Coming out to your coworkers and friends about mental illness will change your life

I am a neurotic Jewish mother living in New York City with my two children, ages five and eight. It’s a familiar story here in the Big Apple. Where my story starts to diverge, however, is with my mental health. Unlike many of my fellow mothers, I am not just neurotic—I live with a panic disorder, PTSD, depression, and ADHD. On paper this looks overwhelming (no pun intended). But like so many of us living with mental illness, my diagnoses don’t define me, nor are they immediately apparent. Upon meeting me, it’s unlikely you’d feel something was particularly “wrong” with me. I come across as quirky, funny, and maybe a little anxious. But I certainly don’t look like the stereotypes we see in pop culture—you know, like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? (Thanks for that, Jack Nicholson.)

To be clear, I work hard to manage my mental illnesses through therapy and medication. I am endlessly dedicated to self-care. Unfortunately, as a parent I often feel the need to conceal my true identity from other parents, school administrators, and even colleagues. Disclose a mental illness? Are you kidding? We’re not even supposed to admit we sometimes choose the bottle over breastfeeding. I know I’m a loving mother, and yet I do have a disability that requires daily attention. I don’t want to give anyone another opportunity to question my skills as a parent. But it’s an exhausting and unnecessary charade.

I remember very clearly the day I first “came out” to another parent. My daughter had just entered preschool, and I had become good friends with another mom in her class. I wanted her to know me without my mask. One day we were sitting in my garden, and the conversation turned to jobs. I run a non-profit mental health organization called Stigma Fighters and she, naturally, asked how I got into the field.

Ignoring my rising panic, I took a deep breath and told her about my panic disorder.

The words rushed out, bringing with them a sense of relief. But my newfound honesty was—honestly—sending my anxiety into overdrive. I’m much more comfortable talking about mental illness with those who suffer like me. Happily, my fears were unfounded. “I have anxiety too,” my mom friend said. She told me she had been prescribed medication for anxiety and had trouble sleeping. She confided that she had an obsession with list-making—the ordering and re-ordering was a strategy she used in times of stress.
That day in my garden was terrifying, but it was also a reminder that humans so often hide the things that could actually bring us closer together. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2014 an estimated 43.6 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States were living with a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. There is always value in reminding each other that we are not alone.

For the mentally ill, however, coming out is important for another reason. Yes, we all deserve to feel part of a community. But we also have the ability, some might say responsibility, to fight mental illness stigma in our daily lives. When I tell someone it sometimes takes me 20 extra minutes to leave the house because I can’t find my keys and I’m afraid to get on the subway, I complicate and potentially debunk their idea of what a mentally ill American looks and acts like.

Of course, coming out isn’t always as simple as a conversation on a Brooklyn back stoop. Over the past three decades, my subtle behavioral quirks have not always been embraced, especially in the workplace. This type of negative reinforcement, when it happens, is a big reason why many people continue to conceal their disabilities. Given the prevalence of mental illness, my quirks should not have been surprising or unique. Nevertheless, I have often felt ostracized and undervalued by my coworkers. This sense of otherness was more psychological than anything else, but like all stigmas, it can be difficult to overcome.

At the same time, coming out can offer benefits to both yourself and your employer. In the US, workers with physical and mental disabilities are supposed to be protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some companies have even started programs to specifically help support their employees. DuPont’s ICU Program, for example, is designed to help identify employees who might be struggling and build empathy among coworkers.

Ultimately, despite the difficulties, I rarely regret speaking up. Honesty—even when it’s difficult—is incredibly important. I know that some of my most valuable friendships have been with people who know the very real, very imperfect me.

And so, if you’re a mom living with depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, I encourage you to think deeply about your illness. Consider sharing a part of your experience with someone else in your life, whether that’s a parent or a co-worker or a family member. You may be pleasantly surprised by our collective capacity for empathy. But you’ll also be helping, in a small but meaningful way, to normalize this disease.

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