Is going public with a mental health diagnosis too risky? These professionals shared their thoughts about ‘coming out’ (of the mental health closet, that is).
Sharing a mental health journey can have professional consequences, but these individuals decided to do so anyway. They shared why.
Like many young professionals, I spend a little bit of time every week scrolling around the professional network known as LinkedIn.
As I’ve made known before, there are many things about LinkedIn that I, frankly, despise: To name a few of those, the brown-nosing, the humble-bragging, and the one-upmanship that sometimes feel endemic to the network, almost as if they were built-in features.
And yet, there are also enough redeeming factors about the network that it feels worthwhile to stay there (besides the fact that, professionally, it remains useful to me; us humans are ultimately self-serving animals).
For one, among the odes of praise to former bosses and the gracious letters of thanks about the generous gift hampers (with HR conveniently tagged, of course), some people continue to share useful statuses inviting professional discussion among their networks.
But recently, I’ve also been observing an unmistakable trend. And this, too, has encouraged me to stick around.
Increasingly, members of my LinkedIn network whom I never would have suspected of being in anything other than stellar mental health have shared their stories of battles with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
I found the stories humanizing — for one because some of them doing the sharing were “only” smallish freelance clients to me or names on an email thread. Remote relationships can feel stifled and professionally superficial. The color really changed my perceptions of some of those I have done business with.
Reading their stories also chipped away at my own sense of stigma around the diagnoses they talked about. And I didn’t think any less of them as professionals after having read their accounts. So I began to wonder: was it time for me to do the same?
In very short order, this trend towards mental health awareness has become so commonplace, in fact, that at times it even strikes as slightly trite.
“Oh, not another contact posting about anxiety!”
The pendulum has quickly swung. But it still makes the dynamic a healthy one.
Among all this positivity and work against stigma, I’ve also come to believe that there’s another parallel conversation that needs to be taking place — but which isn’t currently getting the airing it deserves.
Every professional who shares their story in any public forum is taking a brave decision. LinkedIn may be a closed social network but its reach still permeates outward, especially in professional contexts. Don’t people worry about what their bosses and future bosses might think if they know that they have been diagnosed with a mental health “problem”?
That’s not the only ground for those thinking about sharing to be reticent.
The reaction to sharing isn’t always positive.
I can’t help but notice that the baby boomers who are part of my LinkedIn network — or secondary connections — seem to take particular issue with the idea of “coming out” about mental health in this manner. I’ve seen attitudes that I thought belonged in another era — they do — proudly emblazoned onto comments threads. In response to sharing, I’ve seen posters affirm that they think that therapy is a waste of time and that they’ve always managed handling things themselves.
Some are even openly antagonistic towards those who choose to share. Although inevitable, this is disappointing. There’s a definite generational divide between the baby boomers, millennials like me, and Gen X. The latter, at times, almost seems to relish in being open about their thoughts on gender, mental health, and race equality.
So while a movement towards greater openness in mental health is brewing — the unifying hashtag, by the way, is #mentalhealthawareness — forces that work in the other direction, and encourage patients to stay silent, remain active too.
So I’ve discovered that to pretend that we have reached a point of enlightened universal acceptability about mental health issues — and I’ll be honest, I thought that we really had — would be delusional. It’s more accurate to say that we, by which I mean human society, are simply taking our first paces towards making the status quo a better and healthier one.
Seeing reactions like those is also partially why I fought through enormous hesitation that lasted many months before sharing the story of my own diagnosis with ADHD and dysthymia (the latter’s correct modern title is persistent depressive disorder or PDD; it’s essentially a milder but more chronic form of depression; being mild doesn’t make it any easier, by the way. But it can take a lot longer to spot when your baseline level of functionality is never quite that bad. The illness tricks sufferers into believing that feelings of persistent bleakness and low self-esteem are simply part of the human condition). But this story isn’t about the specifics of my journey.
Before I put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — I encountered enormous skepticism from … unnamed individuals … who told me that I would be insane to put anything about a mental health diagnosis on my public record. These were much the same voices that those who have already shared have contended with publicly.
I was told that clients would never hire me again (so far, that thankfully hasn’t been the case.)
That nobody can really trust somebody with any mental illness to be a competent employee (I won’t know the answer to whether that’s an impediment until I look for an in-house position).
That there was nothing to gain by sharing (but plenty of adverse consequences).
And that things like depression and ADHD and anxiety were all shameful and person dirty laundry that would be better kept under lock and key — both professionally and personally.
In spite of those hesitations — and the vociferous and insistent nature of those making those arguments — I choose to share anyway. Not so much because I wanted to. But rather because I felt that I had to. I felt compelled to share.
What swayed me to do so? One simple thought.
Had others not shared their own journeys of diagnosis and treatment that showed me that there was nothing shameful or embarrassing about having a mental health condition, I may never have felt empowered enough to reach out for help myself.
How, then, could I be a hypocrite and not pass the hope on forwards to somebody who might similarly need to hear the simple message that it’s okay to be not okay? (My final rationale: I was trained as a writer . It would have seemed like a particular shame not to use this “skill,” if it can be called that, constructively.)
I’ve also written, by now, about virtually everything else in my life (not all of it!).
Keeping this aspect hidden, as if it were a sordid detail, felt disingenuous — particularly as it has consumed so much of my time and energy over the past few years.
Doing so would be to play, albeit indirectly, into that same narrative of shame that keeps so many reticent to talk about their own diagnostic processes or even open up a conversation with their family doctor about what they might be experiencing.
By not sharing, I felt like I was open-sourcing my thinking about everything I care about — something I advocate — but stashing a few pages away for only my own eyes.
I believe that this conversation — about the prejudices that exist in society and the stigma that still surrounds mental health and the potential repercussions of those currently doing the sharing — has been grossly under-discussed.
Which is why I’m trying to do my little part to open it by sharing these stories.
Most of us seem to be staunchly in favor of de-stigmatizing mental health treatment.
And yet we seem to have a collective blindspot when it comes to talking about very pragmatic concerns: like what doing so might mean for careers and professional reputations.
We talk about breaking down stigma. But — to have a rounded conversation — we also need to be pragmatic.
If sharing publicly about mental health struggles means a future of un-employability and shunning from the workplace, those thinking about sharing need to keep those concerns in mind even if they are grossly unfair. And perhaps there’s another role on the part of patients too beyond the work that we’re already doing:To make the case that treated mental health patients can not only be competent employees but indeed exemplary ones.
Depression — the most prevalent mood disorder — affects 7.1% of adults in the US. To suggest that patients should be ostracized into a lifetime of unemployment, under-employment or self-employment is extremely problematic.
A couple of weeks ago I put out a request through SourceBottle asking respondents precisely the same set of questions I asked myself only a few months ago:
- Did you worry about the professional repercussions of disclosing, publicly, your mental health diagnosis?
- Why did you choose the time you did to share?
- How has that affected your career? How have colleagues and bosses reacted?
Here are some of the responses I received (due to the demographic that uses SourceBottle — the only major quote-request platform I could find that accepts humble bloggers — the respondents are disproportionately from Australia!)
Were you worried about the potential repercussions of sharing?
Not at the time of posting.
But I did realise afterwards there might have been some risk involved.
But, I’d rather use my voice and experience to change the conversation around mental health. I don’t live in fear anymore.
How did your current employer react? (If you have one). Did your boss see and remark upon your post?
I run my own business, and any clients who feel mental health issues are shameful are not clients I want (editorial note: this is a brilliant point!).
I make a point of also showing how much my mental health crisis has taught me — and how practicing self care is vital.
Why did you choose to share your journey when you did?
It was World Mental Health Day — so perfect timing.
I’ve decided to be really intentional about sharing my story to become more visible this year.
It has helped me grow my business as almost everyone has either suffered from anxiety/depression — or know someone who has committed suicide or struggled due to mental health issues.
It’s more common than people think.
“I have been sharing publicly my challenge with mental health for almost 20 years now.
I do this because it encourages people to take action, instead of suppress or hide it.
My story from depression to suicidal ideation to a life of freedom has now helped hundreds of thousands of people to stand up to mental health. I now have a radio show about it and have written several best-selling books on the subject.
Though you might be asking, how did me coming out affect my employment?
In short, it had to end.
I left my job to start my self development company Life Beyond Limits and my world couldn’t be better.
I am now an ambassador for positive mental health and today we are helping by teaching others how to help people overcome their problems and limitations.”
“I was extremely scared to share my mental health journey as I wasn’t sure how my followers would find this as I own my own business.
However it was the best thing I could have done.
Not only did finally talking about my battle with postnatal help, but I got some many messages from people who felt they too could open up within the network and or ask for the help because they didn’t feel alone after hearing my story.
I was defiantly worried how my brand would be impacted by this, but I saw it as if I help one person to get the help they need or not feel alone this means so much more than any negative kick back I could get.
No one should feel alone, but when taking that step you need to be well enough yourself I feel to understand what you are going through or have been through.”
“I chose to share my journey for a couple of reasons.
I needed to heal and move on.
There was no way that was going to happen unless I spoke about what happened.
I needed to stop feeling ashamed for something that wasn’t my fault.
I needed to help break the stigma of mental health by showing the contributing factors to mental health.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not gone through all of that.”
Justine Martin, Speaker, Author
“I chose to share my journey as my story is someone else’s survival guide.
To show people that they are not alone”
Melani De Sousa, Wellness Expert & Workshop Presenter
4 years ago I shared my (once) deeply secretive mental health story publicly on Facebook.
As someone who doesn’t often use social media, I did this intentionally to create an impact amongst family, friends and colleagues who saw me as a happy, successful person who would be the last person they thought would struggle with mental health.
Were you worried about the potential repercussions?
I was very worried about the repercussions initially given for 27 years created a persona that was happy, bubbly and successful.
Sharing my story meant others might form a label or judge me in a way that negated all my other traits and achievements.
I suffered with Binge Eating Disorder, Anxiety, Depression and OCD. It meant people often looked at the way I ate differently and questioned my experience.
At the time of sharing my story publicly, I opened a mental health clinic dedicated to helping sufferers of mental health and their families. It provided understanding into why I left my previous career — and my previous employer did comment on the post.
I chose to share my journey when I did to expel myths about mental illness and encourage others (both those I knew and didn’t know) to share their story and get help.”
Alana Mai Mitchell, Results Coach
“I have shared my mental health condition (which is well-managed schizophrenia) on LinkedIn, in the workplace, in the media and live on national TV.
I was not worried about the repercussions at all as I have 100% accepted in myself that I have a mental illness and the phrase “I have a mental illness” no longer has any power over me.
My current employer reacted with overwhelming support, where my manager at the time said “Wow, I didn’t know, and we are so lucky to have you on the team”. I retained my employment some 1.5 years later after sharing that story.
I chose to share my journey because it was the next step I could see in my leadership growth — particularly around my story of resilience and resourcefulness.”
“I’ve shared my story publicly, in outlets around the world, because I have a thick skin and I know that I can stand the trolling and negative feedback that sometimes occurs.
Many people are too scared to even tell their friends about their mental health problems, due to the repercussions you mentioned.
My employers and coworkers have always been supportive, even when I’ve had to take some time out.
I have proven through my career that I can still do my job, and sometimes I’m even better at it because of my experiences.”
Were you worried about the potential repercussions?
I think that shame is so insidious in our human condition and it’s much easier ( in the short term) to sweep it under the rug.
I am sure that companies that might want to hire me may see me all over the internet in bikinis and such and see my brand as “lacking credibility” but I’m determined to break the stigma.
Why did you choose to share your journey when you did?
I suffered alone for years!
Long before the body positivity movement, I was just a fat girl who hated herself and thought that everyone else had all their shit together.
As I started my healing, it became apparent that so many of us suffer from low self esteem, negative self talk, feeling of self harm/destruction and are in long term abusive relationships with ourselves.
I learnt that shame only holds power when it’s kept inside so my mark on the world is to eradicate shame inside of myself by putting it out there and for others too.
When we can see normal everyday people experiencing the same thing as us, we can start the healing journey for ourselves.
I am a war veteran with PTSD.
I have shared my story because it may help other veterans and also it helps me assist a village in East Timor, the country where I served.
It has been hard for me to tell my story, but heartache and challenge for me could provide many benefits for others.
I have been judged and ridiculed but at least something good comes from it.