Pros and Cons of Coming Out Of the Mental Health and Addictions Closet

For many, mental health and addiction issues are daunting; limiting quality of life and creating an environment of shame. When symptoms manifest, sometimes only the individual and those in their immediate circles are aware that they exist. Fear arises when one considers those among extended family, friends, co-workers and employers finding out. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there is a correlation between mental health disorders and addiction, including the following:

  • Approximately 50% of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse
  • 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness
  • Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29% abuse either alcohol or drugs

What Are the Qualms About Being Open?

  • Wanting to be seen as competent and capable, rather than weak
  • Denial that the issues exist
  • The erroneous perception that recovery is not possible
  • Belief that one is alone in their conditions
  • Shame
  • Uncertain job security
  • Being labeled as “crazy,” “unstable,” or “a junkie”
  • Anxiety about losing home, marriage or children
  • Considered high risk for health or life insurance policies
  • Discrimination around housing
  • Worries of retaliation
  • Self-deprecation
  • Concern about how family will be treated

Taking the Risk to Crack Open the Door

A few months ago, on a National Public Radio program, a teacher called in and disclosed that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He had openly declared to his supervisor, co-workers, students and their parents that he experiences symptoms but that he was of no danger to them as a result. He manages his condition with therapy and medication and it is in control. He was given praise for his professional skills and is considered a beloved member of the school community. For him, this was nothing short of necessary, in the spirit of teaching his students about being proud of who they are, regardless of what they experience in their lives. Another who was willing to come out from behind the veil is Daniel Kaye, a Philadelphia-area husband and father of an 11-year-old son. He works in a supervisory role in a department of a continued care retirement community. Kaye is supported hardily by his staff and management. In his case, having a stable job and being open about the depression and anxiety that have been companions since his youth are not mutually exclusive. Kaye initially made his feelings public via social media. His Facebook page became a venue for him to share the real and raw, without being sensationalistic about it. The response from those who knew him in the face-to-face world, as well as the Facebook world, was supportive. Some were concerned that he was exposing too much. He seems to see this confessional as a means of letting others know they are not alone. He also recognized that even in his multiple personal and professional roles, including that of serving on his local school board, he is, first and foremost, a human being going through life as gracefully and honestly as he can.  He has become a role model for authenticity.

The Internet as a World Stage

Using the Internet to admit addiction and mental health conditions is becoming more prevalent. A young woman named Rebecca Brown or BeckieO to those who watch her video-logs (V-logs), uses this format to highlight trichotillomania, an anxiety and impulse control disorder that has plagued her throughout her life. According to a report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) titled, “Self -Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services,” the reasons to share personal information include:

  • The need to become educated about one’s own condition so that one can educate others as needed
  • The importance of first disclosing to someone one trusts
  • The recognition that one can decide to share less with those people who may appear judgmental
  • The need to pick and choose when to disclose and under what circumstances
  • The importance of feeling safe when one self-discloses
  • The essential fact that each of us should be in control of how much to tell; we do not let anyone manipulate us into sharing more than we feel comfortable sharing

Social Networking for Online Support

Now that someone has chosen to make their plight public, how can they use social media as a means of giving and receiving support? There are numerous online groups that can be accessed to assist in managing symptoms and maintaining sobriety. An article in Social Work Today focuses on the benefits and offers cautionary words about using the Internet to provide encouragement. While online support groups are available 24/7, they are not meant to take the place of face-to-face meetings or engaging in clinical treatment. Often, people will isolate and substitute the advice they receive from peers, some of whom are uninformed and perhaps unstable themselves, for professional guidance. When in doubt, use discernment. The hope is that with more people taking the courageous step out from behind the creaky closet door, conversations can begin and stigma can end.

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