I gave a plenary talk recently at the excellent UCLA ISAP conference, and spoke
about how many times I’ve avoided talking about my own behavioral health in the
workplace. When I looked back at my career, often I had outright lied rather than
disclose mental health or substance use disorder struggles of my own, or my
family’s. And all my workplaces have been in health and social services!
In some ways it seems normal; most of us have been raised to separate work and
our personal lives (this artificial separation has many patriarchal attributes), we all
have different levels of comfort with self-disclosure, and of course, when disclosures
concern our family members, we take their wishes around privacy into
consideration. The more I reflected on my own lack of disclosures though, it became
clear that my omissions were more about stigma than any of these things. This
insight became clear when I noticed the difference between my comfort in disclosing
what were considered ‘physical’ conditions, vs. those that were considered
I’d never disclosed the harrowing four months my husband underwent ECT for
depression; although years later I didn’t hesitate to share at work when he’d been
diagnosed with a treatable cancer. Neither decision had been about my husband’s
preferences. He always said he didn’t mind me telling anyone either of these
things. I’d been very open about my lower back going out twice in one year, sharing
freely even with those who hadn’t asked; while in contrast I facilitated an entire staff
meeting on post-partum depression, never disclosing taking anti-depressants for
three years after my son was born. I called my daughter into school ‘sick’ when she
was suffering from depression so badly she sat on the couch and cried in her
And I know I’m not alone. Most of us don’t talk about behavioral health at work –
even in health care work environments. Mind Share Partners did a wonderful report
on mental health at work; what they found won’t surprise most of us: 60% of us
experience mental health difficulties that affect us at work – and the same
percentage, 60%, had never talked to anyone at work about mental health.
Our health and social care organizations can lead the way for other fields in inviting
the emotional health of all our employees into the organization culture and
conversation. We can ensure that we talk about mental health and substance use
disorders as much as we talk about traditionally physical conditions.
I’ve committed to disclosing honestly about behavioral health in everyday
conversation, especially at work. I’ve noticed when I do so, often others are quick to
share as well and the conversations are richer for it. Recently I was at a wedding
when someone I work with asked me what my husband does since he is retired. I
took a deep breath and said he goes to AA meetings and socializes with his buddies
in the fellowship. They shared about someone in their family in active addition. When
I was in the early stages of discussing work with a new colleague, around obesity, I
pushed myself to tell her I had a history of an eating disorder, and consider myself in
recovery in that area. She then shared with me her history of obesity, and the stigma
she has endured in health care services.
What we are silent about often strengthens the stigma around it; I’ve come to believe
that it can be an act of social justice, just telling the truth about what we experience.
Wishing all of you well, and I’d love to hear from you!
CEO & Principal Consultant
I have been interviewed on a few podcasts recently, both about communication in healthcare. The first is on Healthcare Communications: Effective Techniques for Clinicians. You can check it out HERE. The second is on Complex Care Today about the Power of Motivational Interviewing.
Listen to it HERE.
“Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a
professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the
rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all
personal.” – Sheryl Sandberg