By LISA KEITH, PSY.D.
My Secret Identity by Thomas R. Stegelmann
How and When to Disclose
I’ve disclosed having bipolar disorder in many, many ways: at work, church, on local TV, in articles and here at Bipolar Life hacks. I’ve also studied mental illness and the stigma of disclosure in my doctoral dissertation. What I discovered is eye opening.
I am at a point in my life where I’m exhausted trying to be someone or something I’m not. I’m not thin, I’m not athletic, I’m not extroverted, but what I am is kind, compassionate and loyal. Those attributes are not to be dismissed. If I had to trade being kind for being thin, well, there’s no decision to be made there.
Being the open person I am, I know that my experience in this life is part of the human experience. That is, I’m not the only one. If I feel something, chances are, someone else feels that way too. So, I came out to my colleagues when I was diagnosed. I don’t remember their reactions; I was still in a manic phase. My work life was successful and I was a respected special education teacher. Since that first disclosure, I decided to tell. If I can have bipolar disorder, it can happen to anyone.
I have learned through my doctoral studies, that my experience with disclosure is somewhat unique. Most of the people I interviewed initially came out because of a crisis, a need for time off due to a serious depression or suicide attempt. They were then outed by others: their supervisors, their parents, and their colleagues. People were uncomfortable, surprised and reacted unthinkingly. Often their work was tightly scrutinized and many left those initial jobs to find others. Interestingly enough, after the crisis was over and they went to a new job, most disclosed early on in the interview process or shortly after. As I am still in contact with several of the people I interviewed, I find they have a new sense of acceptance.
Here is what we learned about disclosure at work:
*Disclose to a group: When you disclose to one or two persons, those one or two are likely to tell someone else, and they’ll tell someone and so on. You begin to lose control over the dissemination of information. If you disclose to a group two things happen:
1) You dispel any myths about bipolar disorder and the truth about you is what people hear, rather than whispers around the water cooler and
2) People are less likely to be rude or react badly because they don’t want to be seen as a rude person, but rather as an understanding and supportive person. If they do say anything negative later, they are being hypocrites and gossipy which makes them look bad and not you.
*Disclose when you are in a place of good mental health: If you disclose only when ill or cycling, people will be caught off-guard and will not have time to process your behavior. Also, people will feel you weren’t honest with them up front, which will affect your relationships. If you disclose when you are in a good place, they can see your true personality and demeanor and have time to care for you, build a relationship with you and prepare themselves for when a time comes that you may act out of your normal self.
*Disclose to educate: Be prepared to be the expert. I went back to school and earned an MA in counseling psychology to better care for my students, who were labeled Emotionally Disturbed and receiving special education services. But you can read, take webinars or other classes at clinics or from organizations like DBSA or NAMI to learn more. People will have questions. Know the statistics and the facts. Keep up on current literature so you can answer their questions factually and earnestly.
*Disclose with power: Remember you have a disorder – you are not the disorder. Disclose from a place of knowing who you are and self-confidence. Take control early on and confront rumors, jokes and doubts. And you will see all of those and more. Know that you are one in four Americans with a mental health concern. You are not alone. If you have it, chances are, someone else you work with does too, or, at least knows someone else who does. People always come up to me and tell me of a family member or someone they know with depression or bipolar disorder. It’s fairly common.
Disclosure is not to be done lightly. There will be haters and doubters. There will be those who are just downright jerks. You must be ready to stand up to them. Don’t disclose until you are ready. Ask those who do know, to allow you the dignity of choosing who and when to tell.