When Do You Tell Someone About Your Mental Illness?


FROM MY FILES FRIDAY – I first published this blog in 2010, but the question is still germane. When do you reveal that you have a mental illness?


What I like most about writing a blog is that it provides all of us a venue for exchanging ideas.  
One of the many questions that my son and I wrestle with is: When should a person with a mental illness reveal his disorder? 
Should he disclose it on a job application when he is seeking employment?
Should he bring it up during an interview for a job?
When my son is dating, when is the best time — if ever — to mention it?
My son scolded me once when I told him that he should not disclose his bipolar diagnosis to a potential employer unless specifically asked.
 “You’re always telling me that I should not be embarrassed or ashamed of having an illness, yet you want me to keep quiet about it,” he said.
“I wish it were different,” I replied, “but stigma is stigma, and you aren’t going to get hired if you mention it without being asked. Tell the truth if asked, but otherwise don’t volunteer it.”
In my book, I describe how frustrated I became when my son was turned down for a job at a local grocery store — despite having a college degree.
I called a friend of mine who is a human relations director at a successful company and asked her for advice. She told me that she sympathized with me, but it really wasn’t about my son.
It was about liability.
If my son acted out after he was hired and other employees found out that she had hired him knowing that he had a mental illness, then the company could be liable, she explained.  She told me to keep mum.
Disclosure is a serious issue whether it is at work, with friends, or when dating.  I have been contacted by police officers who have told me that their futures would be jeopardized if they revealed that they had a mental illness. I’ve had a pilot tell me that he kept his severe depression hidden.
Those of us who are old enough, remember how Thomas Eagleton was dumped as a Democratic Vice Presidential candidate after he revealed that he had suffered from depression, was hospitalized, and had undergone shock treatment.
 Fear keeps us silent. It also increases stigma. 
What can you contribute to this conversation?
Please don’t forget the flip-side.
How would you feel if your son or daughter told you that she was dating someone with a mental illness?
Share your stories with all of us please. Did someone end a relationship when they found out that you had a mental disorder? Were you the victim of discrimination at work because of your illness? As a parent, what do you tell your son or daughter about revealing their diagnosis?
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. I used to work in politics BEFORE i knew i was mentally ill. Now that i know, i will only work in a ‘friendly’ environment. It’s not worth it to me to hide who i am anymore. That solves the problem for me. What is a friendly environment? A good relationship with your boss. It can be done. After all, as i learned in politics, it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know…

  2. Yolanda67 says

    Does a job application ask questions about one’s physical health, of which mental health is a part? No, it asks if you’re able to do the job, which one is compelled to answer accurately. In person relationships, if they are intimate, like all health issues you should offer full disclosure.

  3. Terri Wasilenko says

    In a perfect world, the American Disability Act is supposed to level the playing field. Medical issues are a private matter, if the issues don’t interfere with your ability to work, an employer has no right to that information. An interviewer cannot ask if you have a mental illness. If you have a disability that is apparent during the interview (blind, deaf, deformity), the employer can only ask the person about reasonable accommodations he/she may need. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
    There are still too many businesses that discriminate against employees because they are too old, a certain race, a woman, pregnant, married, have children and have a physical or mental disorder. Sadly, you can be an extremely talented person but if you don’t have a positive connection (know the right person) with the employer/company your chances of being hired are small, especially if you are chronically mentally ill.

    We tell our loved one to preview part time employment opportunities that he believes he can do within his current capabilities right now. Like many young men his age, he wants to be employed, marry and have a family. He has not found his dream job yet, but does very well as a NAMI NYS trainer for the In Our Own Voice peer program. He wants so much more……..

  4. KristenKringle says

    I am awed by the courage of those who have gone public. I do not have that courage. I do believe telling would affect my job prospects, and I also fear that I would be viewed through the lens of the diagnosis. I don’t want to be seen as a diagnosis, I just want to be seen as a person.

    I would eventually tell someone I was dating if it became very serious, otherwise I would keep it to myself.

    I do not tell my dermatologist, because I don’t think it’s necessary. I tell my PCP since he’s also prescribing – it took a lot for me to admit the drugs I take as I know the stereotypes that are out there and feared I would be judged.

    I don’t feel I owe the world my personal medical history

  5. Liability is a big issue, especially in this world of people who are looking for a viable law suit that will be lucrative. Mum is the word when looking for employment. Luckily my son works sporadically for NYS NAMI, and full disclosure is encouraged so that as a trainer for one NAMI’s signature programs, “In Our Own Voice”, my son can share with others like him what makes him unique and give hope to others who have a mental illness.
    In a personal relationship, my fatherly advice has always been to guard his heart, and when the relationship goes into a more serious level, then he will know when the time is right to disclose whatever he chooses.
    I once heard him speak to a group of people in a church setting during the National Prayer week for mental illness that he felt blessed to have a mental illness, for it made him into the man he is today. He often gets knocked down by this monster that torments him 24-7, but he gets back up and presses on.
    As a parent who has unconditional love for his child, I only pray that he can find a partner who also will have that kind of love for him.
    We strive to eliminate stigma, but we have SO FAR to go to change public sentiment about mental illness. Unfortunately, the media often works against our mission as stigma busters when there is violence and mental illness is conjunction. When there is more compassion from those who know nothing of mental illness and are willing to get involved, then we will see change and our loved ones with mental illness
    can come out of the shadows!

  6. Bruce Hanson says

    What absolutely must happen societally is that the mentally ill must no longer be specially categorized. I am beyond tired of referring to them as clients, consumers, or the mentally ill. All those titles are intentionally dehumanizing. If we don’t see them as real people then we don’t have to be involved. We can keep them at arm’s length. I don’t refer to my friends as Bob the diabetic, Sally the asthmatic, or Jimmy the incontinent. We won’t discuss how they refer to me. While mental illness is a more difficult to define illness, it is still an illness, and should not define who one is. The only time I would be sure to mention it is every 5 years, when Social Security tries to find a reason to take away my benefits. Then, I will be really really sick. At 65, I am not certain I will have a lot longer to do this, but until I am gone, my goal will be to see that John is just John, not John THE MENTALLY ILL.

  7. Would FDR have been elected 4 times over if Americans saw that wheelchair?
    How many mentally ill hide their diagnosis to get hired, just like FDR?
    Humans need to put their best foot forward, their best face on, and have been doing so for thouseands of years.
    The key, maybe, is to put mental illness in a favorable light – instead of presenting it as a horrible, debillitating irreversible,unpredictable condition.
    Why not disclose? “Oh, by the way I have bipolar, schizophrenia”
    “No kidding – hows that going for you – I’ve heard a lot of people nowadays are living quite normally with it…”
    “Yeah, I’m lucky, the meds work, and I’ve got a great therapist – my life has never been better, considering…”
    ” Thats great! Is there anything I should know to help me be a better, friend, (employer, whatever,)”
    Anything else is the negative prattle of ignorant, immature, ill-informed people. Stigma is based on fear. Add ignorance and immaturity and you have a severe stigma problem.
    The reason the recovered M.I. population hesitate to disclose is because the majority of American society are ignorant, fearful, and too self-absorbed to take the time to understand illnesses they would rather close their eyes to.
    It takes guts to disclose. And real humility to respond appropriately to one who discloses.
    Morals – until this country develops some – -most mentally ill will mimic FDR and keep the illness out of the picture.

  8. Freida Potter says

    My baby sis (who is now 26) was diagnosed with anorexia and a panic disorder as a preteen and spent quite a bit of time in patient at Sick Kids in Toronto – she’s been in recovery (stable, not hospitalized for 8+ yrs, still on meds for anxiety) and is now a social worker. She told her employer (provincial government) about her illness and works with kids who have mental illnesses.

    K often tells her clients (kids) and their parents that she too has a mental illness, sought treatment and got better. And that her clients can too!

    I truly believe that her life experience is what makes her really good at her job. (I also think that parents, who often don’t want their kid diagnosed with a mental illness because of the perceived stigma, come around when K tells them about her experiences. If for no other reason that K is a living, breathing example of the POSITIVE results of seeking treatment!).