It’s Hard to Talk Openly About Mental Illness
The many challenges of discussing your illness, in public and in private.
I am not shy about my bipolar. I haven’t been for a while. My friends have all known about it for quite a while. A few years ago, I opened up about it to my boss and coworkers. This year, I started writing about it.
None of that has been easy. Having mental illness comes with a lot of stigma, and people are often quick to judge when they find out that you’re “crazy.”
So, I’ve tread fairly lightly. I open up about it to my friends after I’ve gotten to know them fairly well so they are less likely to reject me. I figure if they think I’m a decent guy, they’ll look past it to the person I am.
I told my boss after I had worked with him for several years — even then, it took him seeking me out for an opportunity at a new company before I felt comfortable with that.
Honestly, it took a lot more. From my teens on, my father insisted that I keep my diagnosis to myself in most situations. It wasn’t appropriate for people to know that, he said.
He was especially adamant that I not reveal it at any kind of job I may have. They may not be able to legally fire me for my illness, he’d say, but they can cook up any number of other reasons to fire me.
I took that to heart, and for many years, I hid my illness from the view of most people in my life. My friends were all fairly okay with it, but almost nobody else got to find out.
Along the way, I witnessed friends lose jobs over trivial stuff. They would be doing well, then there would be a staffing change and the new manager would dislike them for one reason or another. From there, they would start racking up strikes for trivial stuff that didn’t register before, and eventually get fired for “just cause.”
So, I hid. I hid my illness from the light of day for years. I didn’t even talk much about it on social media, honestly. My friends knew I was bipolar, but I always kind of figured that it was something that they didn’t care to talk about, so I didn’t talk about it either.
I’d experience awful depressions, crushing lows, and suicidal ideation, and just…hold it in.
Until I didn’t anymore.
Talking openly about mental illness is hard. There is a lot of stigma in the world about mental illness, such that even mentioning it in the wrong crowds can get you in trouble. People with mental illness are often demonized, made out to be evil, or sometimes just made to be lesser.
We all have the image of the crazy person in our heads, and that is commonly reinforced by popular media and the news. Mental illness makes for a compelling story, but the details often get lost or mischaracterized.
So standing up and saying “I have a mental illness” is hard. You can face a lot of repercussions from all aspects of your life. You can lose your friends, your partner, your job, and by extension, everything in your life, just for being honest.
As a result, not everyone is in a position to do so. Not everyone is even stable enough to do so. Being able to suffer the slings and arrows of the general public is not something that many can do in most situations. Having people tell you to kill yourself when you’re already suicidal is, shall we say, less than ideal.
So, you don’t have to. It’s okay to not want to speak up about your experiences to what can be a cold, cruel world. You are under no obligation to make yourself uncomfortable.
The fact of the matter is, about one in five people live with mental illness. There’s a lot of us, and we are all at various stages in our journey. Some are stable enough to give speeches in front of huge audiences. Some aren’t even stable enough to go outside half the time. Both are okay, as is everything else on the spectrum of mental illness.
As the world moves into a more “woke” era, where things like race and gender and sexuality are openly discussed, mental illness is starting to come up in conversation. More and more, people like me are realizing that we have a voice and can use it to make positive changes.
As treatments and medications get better, as therapy becomes more accepted, and as the stigma starts to crumble, people with mental illness will stand up and speak out.
It will always be hard. We are reliving difficult parts of our lives, and that isn’t easy to do. But as the world becomes more aware of us, we make the world more aware of what we have experienced. Not everyone can stand up and speak, but enough of us will, and we will speak for those with no voice.
Yes, speaking out is hard, and it’s okay if you can’t or won’t. We got you.
After leaving my last job, I chose to confide in my manager on my last day. I figured, what do I have to lose?
She reacted well. She told me that she never would’ve guessed and that my work was amazing considering what I’d been going through. After we got done talking, she hugged me.
My new job was with a mental health agency, so it wasn’t long before I got another opportunity. My boss and I were going to meet with a man who was also bipolar that we might be working with. I figured it was as good an opportunity as any to get it out there.
After calling my former manager to ask her advice, I walked into my boss’s office and asked to talk privately. I closed the door and started stammering about how I needed to tell him something about myself and I hoped he wouldn’t think less of me.
He smiled his typical good-natured smile and said that short of finding out that I was a serial killer, nothing would lower his opinion of me.
So I told him. He reacted well. He said he was proud of me for being honest and brave enough to tell him. I left his office feeling better about it than I had in a long time.
After some further conversations, I expressed an interest in telling the other people I worked with. He said that I was welcome to share my story with the people on the team and that he would support me. I took it as a good sign.
Over several months, I started telling people. Everyone reacted well. I got a lot of support and kind words and offers to help if they could. I was encouraged.
Two years into my time there, I began this project. I got a lot of feedback that my story was important, that it meant something, so I started telling it more. Then I started soliciting questions. Then I started posting answers in a Google Doc. Then I started posting them here.
I’ve also started speaking about my experiences for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They were kind enough to train me on how to give these presentations, and I gave my first one a few weeks ago.
I also joined their advocacy committee, where I hope to be able to tell my story to lawmakers and help support mental health legislation.
This journey has been a hard one, and yet I know that it’s just beginning for me. I hope to be able to have an impact much bigger than I already have.
At the same time, I know that not everyone is in the same position as me. Not everyone can speak freely about their illnesses. Not everyone even wants to. That’s okay.
I’m happy to stand up on behalf of those without a voice. Those who can’t or won’t speak, for whatever reason. I can’t begrudge them that — each in their own time, after all. Speaking out isn’t for everyone, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it’s not for you.
Most importantly, I speak on behalf of those who are not alive to tell their stories. Who lost their lives to their illness.
Even if you can’t tell your story to the world, talk about mental illness to those you can reach. Your story is valid and valuable. You deserve to have a voice.
We all do what we can, no matter how big or small it is. I aspire to tell the world my story. Some people may only tell their journals. Both of those are valid means of telling your story.
I hope you can find a voice to tell your stories the way you want. Every one of us deserves to have a voice, and we all deserve to have their voices heard.