Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Q. I was diagnosed with a mental illness a few years ago. Since that time, I have been unable to work. Those close to me know why I’m not employed, but casual acquaintances do not. (I’m married, with no children, which makes me a more unusual stay-at-home wife.) If I had cancer or lupus, I would most likely tell them the real reason. But because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, I am unsure about what to say.
A. You can tell whomever you like whatever you wish. And, of course, you have the right to keep your condition private. In that case, you can simply say that right now you are focusing on volunteer work or painting or yoga or whatever it is that you enjoy doing.
But it sounds as if you would prefer to be honest and are keeping quiet out of fear that people will react negatively to your disclosure. While such a response is possible, of course, consider this: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. You are in good company, meaning your acquaintances may be much more understanding than you think, and your courage has the potential to help many people.
I suggest that you come up with one brief explanation to use anytime this subject arises: “I’m in treatment for a mental illness right now, but when I worked, I did XYZ.” Then ask the other person what she does for a living.
She may have follow-up questions about your condition or be willing to move on with the conversation. Either way, realize that each time you tell the truth, you chip away at the silence and anxiety that surround you as well as other sufferers of mental illness.