A need to know basis

One of the things about which I thought deeply after I was diagnosed was whom to tell. On the personal side, the choices were fairly easy; I told a few trusted friends and family members. On the library side, it was more challenging. I wasn’t actually worried about losing my job, although it’s definitely still a valid concern for many with mental illness. My performance evaluations were good, I received positive comments from my bosses and the public, and I’d just helped bring our library district out of a difficult time. Even so, there’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. As noted in the articles linked above, people could look at you more skeptically and judge you more harshly if they’re made aware of your condition.

As a librarian, I know that information – the good, the bad, and the ugly – has a tendency to spread whether you want it to or not. Wrong information has a particularly bad habit of ferreting its way around. (See: fictional connection between autism and vaccines) By telling people about my dysthymia, I lose control of that information. With my friends and family, I could choose to tell only those I trusted. With the workplace, I wouldn’t get to be so discerning. Would those I told tell other people without my permission?

There was another odd quirk I had to consider: I’m the boss. We’re a small independent library district, with fewer than twenty employees. As library director, I’m responsible for human resources and nominally in charge of the district. I do have a supervisor, five of them, to be exact. Special library districts in Oregon are independent governmental entities overseen by elected five-person governing boards. They’re kind of like a city council, but they just focus on the library. (Or whatever the focus of the particular district. Did you know that vector control districts are a thing? I didn’t until I got this job.) That board also supervises the executive director, i.e. me. However, the Board only serves policymaking, fiscal, and strategic planning functions; they’re not responsible for day-to-day library operations.

So, to get back to the question at hand, whom do I tell at work? My illness could adversely affect the library’s operations pretty dramatically. I didn’t feel like I needed ADA accommodations for my mental illness (that link applies to men, too, by the way), but there could be times when my work suffered. Do I tell the whole board? Just the board president? And whom among the staff should I tell? If I’m falling down on the job, they’re the ones that will have to pick up the slack. Will they question my motives for telling them, like I’m trying to cover up for poor job performance? Will they think I’m just looking for pity? Will they believe me in the first place?

Ultimately, I chose to tell the two people whom would be impacted the most: the board president and the assistant director. I trusted both individuals, and my trust has proven well-placed. The decision was made easier when I started thinking about it as like telling them I had a physical or neurological disorder. It’s common courtesy to tell those most affected at work about times your work performance might be impacted. Since telling those two individuals, I’ve become much more open about my dysthymia. Several other staff know now. I mean, it’s not like I sent out a library-wide email or anything; I really, really don’t recommend sending out a company-wide email. Sometimes the issue would arise in personal conversations, though, and people have been very accepting.

I look forward to the day when choosing whom to tell about your mental illness is as unremarkable as telling people you have epilepsy or a peanut allergy. Until that day comes, though, speaker discretion is advised.

About Buzzy

I'm a librarian. And a government bureaucrat. And I have a mental illness. Sometimes I write about these things. View all posts by Buzzy

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