We constantly make decisions about what personal information to share with others. When it comes to disclosing the details of our mental health, there is no one “right” way to share — some people can express their thoughts and feelings easily, while others take more time to open up and confide in a new person. Either way, what we decide to share — and how we do it — is our choice and depends on the nature of our relationships and interactions with other people.
Sharing your thoughts and feelings can foster a sense of intimacy and trust. However, there is also some risk in being transparent. Sharing too much information or telling the wrong person could enable someone to take advantage of you or discriminate against you. When deciding whether to disclose information about a mental health condition, it is important to understand whether this is someone you can trust with this information — and whether they will be supportive and caring.
Let’s consider a few situations in which you may face decisions regarding sharing information about your mental health and explore how you might go about doing it.
Most colleges and universities have an office or resource center to provide support and accommodations for students who have disabilities, which includes mental health conditions. These offices are referred to as Disabilities or Accessibility Offices on most campuses.
While this office can make recommendations about what kinds of accommodations are available and appropriate for you, it is still your responsibility to inform your instructor (or in the case of housing or residential accommodation, the university housing office) that you have been approved for specific accommodations.
In most cases, the instructor has final control over whether they will accept the recommended accommodations. They might want to know more about your mental health condition to understand how it could affect your academic performance.
While this inquiry might feel intrusive, remember that helping your instructor understand your situation will allow them to offer better guidance and support beyond the specific recommendations you received. They may be able to recall their own experience with teaching students with similar conditions and share strategies that were helpful.
There may be times when an emotional or mental health problem is impacting your ability to function academically, but it’s not at a level that is eligible for “official” accommodations. In these cases, you may want to let your instructor know about the problem before you fall seriously behind in your coursework. Consider checking in with your school’s counseling center for immediate support. The counselor, or any mental health providers you are already seeing, can help you decide how and when to have this conversation with your instructor.
If you and your mental health provider decide that you do need to have a conversation with your instructor, you should decide how you will share this information and what exactly you will share. You might make an appointment to speak to your instructor during office hours and let them know:
- The kind of problems you are having
- How these difficulties are impacting your academic work
- What steps you are already taking to get help and address the issue
Instructors are likely to be most supportive when you discuss an issue with them early on and show that you are taking steps to address the situation responsibly. It’s important to have a clear idea what you are asking of the instructor and to keep them updated on your status and progress. If you have difficulty coming to an agreement on flexible accommodations, you have a few options:
- Take your concern back to your counselor at the counseling service
- Make an appointment to discuss this with the disabilities/accessibility office
- Make an appointment to discuss the problem with the college’s dean of students or your academic advisor
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Federal law dictates that employers can’t make hiring decisions based on someone’s health or mental health condition unless that condition has a direct impact on the person’s ability to do the job. You only need to inform a potential employer about a condition or diagnosis if it will have a direct impact on your work.
For example, a person with severe asthma would need to disclose that information when applying for a job as a firefighter but not if they were applying for a job as a chef. Similarly, if you have claustrophobia-induced panic attacks, you would be expected to tell a potential employer about your condition if the job required you to regularly work in confined spaces but not if you were working in an open and calm environment.
Once you have been hired, your employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to facilitate your success at the job. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “common reasonable accommodations include: altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around medical appointments), time off for treatment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., providing written instructions, or breaking tasks into smaller parts), eliminating a non-essential (or marginal) job function that someone cannot perform because of a disability, and telework.”
Additionally, it is against federal law for an employer to fire you because of a mental health condition if you are otherwise qualified for the position and performing well.
Options to consider if your mental health symptoms are affecting your work
If you are receiving treatment for a mental health condition, you should discuss your workplace performance issues and goals with your therapist. Before discussing your mental health condition with a supervisor or the Human Resources (HR) department, you should consider:
- Who needs to know about your mental health condition (this will depend on the size and organization of your workplace)
- When and where to have this conversation
- What information you need to share
- What kind of support you are asking for
Remember, you are not obligated to share detailed personal or clinical information unless it is specifically required to receive accommodations. Be prepared to explain why you can generally perform your job responsibilities but are currently having some challenges. Making notes for the conversation can be helpful. Your supervisor or HR department may ask:
- Why you need accommodations or support
- What you are already doing to take care of the problem
- Whether you need to adjust your workload or work environment temporarily, or on a longer-term basis
- When you expect to be able to return to regular performance if the accommodation is temporary
It may be helpful to consider what this discussion might look like if you had a physical health issue. A broken leg might require you to stay seated for a few weeks but would otherwise not affect your job performance. Starting a new medication for high blood pressure might make you feel tired and less able to keep up with your workload, so you may need flexibility while you continue to work with your doctor and adjust to the treatment. The conversation about a mental health condition should be framed in a similar way.
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Your Significant Other
Many of us enter into serious romantic relationships for the first time as young adults. If you have experienced mental health challenges, it’s normal to have some concerns about sharing this information with them. How might your mental health condition affect a long-term relationship? When and how do you discuss your mental health history with a potential partner?
It’s important to remember that mental health conditions are common, and many challenges emerge during the teen or young adult years. You may still be figuring out your diagnosis and learning how it affects you long-term. Also, keep in mind that there are very few people who have no personal or family connections to mental health conditions, and it’s possible that your potential partner has their own experiences with mental health. They may even want to have this conversation just as much as you do.
Choosing when and what to share can be tricky, but this is true of managing relationships in general. You always need to consider how much to trust a new person in your life. One sign of a stable and positive relationship is when you begin to feel comfortable bringing someone into your internal life (expressing your thoughts, feelings, aspirations, values and personal history) as well as your external life (meeting friends and family or sharing activities and places you enjoy).
When you think of it from this perspective, sharing information about your mental health is part of a bigger picture. If you feel truly close to someone and trust that they know you as a person and care about you and your feelings, it may be time to begin to share your mental health history and concerns.
Some conversations are “bigger” than others, and it’s normal to feel uncertain or worried about sharing something personal and emotional. Try not to let your worries keep you from sharing for too long — delaying a conversation about your mental health might make your partner feel like you don’t trust them or you have been dishonest with them. If you aren’t sure how to start the conversation, it may be helpful to discuss this process with a friend you trust, a family member you are comfortable sharing with or your mental health provider.
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