How to 'come out' as an employee with mental illness
Coming out for the first time—whether it be as gay, trans, or a person with mental illness—can be the greatest challenge and the bravest act of many people’s lives. Questions emerge: Will my family accept me? Will my co-workers? Will my career be affected? Will I feel safe at work? At the doctor’s office? Out in public?
It’s not extreme to ask these questions. Though the nation has made great strides in recent years in terms of LGBT rights, nearly a sixth of LGBT adults have experienced discrimination at the doctor’s office or in another health-care setting, and a fifth say they’ve gone without medical care due to fear of discrimination, according to a poll by the Harvard T.H. Chan School, NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Similarly, though employees with mental illness are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, mental illness remains stigmatized in the U.S. For that reason, studies show that individuals with severe mental illness receive less consistent medical treatment, and they’re often hesitant to share their condition with employers and colleagues.
I’m among those who was hesitant to do so. In 2014, I was working as a media supervisor at another agency, keeping quiet about the acute rapid-cycling bipolar disorder diagnosis I’d received in 2007. However, after actor and comedian Robin Williams’ suicide, I felt compelled to share my own experience.
Of course, that realization brought with it fear: I was afraid of how it would impact my job and my ability to grow in my career, and I was worried about how people in the community would see me.
But that year, I came out—for the first time. And after opening up about my mental health with friends and co-workers, I was inspired to start my podcast, “Our Fractured Minds,” as a forum to discuss mental illness. It was on that podcast that I came out again last year, this time as a transgender woman. And let me tell you: Coming out of the closet once in a lifetime? That’s hard enough. Doing it twice? Absolutely terrifying.
Now, I’m trying to leverage my personal experiences and my media expertise to fight for a more empowering future.
The mental health meet-up
In March, I acted as organizer and host for SXSW’s second annual Mental Health Meet-Up. To my surprise—and delight—everyone in attendance expressed that they’d love to just tell their stories. It was incredibly powerful to witness, especially because some talked about things they’d never talked about with anyone—not a therapist, not friends, not family members. There were real tears, hugs, love and care.
Experiences like this—that break down barriers, destroy inhibitions and ultimately build us up—are exactly what I hope to create with my work in health-care media. For me, it isn’t just about helping to promote a drug, product or experience. It’s about helping people feel empowered about the care that they have and helping them know that they have the power to take control of their own health journey.
In order to accomplish that mission, it’s vital that I feel personally empowered in my workplace. I loved my previous company, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that my co-workers were looking through me to the person I used to be. I needed a fresh start.
My current employer has a wonderful LGBT affinity group and garnered a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. But when we moved into a new office last month, which required us to share common space and restrooms with three other agencies, I constantly worried that someone who didn’t know me and my story would make a snide remark in the bathroom or, worse, try to report me as being a man in the women’s bathroom.
Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened. I’ve since grown more comfortable in our new space, but that initial anxiety highlights the uphill battle that a transgender person faces in a workplace that wasn’t built for us.
Not all organizations are so accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community—and these companies are losing out on valuable talent and productivity. They also risk losing an important perspective on a large community of consumers. It isn’t “just” morally right to offer safe spaces to others who are transgender, let alone the rest of the queer community, but good for business.
And doing so requires more than just a spirit of inclusion; it demands an active effort to understand our concerns and perspectives. Asking about us, showing a willingness to put yourself in our shoes, and empathizing with our struggles—and, ultimately, hiring us—are great places to start.