

The people who are doing this do not represent all the other people at your workplace with mental health problems. They probably don't even represent a tiny fraction of that. They're people who feel comfortable doing it, in the hopes that in the future it won't be a problem if your workplace knows, your neighbors know, whatever. But that doesn't mean you have to say anything now. People will almost certainly not be thinking that you have a mental illness based entirely on other people at the company talking about their mental illnesses when it could be any number of other things.

Eventually, some people do need to talk about it for it to be normalized, but part of that process is that the first people to talk about their mental health problems publicly will be the ones who are generally managing well and are reasonably safe to do so. That's true of some people with bipolar, but that doesn't say anything about where you should be--just about where they are. Which may include not just whether their issues are reasonably managed but what their team environments are like, and so on.

I don't consider this any different than people who are out as queer in the workplace--I talk about neither of these things with my team because I don't trust my current team. At the same time, I know there are other teams that are way better about it and other people who are way more financially secure than I am. Those people are making it so that eventually there won't be as many teams like mine. If you're in a higher-risk position, you don't need to be on the vanguard of this, and no decent person will expect you to be.
posted by Sequence at 9:15 AM on October 23, 2019 [35 favorites]

Yeah, go with your gut. If you feel like this is a bad idea for you, honor that. I have been open about my mental illness at work because: 1. I trust my team and feel very safe here. 2. I have depression and anxiety, which are relatively low-stigma diagnoses. My goal in talking openly about it was to acknowledge that these are common mental illnesses and there's no shame in them. My friends who have bipolar disorder talk a lot about the stigma, misconceptions, and (occasionally) workplace difficulties they face.
posted by sugarbomb at 9:23 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Can we not raise awareness without talking about our personal lives?

Hmmm. Yes and no? Knowing someone with a mental illness, disease, physical condition... whatever, helps to normalize and reduce stigma. It's one thing to accept mental illness in the abstract and another one to know someone with mental illness, and know about their mental illness and to see the whole person.

It could affect their futures. Then again, if more people come forward and there's greater understanding how utterly common mental illness is and less stigma, it stands less chance of affecting their future negatively. Sort of an "I am Spartacus!" thing - if one person in the workplace is known as The Person With Mental Illness, then it can be isolating. If six or seven people in a twenty person office come forward to say they have dealt with mental illness, It's a lot less scary. One hopes.

But as sugarbomb says - if you think it's a bad idea for you, don't do it. Hopefully one of these days it will be no big deal for people to know and talk about.
posted by jzb at 9:34 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's work! Like you say, the possible negative consequences are huge. I would never participate in this, they shouldn't ask anyone to.
posted by agregoli at 9:40 AM on October 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

You absolutely are not obligated to be public about your mental health diagnoses, at work or anywhere else, where it feels unsafe or unhealthy for you to do so.

That said, people are all over the map on this stuff. My partner, for example, has bipolar. He is not always able to work because of the way his bipolar manifests, but in those times when he has been able to work, he's been open with his coworkers about his diagnosis. For him, the benefits of not having to hide or be afraid of letting something slip is worth the danger of someone being an asshole or discriminating against him. Also, he has a great big safety net in the form of me; if he lost his job due to discrimination and could never work again, I'd be able to keep us both afloat. We don't have kids to worry about. Our friends already know, and if we were friendly with our neighbors they'd probably know too, because bipolar management is a big part of our lives and if you hang out with us, it's going to come up at some point. The kinds of volunteer jobs he's interested are ones where his diagnosis isn't going to be an issue. So for him, he's done the math and decided it's worth being open about it both for his own benefit and in the hopes of helping to reduce stigma by normalizing discussion of mental health issues. In his position, for his life, being open makes sense and feels right.

I can easily imagine other people feeling the same, so I'm not surprised that any individual person might choose to participate in such a campaign. I do think the workplace running such a campaign would have to tread VERY carefully - it would be awful to make employees feel pressured in any way into participating. And I sure hope that they're spending at least as much time and effort on making sure their managers and supervisors are trained about and sensitive to mental health issues they might end up hearing about as a result of a campaign like this.

(For the sake of disclosure, I also have mental health struggles - major depression, anxiety, and PTSD - and am also open about those in pretty much every aspect of my life. But I know there's a big stigma step-up between unipolar depression and bipolar, so I focused on my partner's story here as more directly relevant to you. My feelings are similar to his, though, and I'd at least consider participating in such a campaign if one showed up at my workplace.)
posted by Stacey at 9:56 AM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

I talk about my mental illness so that other people who have it won't feel so alone and scared.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:02 AM on October 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

Listen to your instinct on this. It's not right for you at this time.

I made a different choice a few years ago, because almost no one was talking publicly about Veterans PTSD issues, and I could see others were suffering because of it. I made the choice to share my story, and I mostly haven't regretted it-- of course if I knew that the panel I was on was being recorded and put on YouTube I probably wouldn't have told the story about being in a lecture class and someone pushed their textbooks off the table onto the floor and the noise was so loud and unexpected that I crapped my pants. ;)

Now, my disability is getting a lot more coverage in the media and people's consciousness, and I am asked to speak about it several times a year. Other veterans have finally asked for help they needed, partly because I chose to share. Funny thing is, I haven't told my family as much as I might tell strangers at a conference. We are all entitled to be funny or odd and make our own choices about who we share that information with.

But this corporate event is not right for you and you obviously know it. IF the time ever comes that changes, you'll know it, too. I am rooting for you!!
posted by seasparrow at 10:04 AM on October 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

Can we not raise awareness without talking about our personal lives?

Yes and no? I think that when people see celebrities either talking about personal experience with mental health challenges or addiction, or historical figures who were known to have, say, dyslexia, it can both be helpful but also people can be dismissive "Well yeah sure Einstein had dyslexia but HE WAS ALSO EINSTEIN" When they learn that Aisha from Accounting has been managing with dyscalcula or that Tamar on the loading dock also deals with depression it can send a few messages

- management of things like this are possible
- management of things like this are possible by mere mortals and if you need some help, this is a small nudge to ask for it
- management of things like this are possible AT THIS JOB (meaning maybe there are people who are understanding, who have experience with accommodations, etc)

I'm a person with anxiety, sometimes pretty bad. I am pretty vocal about it (and my ups and downs with medication and the medical system) and don't care who knows. This is definitely a privileged position, I can do this because I have status. It also helps me in some ways because I don't have to hide who I am in order to live my life (i.e. as long as I am managing my anxiety I don't have to pretend I don't have it) for the most part.

I am at my most miserable sometimes when I DO feel that i have to hide who I am in order to do something that is very hard for me but might not be as hard for someone without anxiety. I think me being out and open about this can be helpful to people less far along in the process (who haven't sought out therapy or medication or support) to know that it's possible to see a way through. And I have a community (online and off) of people who support each other and it's HUGE.

I think it is 100% fine to not self-identify. I wish we were in a world where there was less stigma about mental illness. I feel like people who are more "safe" being open talking about their challenges is part of how we get there.
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 AM on October 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

there would be absolutely nothing powerful enough on this earth to motivate me to do this in a US workplace in 2019. nothing. pain of death, vast sums of money, hostages. no.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:24 AM on October 23, 2019 [9 favorites]

It's totally fine for you to not participate in this, and I really think it doesn't mean people are going to guess why you're on leave. You have every right to keep any part of your health history private, and you could be out and coming back gradually for any number of reasons - I know someone who did that because of a concussion.

However, people who out themselves when it's very dangerous to do so are doing a service to those who are not ready. When I was in high school in the 70s, I was quite sure I didn't know any gay people, and I don't think I was unusual. The idea that someone I actually knew (instead of those people Anita Bryant was campaigning against) could actually be gay - that seemed impossible. When I started college in 1976 and the LGBT group finally was permitted to meet on campus and had a march to celebrate, people threw rocks at them. It's because gay people outed themselves when it was extremely dangerous that there is in general much more acceptance than there was (I'm not implying things are perfect now - there is still a huge struggle - but it's vastly improved).

That does not in any way mean you need to out yourself. But perhaps you can understand why people are willing to do it. (BTW, I was inadvertently outed for mental illness by NAMI, which took "anonymous" testimony from people, then sent out a press release including our names and cities. The press release, still including my name and city, was then picked up and used in Congressional testimony. I was mortified, but there were, to my knowledge, no repercussions. I'm not saying people will figure out your diagnosis, but having people know about your illness may not be as catastrophic as you think it will be.)
posted by FencingGal at 11:24 AM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

So I've done this with a small group of teammates at work. Your mileage may vary. Also work at a large insurance company.

I 'came out' to my team about my Bipolar II about a year ago. I wanted them to understand that its something treatable, manageable and that you can be high functioning. Looking at a history of my comments will show you that it's not always true.

I've had good success with it. I also try to point out when people outside of my team make comments about someone not taking meds, or being crazy, etc. It's the little things that actually add up I think.

I would say that you definitely are not obligated and since you are going through something now, it might be too raw to bring this up to coworkers. I know that I couldn't have done this if I was going through a flare-up (what I call my episodes) or a difficult period.

One thing I will say is that I wish you the highest degree of luck and happiness. I know how difficult it can be to wrestle with the demons. Wishing you the best.
posted by Draccy at 11:45 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

I also work for a health insurance company and colleagues share stories about mental and physical health all the time. Maybe it’s disproportionate due to our industry but it does appear that some people are less likely to be judgemental regarding health when it’s part of your day to day work. And I do believe it varies by how comfortable you feel with your individual team as well.
posted by girlmightlive at 12:41 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

So I’m in emergency services. As a result of both my work and some past familial and personal history, I have complex PTSD. It was misdiagnosed for almost 2 decades, and I couldn’t get “fixed?” “Normal?” “Better?” Whatever term anyone wants to use until my health care team and I figured out what was going on and how to work on helping me to not have the same struggles. I had always been a little off-kilter and angry and moody and struggled with some alcohol overuse as a way of self-medicating (funnily enough, when we started working on the underlying issues, my “problem” with alcohol turned into having a beer or a drink responsibly). I decided to be open about my diagnosis and plan of attack with my current coworkers because *so many* first responders have a lot of these same issues and we were reinforcing them instead of helping each other.

Now there’s way less of a stigma in the fire service; there are local, regional, and national peer support teams and networks. We’re starting to talk about divorce, and substance misuse, and suicide and All Of These Things that we traditionally swept under the rug and determined to be a cost of doing business. My rationale for sharing is that I wish someone could have helped me figure out a lot of this stuff sooner, and I didn’t know how to access any resources or even if I had any. I really reach out to my inexperienced people too, when we have a rough incident or something that they’ve never experienced before. I learned the hard way that the answers aren’t in the bottom of a pint glass, and I don’t want my people to have to deal with that.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 3:13 PM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think this is a whopping "depends on situation" thing. If you're worried about being discriminated against at work, then don't feel obligated to out yourself.

I don't have any official diagnoses of anything, but I'm out about going to therapy because (a) at least my bosses/coworkers need to know why I'm gone once a week at a slightly off time than usual and (b) I don't feel like that is going to affect anything here in a bad way, and it hasn't. This joint is stressful and everyone knows I have crazy family issues. But I wouldn't say a darned thing if I felt like it was going to haunt me for the rest of my life and could lead to discrimination.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:29 PM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm someone who takes small amounts of anti-psychs to help control a tendency towards mania and psychosis. (That it is reasonable for me to take these was a very unhappy conclusion of years of struggle and experimentation; for I have come to consider the medical model to be a terrible way to try to understand psychiatric problems, and the concept of 'mental illness' as it's now used a category mistake, which I reject as a term not applicable to me. So I wish I could also be able to totally avoid the remedies the medical model offers. But though I have no use for the concept 'mentally ill', I nevertheless do have a lot of personal experience with the world of psychiatry from a 'patient' perspective. So:)

I think it is a terrible idea to out yourself at work as a psychiatric patient. The stigma is very real. People who want to remove this stigma by treating psychiatric problems as a variety of basically material diseases about having which there is no shame and the having of which thus should be a topic of open and neutral acknowledgment have chosen a failing strategy. When people understand psychiatric problems this way it actually increases their stigmatization, as a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry concludes. (I used to have a link to a more detailed summery, but it's gone dead. Maybe googling around on the topic will find you further evidence-based discussion of this aspect of the problem of stigma.)

In my personal life experience I have seen very notable and negative changes in how I am treated by co-workers when they become aware that I am a psychiatric patient, and/or when they realize that this is public knowledge. Not everyone reacts this way, but most in my experience have.

Outing yourself as gay is crucially different from outing yourself as a psych patient because if you are gay there is actually nothing wrong with you, while if you are a psych patient, there is something actually really wrong with you. And this defect or defects -- which to begin with operate at a rather intimate level of your personality -- people are more or less aware are associated with irrational kinds of thoughts and emotions that lead to irrational behaviors and the loss of the capacity for moral and practical responsibility. Knowing that someone is prone to lose their faculty of reason in this way quite rightly raises red flags, and motivates changes in how they are perceived and how their behavior and communication are interpreted. In electing to make your being a psych patient public knowledge you are giving permission to everyone to demote you both in their esteem and in your social rank, and quite possibly also causing them to be frightened of you.

Bottom line: do not believe those who say you'll be landing a blow for destigmatization by exposing yourself like that. (My own belief is that the stigma will only pass when the problem is reinterpreted by our culture as not a medical problem but a problem, in its substance, of spiritual development, and the appropriate tools are found to define and address that.)

I've found the New Yorker to have quite good reporting on contemporary issues in psychiatry. Good to browse through.

The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a book on the management of stigma by the stigmatized. I didn't much like it because the tone is rather dreary, but you might find it useful.
posted by bertran at 9:01 PM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, bertran, flagged as fantastic. My brain went "ding ding ding ding" when I read your comments.

As you said "if you are a psych patient, there is something actually really wrong with you." Yup. And these write-ups very much downplay the illnesses - the fellow with bipolar II said something like "I'm a better person for my bipolar, look at me I'm just like you and super functional".

Well, I spent more than a week in the psych ward this summer with a bunch of other bipolar patients and while I must say we are delightful, we are not normal, this illness is NOT no big deal, and we do get treated like incompetent fuck-ups by certain people in our lives. Thanks for your explanation and I can't wait to read the stuff you linked to!
posted by kitcat at 7:35 AM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't want to say you should participate in this because it sounds like it would be a bad idea for you personally, but I will take issue with bertran's conceptualisation of the issues. Yep, stigma and prejudice and all that, not going to deny any of that (if anything, that answer is a good example of deeply internalised stigma). But to say that you can't aply the principles of pride to something that gives you "defects" is frankly rubbish and deeply ableist. Disability Pride is a thing. Mad Pride is a thing. There are arguments made that fighting stigma, and being 'out' as part of this, literally saves lives.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:26 PM on October 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

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