I am writing this post because I am facing a personal dilemma. I am sure many people with a mental health diagnosis has faced this question before – To tell or not to tell? I hate that it’s even a thing. I resent having to labour over this decision because I know that the consequences are so significant. I see and hear people every day talk about “the others” – those of us with mental health diagnoses that have to be segregated in some way because we are different, we are unknown, unhinged and abnormal.
I could write a novel about all the times I have witnessed stigma in my personal and professional life. Just today, someone I know was talking about a woman who was “a total bitch, out of control, manipulative, nasty, abusive, vindictive, unstable and prone to violence”. A lengthy description of this woman’s winning qualities was followed with “we think she’s bipolar”. She’s bipolar. As if that label defined her entire being, as if it explained all the unacceptable and antisocial behaviour that had preceded it.
As a supervisor in child protection, I hear stories every day about parents who both deliberately and inadvertently abuse and neglect their children. I listen to workers who simply shrug and say “mental health” which is followed by collective nods and eye rolls that say “ah yes, well that explains it”. Last week a worker told me that her concerns for a child at risk had increased tenfold because she discovered that his parent was taking lithium and zoloft (a mood stabiliser and antidepressant). Simply being on psychiatric drugs was cause for alarm as if that somehow indicated that the parent would be unable to care for their child. In today’s world of the internet and easy access to mental health information, this kind of ignorance stuns me. A client’s mental health issues are always exclusively viewed in negative terms and are often seen as an insurmountable problem. No matter how much training our workers do in mental health, they invariably come running to me throwing their hands up in exasperation, “I just don’t know how to help this person”.
This “us and them” mentality segregates us. Ignorance vilifies us. Stigma shames us. Most people in my life don’t know I have bipolar. I think there could be a lot of power in stepping forward now and identifying myself as someone with bipolar. I have earned my colleagues’ respect and friendship and I have earned my promotion. I smile to think of the looks on their faces when they hear me say “I have bipolar”. I don’t think this because I want attention or a reaction, rather, I get satisfaction thinking about blowing their prejudices into oblivion. I want to make them question all their presumptions, I want them to think twice before they paint us all with the same brush as if we aren’t individuals with strengths, ambitions, intelligence, insight and power. I want them to look at their clients with mental health issues and I want them to see a person behind the diagnosis, despite the label and beyond their prejudices. I want them to feel hope and to recognise that we are all human with strengths and weaknesses.
That’s the idealised version of what could happen. The alternative possibility is that their prejudices are so ingrained and prolific that rather than seeing me as I have always been, they might instead see a different person standing before them. They may feel that I have tricked them. They may start interpreting my normal behaviour in terms of symptoms – something that is commonplace when you have a label of bipolar. A bad day becomes a sign of impending depression, an irate comment becomes a sign of irrational anger, a social jaunt or an expensive purchase becomes a sign of mania. My judgement, my decisions, my rationality could be questioned. My integrity, my authority, my fucking sanity could be questioned. This possible reality is so unfair and infuriating that I cannot stand it.
“I care about you and I don’t want you to be a martyr”.
One trusted colleague at work knows about my diagnosis. I respect her opinion and judgement. I asked her what she thought about sharing my diagnosis with everyone in the workplace so that I could draw on my lived experience and provide a compelling blend of professional and personal advice about mental health to the people I supervise. She said, “I care about you and I don’t want you to be a martyr”. A martyr. This was such a powerful statement that really shocked me. Is that what I have to face in order to help overcome stigma and to educate people about mental health? I have to sacrifice myself? Sacrifice my career? Her words stemmed from kindness and genuine concern but she only fueled my passion and fury.
But that’s not the extent of my dilemma. What about my partner? What if people start thinking that he’s with some crazy woman? What effects will my disclosure have on him? What about my sister? She works for the same organisation as me. What effects will my disclosure have on her? I live in a relatively small country town and in my field of work, everyone knows everyone. What if I lose the trust of my professional networks or jeopardise future job opportunities?
So what do I do?
Do I stand up and stand proud and hope that I can help to dismantle stigma? Do I keep hiding behind my shiny, professional, untarnished persona? Do I risk having my every mood and decision questioned? Do I keep up the facade? Do I have some kind of duty to step forward and to speak out as someone who is educated, strong, high functioning and with some level of influence? Will I be a martyr? Are my worries overly dramatic? Am I being selfish? Once the truth is out, there is no going back. The seemingly monumental impact of my disclosure looms over me and makes my head spin with possibilities both good and bad.
For now, I will keep thinking about my decision and talking to people I trust. I am interested in other peoples’ experiences and opinions about this if you would like to leave a comment. Have you disclosed your diagnosis and what was the outcome? Maybe someone will have the magic words to help me make up my mind.
Image by Kristina Flour on Unsplash