David Baxter PhD
Navigating disclosure: Who is worthy of our trust?by Melody Moezzi, bpHope.com
Feb 6, 2021
Decisions about disclosure are tricky and personal; there’s no one-size-fits-all answer that works for everyone. The key is, what’s best for you?
It’s been more than a decade since I first publicly shared my bipolar diagnosis, and not once since then have I ever regretted it. That said, decisions about disclosure are tricky and personal. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer that works for everyone. In my case, full disclosure to the world (in this column, in my memoir, on NPR, on CNN, in the New York Times—you get the picture) made sense, because I’m an author, activist, and public speaker who dispenses ideas for a living.
Still, having worked in more traditional occupations in the past (as an attorney and a professor), I fully recognize that on the spectrum of standard professions, mine sits way at the bottom, somewhere between circus performer and war photographer. But regardless of how typical (or atypical) our personal or professional circumstances may be—whether we work a steady 9-to-5 job or a 24-7 position as a parent, or are unemployed or underemployed due to disability, or some combination thereof—there are certain questions we need to consider when grappling with decisions around disclosure.
First up: To whom will we disclose? Before deciding when, how, and how much to disclose about our condition (which I will address in my next few columns), we must first decide who is worthy of our confidence. Chief among the factors to consider are dependability, compassion, and capacity to help in light of our particular situation and relationship.
When it comes to disclosing to friends and family, remember their track records: Have they been supportive in the past? Have they ever betrayed your confidence? Do they genuinely care for your best interests?
Coping and thriving with bipolar disorder takes courage and perseverance, and the more folks you have in your corner, the better your odds. Certainly, people can be compassionate without knowing every detail of your medical history, but in my experience the more informed your trusted friends and family are about what you’re going through, the better equipped they are to help.
Nevertheless, some friends and family members are less discreet and reliable than others, and disclosure is emotionally taxing. Take your time deciding who is and isn’t capable of responsibly receiving this information.
For instance, while my immediate family knew my diagnosis before I did (because they found me help for the manic episode that led to it), the first person to whom I chose to disclose was my best friend from high school. Over the years, she had proven both considerate and trustworthy—and as a rare added bonus, she also happened to be a psychiatrist with a unique capacity to help me understand my condition. So disclosing to her felt safe and smart.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t easy. I told her through tears over the phone from a locked psychiatric unit, and I felt mortified. She had always known me as this strong and outgoing activist. I feared she would consider me weak or damaged, but ever a faithful friend, she saw me as neither. Instead, she told me I was brave and gifted, that plenty of people like me were living and thriving with bipolar disorder, and that she would help me get through this. And she did.
But again, it was difficult to disclose to her, even though she was a reliable friend and a psychiatrist. Point being- disclosure is tough!
Tougher still is deciding whether to disclose to people who hold power over us, such as employers or school administrators. But it’s well worth considering, because these individuals are able (and in some cases required by law) to provide reasonable accommodations for people with mental health conditions.
Even so, each employer and school administrator are different. Your boss, for example, may be able—and even legally bound—to provide accommodations. Nonetheless, if historically she has refused to do so for other employees, then you may want to take that into account before disclosing to her. You may want to speak with other employees in more general and hypothetical terms, or even consult with an attorney before making your final decision.
Again, there is no standard answer here. But there is a standard principle: think this through. Not everyone in your life deserves or needs to know your diagnosis. But when you choose the people with whom you share it, you claim your power as your own best advocate.