I Told the Whole Office I Have Schizophrenia

6 min read

“I have something I’ve wanted to say at work for a long time,” I begin. “I haven’t, because I’ve never heard of anyone ever doing this before, and part of me still can’t believe I’m about to do it. But it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and I have something to say.”

Deep breath. Once I say it out loud, I can never take it back.

“I have schizophrenia.”

I’m on a Zoom call with my entire office—literally, every single employee, fellow, and intern. We even delayed the start time by 10 minutes because a couple of colleagues were stuck on a call so that I could make the announcement to all my coworkers at once. The pressure is on.

Making the Decision to Come Out

I made the decision to come out at work fairly spontaneously. I had emailed a friend to ask if he would do a presentation on serious mental illness at my job with me if I hypothetically decided to come out. When he emailed me back a very enthusiastic “yes,” I checked my work calendar and realized the head of the nonprofit organization I worked for was going out on leave in two days. That gave me exactly one day to tell her I had schizophrenia and ask her if I could do a presentation.

When she agreed to let me do the presentation—and responded to my coming out to her in pretty much the best way imaginable—it was game-changing. I hung out with some friends a couple days later, and they said I seemed more like my old self than I had at any point since my onset. When I told my colleague at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where I volunteer, she burst into tears. None of us—myself included—ever thought I’d be able to be out about having such a serious mental illness in the workplace. But I was going to take the chance anyway.

Sadly, a series of awkward coming-outs had taught me that a presentation would probably be necessary. Earlier on in my recovery, I’d subconsciously believed that if I acted like I was perfectly OK with my diagnosis, perhaps I could will myself into acceptance. I therefore told anyone who would listen that I had schizophrenia, and I didn’t always get reactions that left me feeling great. Sometimes, it was obvious they didn’t know what to say. Other times, they were judgmental. In light of these experiences, I knew that if I wanted to come out at work, I would need to explain my disorder and how I wanted to be treated in light of it.

Building a Presentation

So my co-presenter and I got right to work building a presentation from the ground up to destigmatize serious mental illness in the workplace. We’d both done tons of mental health stigma reduction presentations before, but none quite like this. The workplace presentations I’d given in the past largely focused on depression and anxiety, as they encouraged audience members to start conversations and seek support for their own mental health. I always felt out of place sharing my story in those contexts, since as far as I know no audience member could ever relate to my experience with a disorder that only affects about 1 percent of the population.

But this presentation would be different. This wasn’t about the audience members and their mental health. This was about me and my mental illness. This was about breaking stereotypes that people like me are dangerous, violent, unpredictable, and unreliable. This was about training my coworkers to be allies to people like me who have some of the most stigmatized mental health conditions.

After my proclamation in front of the entire office, my co-presenter and I shared our personal journeys with serious mental illness. “People like us are dehumanized in the media a lot,” I explained. “So we want to begin by humanizing ourselves.”

My co-presenter went first and did a fantastic job, as I knew he would. When it was my turn, I told my whole story exactly as it happened, without glossing over any of the “craziest” things I did or believed. I explained how I believed a team of psychologists was controlling all aspects of my life and experimenting on me against my will for 10 months. I told stories of talking to myself on the street, breaking into houses and cars, shoplifting, getting tackled by police officers, and getting sedated by injection against my will on multiple occasions. And my coworkers listened empathetically. They laughed at my jokes and flashed expressions of genuine concern when I talked about the stigma and discrimination I faced.

We then transitioned into a discussion of how my colleagues could be allies. “I wanted to go over how you can use the most empowering language possible to talk about people with psychiatric disabilities,” I told them, “and I’m excited. It just feels really great to demand respect when you’ve been marginalized, so thank you for letting me do that.”

Mental Health Stigma Essential Reads

After the presentation concluded, my coworkers broke into applause. More than half of the audience emailed me to thank me. My favorite note said that that person had already started conversations about serious mental illness with those around him.

It’s always a high to tell your story, but it’s multiplied manifold when you do it in your own workplace. For days, I watched the recording I’d made of the presentation over and over again, cheering myself on. I showed it to my mom, my grandparents, and my friends in the mental health advocacy space.

Coming out at work is one of my proudest accomplishments. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the kind of thing I can put on my resume. I was brave and stood up for what I believe in, and I refused to hide or apologize for who I am. I believe the day will come when those with serious mental illness are accepted and respected, and it’s actions like this that will get us there.

Copyright Sally Littlefield.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours