You Have the Right to Remain Silent: Should You Tell People About Your Mental Illness?

I write about computer applications for consumers and small businesspeople, mostly accounting and tax. As a part of my job, I used to attend big technology conventions in various cities.

At one show in Las Vegas, I had just left the bathroom and was walking down one of the crowded aisles. I felt something brushing my leg and looked down to see what it was. It was my half-slip, which was hugging my ankles. I must not have pulled it up far enough in the bathroom.

I considered my options quickly, and decided to duck into the Toshiba booth. I stood behind two men who were talking, said “Excuse me,” and quickly hiked my slip up. They were too startled to be amused.

That happened in the 80s, when women wore slips more than they do now. So someone might have seen my outfit and assumed I was wearing a slip. I didn’t have to tell them. But I certainly showed them, albeit accidentally.

I was thinking about that incident when a few individuals revealed their own struggles with mental illness in response to my blog posts. I appreciated their honesty. There are so many people who still don’t have a good understanding of mental illness, or who think it’s simply a character flaw.

It doesn’t help that every time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, it’s assumed that the shooter was mentally ill. That kind of unwarranted–and sometimes untrue–publicity makes the public fear–and misunderstand–mental illness even more.

If only they’d sought help, some people say. If you’ve ever been seen by a mental health professional to try and get symptoms diagnosed and treated, you know that’s not a simple solution. Both processes, the diagnosis and the treatment, are far from exact sciences. We’re lucky if our brains are ever able to return to their “normal” states.

So it’s little wonder that mentally ill individuals are hesitant to disclose their illnesses.

When I was in a psychiatric hospital in 1987, my doctor gave me a warning one day. “Don’t talk to your friends about this,” he said. “It will scare them.”

How could I keep this from my closest friends? I was used to telling them so much about my life (too much, sometimes), and I had been absent from work for five weeks. I visited the offices of my most trusted confidantes and editors my first day back, shut their doors, and told them I’d been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.

To their credit, I think most of them thought that was ridiculous, which it was. I was 30 — too old for the onset of a chronic mental illness.

Also to their credit, they took it in stride. One called me at 10 that night and asked why I wasn’t at his Oscar party.  They’re still good long-distance friends.

Choosing whether to disclose a mental illness  is such an individual, complicated decision. You certainly aren’t obligated to tell a potential employer. It was easy in my case. I’d started freelancing, and my new editors didn’t have to worry about onsite personnel matters with me. My meds at the time were good enough that I was able to work just fine. Even kept working through a psychotic episode in 1999 because I didn’t know I was sick. I still work today with no interference from my illness.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote Dopamine Diary and put my real name on it. Above all, I wanted other people struggling with psychiatric disorders to see that recovery is possible. I also wanted people who hadn’t been touched by it to see the main character in a sympathetic light (some of the time, anyway).

I don’t know for a fact what friends and past employers truly think about my after-the-fact disclosure. I do know that I’ve never lost a friend or an assignment over it. I believe strongly in the right to privacy where employers and acquaintances are concerned, but I also think it doesn’t hurt for your closest friends to know.

Tell the truth, but tell it slant, Emily Dickinson wrote. I wouldn’t have been quite so candid with my friends after my hospital stint if I had it to do over.  They didn’t react as kindly as they did because they’re my friends. They’re my friends because that’s the kind of empathy and understanding they display.


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