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Coming Out as Depressed

Two 20-somethings on telling their partners and co-workers the truth about their mental health

Nobody owes it to anyone to “come out” as depressed. Disclosing health conditions — whether physical or mental — is always a personal decision. In particular, divulging information about mental health can feel a lot more stigmatizing than owning up to chronic eczema or even IBS, despite the fact that one in five American adults experiences some form of mental health condition every year.

Silence, however, can cause people with depression, bipolar disorder and other emotional health conditions to drop out of their personal and professional relationships if for no other reason than to evade conversations about what’s really going on with them. In relationships, this could mean ghosting someone they really like just to save themselves from having to reveal their true selves. At work, this can mean changes in their function, performance and salary. For instance, according to a 2008 National Institute of Mental Health study, “Those with serious mental illness reported earning significantly less — around $22,545 — than respondents without serious mental illness, who averaged $38,852.”

Still, letting your loved ones and co-workers know that you’re depressed or bipolar brings with it all kinds of unknowns — two of which are the most basic to human existence: Will this person still love me, and will this place still provide me with the money I need for food, clothing and shelter?

To better understand what it means to come out as depressed — and all of the ramifications (good and bad) the decision brings with it — I spoke to two 20-somethings about their experience doing so, as well as MEL’s HR columnist Terry Petracca about how such a decision is perceived by employers.

Kirby, 24, Cook

I’m clinically depressed and have suffered bouts of addiction. In terms of my professional life, my shit got disclosed for me. I was hired at the restaurant I currently work at because my supervising chef knows the guy who’s been my most specific mentor in the kitchen. I cook the way I do because of the way he taught me to handle myself as a cook.

He’s also the guy I called when I was about to relapse on coke. I’d been using a lot at work previously, but I got clean after basically overdosing. I’d been clean for a few months, but suddenly, I felt out of control and on my way to sniff an eight-ball again. I told him I felt crazy and didn’t understand what was going on. The addict part of my brain was telling me to start blowing lines at work again. When I called him, I felt so depressed because I knew the consequences — namely that if I kept up this addictive shit, I’d end up killing myself — but somehow I couldn’t imagine getting through a shift without coke.

My boss at the time reassured me and advised me to talk to my parents about further recovery and healing options. He took me off the schedule, but he didn’t fire me because I told him what was going on. He handled it respectfully and promised to help me figure out another job when I was ready. But I basically quit. There was no way I could prioritize work at the time, not with everything else going on in my brain. I ended up taking a month off from any kind of work and got right mentally — or at least made strides toward doing so. It’s so hard to care about your work when you aren’t healthy. It’s hard to be creative when you’re just trying to get through the fucking day.

At the end of that month, I saw a posting that advertised an opening at one of the most famous kitchens in L.A. They were hiring line cooks so I applied. What I didn’t know is that the woman doing the hiring was friends with my old chef. She called him the minute she saw his restaurant on my resume and grilled him about what my deal was. She wanted to know why I wasn’t working with him anymore, especially because it had just won a prestigious award and was doing really well.

He told her I was great, but that just confused her more. What was I doing unemployed then? Why would I have left? That’s when he told her I dealt with depression and addiction issues. Luckily, perhaps because the culinary world is full of complicated personalities, my mentor vouched for me, and she hired me.

I had no idea she knew about my past until she told me she was really proud of me about eight months after I’d started. I thought she was kidding at first, but then I realized how much improvement she’d seen in me. For example: I got kicked out of my living situation the day I started training with her, so I literally showed up with two bags of clothes. I had to pretend I was coming from the gym just to conceal the larger issues at play in my life.

I’m lucky someone took a chance on me, knowing that I’ve had rough patches. But I’m almost glad someone besides me had that conversation with her. That said, these days, I’m like Eminem in 8 Mile: I’d rather own up to everything fucked up about my past so that nobody has anything to say about me that I haven’t already admitted — to myself most of all. Basically then, I now tell everyone at work where I’m at and where I’ve been. That way, if they notice something’s off, they have more context for the behavior, which helps us get through it without damaging any of our relationships or lowering the quality of our work.

As for romance, I was dating someone during my deepest drug spiral. We heavily used drugs together. When I started going out with my current girlfriend, who also cooks at the restaurant I work at, I came clean about the depression and drug stuff immediately. When I did, she admitted some of her own stuff to me and that was really cool. We built a common ground that was healthy without pretending to be perfect.

Honestly, if anything, I probably over-communicate at this point — just to make sure I don’t make anything worse by not expressing it. Plus, I want her to understand me better, and that includes telling her all the fucked-up stuff, too.

Terry Petracca, HR Specialist

I coach people not to disclose anything in the interview process that isn’t relevant. For example, nobody can ask you if you have kids, and nobody can ask you if you have a disability. The only way potential interviewers can get around that during the interview process is through some careful phraseology like, “Is there anything that could prevent you from doing this job?” Another way they may ask it is, “Are there any accommodations you might need for doing this job?”

Whatever your situation is, you need to think about how you would answer those questions. If you have a physical disability — i.e., you’re sight-impaired and need special video assistance — you should mention it. But if you’re a manic depressive and following your treatment plan, your answer should be “no,” because it probably won’t require any special support.

If you do have clinical anxiety or depression, it’s a good idea to tell someone you trust at work (not necessarily your boss) about your condition and explain to them how it manifests. Say, for example, that you suffer from anxiety and have an attack at the office. It’s important someone else knows it’s an anxiety attack and doesn’t mistake it for an asthma attack — and so sticks a piece of wood in your mouth to prevent your tongue from rolling back into your throat. Similarly, if you change medications, you should tell somebody, because nobody knows what the hell your reaction is going to be.

The main time to talk to your supervisor is when your mental illness is interfering with your performance. If you’re a good employee, your manager is going to do whatever they can to figure out the right ways to help you, and if they don’t know what type of services your company has available, they’ll work with human resources to figure it out. Likewise, if you’re usually good at your job, your employer will notice major changes in your presence and where your head is at when something like this flares up.

There’s one caveat, though: If you have a reputation as a slacker, it’s pretty much the opposite story.

What complicates the issue is that so many people self-diagnose their emotional issues and are quick to say they suffer from anxiety or depression. But we can’t self-diagnose depression, just like we can’t self-diagnose diabetes. Your doctor needs to tell you what’s going on and recommend a course of treatment. Feeling anxious at a new job or in a new office surrounding is normal; it is NOT clinical anxiety. There’s also a difference between being sad and being depressed — no matter how much you loved the significant other you just broke up with.

Rose, 27, Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology

Different amounts of disclosure are right for different people. I have a friend who’s been diagnosed as bipolar and experienced many severe depressive episodes, but none that her fiancé has witnessed. She’s shared about her past, but he’s never experienced her during those times. It raises the question of, what does it mean to commit to someone when you’ve never been with them during a time of mental health crisis? Especially when such episodes are a recurring part of their life.

My last job was at juvenile hall, as a counselor working with a bunch of kids kept in cages. I noticed, though, it was frowned upon to talk about how the work was impacting me emotionally in the group-process spaces that were supposed to be safe for that exact thing. While there was a surface-level sentiment that “Burnout is real” and “Self-care is important to maintain this work,” people weren’t comfortable sharing their more vulnerable experiences.

I found that really disappointing, especially given the nature of our work. But I think that double standard is common in a lot of professional spaces. Companies are quick to say they want to know us and that they want us to be well; however, if you take them up on it, they’re quick to call that sort of processing unprofessional. There were so many times at that job where I was trying to conceal what I was feeling because the message I’ve been sent is that being emotional is being unprofessional. That’s confusing to me because the work I do is emotional. I think it all must comes back to stigma.

When I applied to my doctorate program, I wrote about my experiences with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in my letter of intent. The prompt asked why I wanted to earn such a degree, and I basically told them that my BPD makes me uniquely qualified to relate to people dealing with such conditions. I assumed it was okay to self-disclose my condition in that context. Long story short: I received an unprofessional behavior advisory form because I self-disclosed too much in class. Later, in class, an instructor was teaching us psychopathology by reading straight from our textbook and showing us YouTube videos. When I brought up how my experiences with anxiety are different from those that were being depicted, I got pulled aside and reprimanded.

After that happened, my pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction. I became determined to share nothing about myself. If my truth was going to get me in trouble, I felt like I better shut up. But that sucked. Talking is a big part of participating in classes. Nor did it feel like me not to participate. So I had to really redefine my style of self-disclosure.

My professional icon is Marsha Linehan, who developed a special therapy approach for BPD patients because she has BPD and was hospitalized for it at a young age. It was only once her methods became popular and proven to be evidence-based that she admitted she had BPD herself. Pretty early on in my program, one of my supervisors told me not to tell anyone I had BPD until I reached Linehan-like levels of success, because that would make people misunderstand me. So I’ve listened to him and learned to rephrase the way I disclose information about my mental health.

This applies to dating just as much as it does my academic and professional life. There, too, I’ve toned down the intensity of the language I use to talk about my experiences. Instead of saying, “I have BPD, and I was hospitalized after getting cheated on,” and all of these other things that would make people hesitant to get involved with me, I’m now learning that it’s best to let them get a good idea of who I am first.

Now I’m relatively stable and have my shit together, so I establish that before delving into some of these old parts of myself. Starting there gives people the chance to know me, and gives me the chance to be known as someone other than my wild past and mental health. Also, I don’t want to attract people who are eager to invite that kind of drama from my past into their lives. Along the same lines, rather than focus so much on the labels I’ve been given, I prioritize sharing some of the core themes or feelings I struggle with.

In retrospect, I realize now that when I began school, I should’ve gone to student disability services because their job is to advocate for students who require or could benefit from special accommodations. I wish I’d known that five years ago, but I didn’t realize such a service applied to me because it’s not like I needed extra time on tests or anything like that.

When I spoke to an adviser about this recently, she told me I could’ve negotiated things like having an agreed-upon attendance contract, because the main way in which my mental health stuff impacts my professional abilities is in terms of attendance. Sometimes I just can’t be there. So when I seek future employment, that’s something I could bring up if I feel comfortable doing so. I could promise from the beginning that if I miss more days than my sick time allows, I’d make them up at the end of my given contract or whatever. Having a care plan in place for when predictable issues come up is a relief because it makes those issues less shameful.

From a psychological perspective, shame is one of the only emotions that doesn’t serve an evolutionary purpose. In this way, shame is similar to guilt, but whereas guilt can sometimes function positively as a cue that a certain behavior doesn’t align with your values, shame just makes people feel bad.