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Person with open arms

Is disclosing mental illness the new “coming out”?

By Lenore MacAdam

A few years ago, I was struggling with depression. The numerous mental health social media campaigns going on at the time all seemed to suggest that if I just disclosed my illness, I’d feel better. So I talked to one of my managers and shared what I was going through.

“How can I help?” she replied. And that’s when the conversation came to a screeching halt. 

What was I supposed to ask her to do? I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what accommodations I needed—or even what was available. I felt tense, awkward, and I regretted my decision to disclose. 

Later, I realized that I had disclosed without any intent. I didn’t know why I was doing it or what I wanted, beyond the vague aim of wanting to feel better. I also saw that while my manager was reasonable and well-intentioned, she lacked the tools or resources to offer any meaningful assistance. And there was nothing in our workplace culture to point us in the right direction. 

* * *

In many ways, revealing a mental illness is a lot like deciding to come out as a member of the LGBTQA community. They each involve aspects of a person’s identity that are largely invisible to others. They each typically require multiple disclosures over time. And awareness and education on both sides of the conversation is essential, if disclosure is going to lead to successful, positive outcomes. 

Organizations have made good progress in recent years in creating work environments where LGBTQA employees can be themselves. A similar shift is beginning to take place concerning mental health matters in the workplace. The LGBTQA community’s experience offers important lessons to those of us striving to build a more inclusive work environment for people with mental illness, including:

Disclosure is an ongoing process

Recognizing that coming out is a continuous process, rather than a one-time event, has helped the LGBTQA community articulate its needs better. Those of us who work in LGBTQA inclusion now tend to focus on workplace culture, ensuring ongoing support for LGBTQA individuals and raising awareness about bias and heterosexist assumptions. 

We now need to learn the same lesson as it relates to mental health. Disclosure is an ongoing process, not an event. If a person has a mental illness, there are many times when full or partial disclosure can be desirable or necessary: starting a new job or project, getting a new manager or teammate, or needing time off work, for example. Disclosure can also be helpful simply in terms of strengthening friendships with colleagues. 

Disclosure has practical benefits

In the LGBTQA community, we’ve learned that coming out at work makes you a more focused, productive employee because it allows you to be authentically you. You’re able to bring your same-sex partner to an office party without questions. You don’t have to spend energy remembering to change pronouns when talking about your weekend. And you can have open conversations about parental leave without worrying about outing yourself in the process. 

Likewise, disclosing mental illness enables those dealing with such matters to be more focused and productive at work—because they don’t need to hide an integral part of who they are. Disclosure helps employers and employees make the workplace adjustments (e.g., hours, resources, education, support) that allow workers to succeed in their jobs. 

Accommodating colleagues with mental illness certainly feels good, but in the end, we do it to help everyone succeed.

Inclusive cultures foster mentally healthy workplaces 

LGBTQA-friendly workplaces aren’t created by telling employees to come out. They’re created through deliberate action to cultivate a more inclusive culture. Actions like developing progressive HR policies, establishing zero tolerance for homophobic or transphobic jokes, or starting an employee resource group to provide LGBTQA workers with internal support. 

Today, organizations need to take the same kind of deliberate action for mental health. We need to focus on creating inclusive, accessible workplace cultures where people are comfortable asking for the supports they need to do their jobs well. We need to ensure managers have the knowledge, resources, and tools they need to provide practical, job-relevant support. Maybe if my manager had had access to these resources and tools, or been a part of a fully inclusive workplace like this, we would have had a very different conversation.

Organizations can start by looking at employees’ mental and physical health matters in the same light. When requests for time off due to mental illness are treated no differently than time off for a broken bone, post-op recovery, or a difficult pregnancy, then we know we’re making progress.

Inclusive work cultures enable us to be who we truly are each day, and this authenticity contributes to our sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being. There is still much more we can do to provide support to members of the LGBTQA community in the workplace. But we can learn from these hard-won successes, and perhaps contribute further progress, by creating workplace cultures that recognize the value that different individuals bring to the table—whatever that difference may be. 

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