Sunday, June 21, 2009


Something that was drilled into us during school was the idea that you can't take a client further than you've gone yourself. In otherwords, deal with your own crap before you try and help people deal with there's. If you can't bear to face your childhood, how can you help your clients do so etc... Well, that teaching has been in my mind a lot lately, and here's why.

Working in employment we talk a lot about "disclosure". For my clients, this would mean choosing to disclose to their bosses, supervisors, human resources (whoever) that they have a mental illness. I find that some of our staff, one in particular, really look down on the clients who refuse to disclose, even when they're having problems. In some cases, they'd rather look for a new job. And some of our staff just can't comprehend why a client would feel this way. I totally get it.

See something I've been thinking about a lot since this topic started coming up at work is disclosing my own mental illness, and if I did, who would I "disclose" to, and what would that look like. Actually, I'm not a fan of the word disclose as it really implys something hidden. I kind of prefer to see anxiety as a part of me, and just as I wouldn't share intimate experiences at the work place, I don't share about my experiences of anxiety. Lately though, things have been sucking. They had been going quite well for a while, but then the seasons changed again, from spring to summer, and things haven't been going so well (i'd love to know what it is about the change in seasons that sets me off).

When in comes to the idea of talking to my supervisor about my anxiety, I'm not actually that nervous, I'm just not sure I see a point. One of the objectives of disclosure is to make accomidations, and right now I certainly don't need accomadations. On the other hand, if I was my supervisor, I might like some advanced warning in case things came up and I did need some accomadations. So I can see both sides. I think I'd also feel better around my coworkers if I could say something like, "my anxiety is really bad right now, so I'm going to shut my door and take it easy for half an hour and see how I'm doing". It would be reassuring and less isolating. On the other hand, on our team of 8 there is 1 person I would NOT want to know, and that makes disclosing to the team quite hard.

So in terms of clients. I'm realizing that this is an issue that will be close to my heart if it comes up in counselling. I fully believe I am capable of helping a client through it, I'm not giving the client advice or an opinion afterwards, but even in the questions I ask, and the direction I choose to go with the client, I'll have to be quite careful.

Any thoughts on disclosing mental illness in the workplace? Is it good? Bad? Neither?


Sgt. Social Worker said...

I don't know how helpful this is but I have crohns diesase which is about as fun as a mental illness let me tell you. I just tell people. I get it out there, name it, claim it, etc. That way when someone needs me and i'm making 3 times an hour trips to the bathroom they understand they may need to wait a few minutes or if I don't partake in the pizza party for their birthday they'll understand its not personal its poopsernal.

I find that my naming it and claiming it and putting it out in the open it diffuses the situation. Makes it less of a big deal...

I hope that helps?

antiSWer said...

"Something that was drilled into us during school was the idea that you can't take a client further than you've gone yourself."

I've never bought that. I think it's more about being willing to face your problems. We're all flawed in some way or another and if we're expected to have all of our problems dealt with before we help someone, no one would ever be able to help. I know a lot of messed up people that have done a lot of really good work.

As for the question, I think it really has to be done on a case by case basis. I don't think a blanket policy should be in effect.

Our society is not at a place where it's nothing to disclose a mental illness. I've heard of a lot of discrimination based on mental illness and developmental disabilities when it really wasn't necessary (they were MORE than capable of doing the work well). Keeping it quiet is sometimes the only way a person can prove make it thought the door and prove his/her worth in the job.

cb said...

I think it is entirely dependent on the situation. With a client you never want to become the issue or the focus yourself and sometimes talking about things you might have or do experience can detract some of that focus away from the person you are working with.
There will always be potential situations when it may seem more appropriate - it's just difficult to quantify them. You can associate and empathise though, without necessarily disclosing.. in short, I don't know the answer!

talesofacrazypsychmajor said...

I can't imagine doing it for a psych related job. I kinda fucked myself over in this regard. I started with art where being crazy is expected and now and with psych I feel more than ever that it needs to be hidden.

Still Dreaming said...

Wow guys, thanks for all the thoughts! I'll reply better later as I'm never good this early in the morning...

Anonymous said...

My yoga teacher would say "what's your intention?" i.e. in your case what would be the intention in disclosing to people?

I do sympathise with the anxiety - this is something I had really bad for a while (lived with having panic attacks for a long time). I took up yoga and that helped tremendously - I now teach it too! (something I could never have envisaged).

I still get anxious sometimes - the way I deal with it depends. Sometimes I go and find a quiet space and do some breathing (alternate nostril breathing is brilliant for calming down the nervous system) and/or some meditation (simple breath based meditation). Sometimes I'll say to people "I'm just feeling a bit anxious at the moment". Sometimes (if I can) I go outside and walk in the fresh air. When I'm not at college/working I'll do other things like relaxation tapes (brilliant way of calming the nervous system if you do them regularly), have a warm bath or a shower or ... whatever soothes. Preferably something healthy (as opposed to TV, alcohol etc!)

I'm 'out' to people on my social work course re: my past history of panic attacks. But I would be wary of being open about this in a workplace generally. People aren't always as open minded as they appear to be and there is such a stigma around mental illness.

So then, for me, the question gets back to "what's your intention?" - in terms of disclosing this information to others. If it's to take some pressure off you, what are you doing at the moment for yourself that can take the pressure off you? Are you doing any of those things? Or are you just hoping that by telling people how you feel they will accommodate how you are at the moment? (that's not meant to be an unpleasant judgement - just a question to consider). Do you need to tell people ? If you did tell them what do you think you would gain/benefit from telling them this information?

Other things to consider - have you sought some help from others outside the workplace to support your health? E.g. naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, yoga, counselling, exercise, eating better ... I could go on!

Be honest with yourself if you decide to disclose - just be real clear as to why you're doing it.
Good luck and I hope you feel a bit steadier soon.

socialworkemergency said...

I say don't do it. I think self disclosure at work is like a sugar rush. You feel so good at first; your honesty and openness brings relief and you feel lighter, energized by the support of your peers and supervisor and the renewed empathy you have for your patients. In the end though, it leaves you tire of having to keep quiet when you have something to say because you may be dismissed as "having a bad day" or you sense that your performance is being measured with your "issues" in mind. I have seen friends of mine in several settings suffer because peers used the disclosure to advance their own careers; they were targeted when things went wrong, and they were robbed of any confidentiality. I hate to be so negative; I think it should be just as acceptable to disclose anxiety or depression as it is to disclose a seizure disorder or a hearing impairment. But it really isn't. Even in social work.

Enlightening the Darkness said...

I'm looking to become a social worker so I can't speak from direct experience. From reading the writings of others, whether or not people will be supportive is uncertain.

I've heard and read comments from people with mental illnesses working in fields related to mental health describing stigmatizing comments and experiences from co-workers who ought to be more understanding. At the same time, they were often taking about mood disorders and schizophrenia, which face a lot more stigma than anxiety.

Perhaps your safest bet would be to talk around your anxious feelings rather than directly say you have been diagnosed with anxiety. For example, tell your supervisor that you need a break to collect your thoughts, that you're feeling a little overwhelmed, something like that. What do your co-workers say when they're feeling stressed?