How to Disclose a Mental Health Issue

Mental health and illness is largely invisible. But whether or not to disclose your struggles puts a ton of pressure on your shoulders. Should you tell your best friend? Your date? Your impatient boss? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen walks you through this tough decision.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #230
alone in a crowd

Version #1: Test the waters.

On one end of the spectrum, disclosure can be partial and very subtle. Slip it in as part of a conversation to test the waters. For instance, rather than, “I have social anxiety,” you could simply say, “I always feel so awkward meeting new people,” or, “I go blank when I’m the center of attention.” Drop some breadcrumbs of disclosure to get more info on the other person’s responsiveness and understanding. From there, you can decide to move forward or hit pause.

Version #2: A natural segue.

Moving up the continuum, you might work a deeper disclosure into natural conversation. Bring up your OCD after Howie Mandel gives feedback on America’s Got Talent. Or talk about your bipolar disorder after Demi Lovato discusses her diagnosis on a talk show. You don’t have to set it up as a dramatic reveal complete with a Law and Order “dun dun.” Instead, it can simply come up in conversation when it’s natural.

Version #3: Frame it as doctor’s orders.

Another consideration: frame it as you would a physical health issue. Think about how you would disclose a new hypertension or diabetes diagnosis, and use that as a template. For instance, you may say by way of introduction, “I got some news from my doctor I want to share,” or simply, “I want to update you on my health.” 

Version #4: A serious sit-down.

Of course, you can always go whole hog, especially if the person you want to tell isn’t the greatest listener or has a history of laughing things off. In such a case, frame the discussion beforehand. Tell them you want to talk about something important and challenging and that you trust them and want their support. 

No matter how you decide to disclose, hopefully, people who get it will want to know how they can help. So consider giving them something concrete to do. Ask for whatever you need, whether it’s encouragement not to drink, some slack if you’re irritable as you trial new medications, extra encouragement to get out of the house and see friends, or just a hug once in a while.

Finally, there’s no need to sugarcoat things, but give them something positive to walk away with—say that you’re a fighter, that you’re taking steps in the right direction and sharing with them is one, or that you’re grateful for their friendship and support.

Disclosure doesn’t always go as expected. Sometimes that means disappointment, but sometimes it means being surprised with an outpouring of support. And who knows? Sometimes you may even get a disclosure in return. 

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For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.

Alone in a crowd image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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