Disclosure with Mental Illness

I was sitting in my job interview for an adjunct teaching position at Hinds Community College in Pearl, Mississippi. I was very excited to be there, for it was going to be my first attempt to work since I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006. I had spoken over the phone to the English and Modern Foreign Languages department head, Mrs. Stephanie Woods, as soon as I heard about the open position where we discussed my qualifications.

I had taught Composition I and II at Mississippi State University for six semesters twenty years before, but that experience plus my M. A. degree in English seemed to be qualifications enough to do it now again, twenty years later. So we scheduled an interview, and I started the eternal internal debate:  how much to reveal about my condition and when to do it.

In America, those with disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.  It protects us from discrimination in hiring because of our disability and allows us to request accommodations under the law to enable us to do the core functions of the job to the best of our ability.

Often we are counseled not to reveal the disability until the job is offered, but I felt led to lay it all out on the table for her before formally discussing when I might teach.  I was going to explain to her that I just wanted to take on one class my first semester to make sure that I could handle the stress of teaching at all.

After we began talking, I realized that she was not actually interviewing me for the job—she had already made the decision to allow me to teach and we were just going over the details of what the job called for.  That made me feel great, but it jarred up my scheduling of “the talk”.  So at an open moment during the discussion, I took a deep breath.

“I feel like I need to explain something to you,” I said.  “I have been diagnosed for the past five years with bipolar disorder, and with this job, I am attempting to see if I can work at all with my condition.”

She paused, then said, “I certainly can understand that.  We’re certainly willing to work with you so that you can be comfortable with the workload.”

I said, “How would it be for me to only take on one class in the spring semester to see how it works?”

“That sounds fine to me,” Mrs. Woods said.

Just as natural a conversation as can be.

I was shocked.  Teaching college freshmen is not for the faint of heart, I knew that from experience.  I was glad that Hinds Community College could see through my condition to see my qualifications and desire to teach well enough to take me on, problems and all.  I say to other job seekers to reveal their condition at the right time in the interview, but only you can know the correct time.

The same goes for all relationships, whether platonic, romantic, or professional.  I have very rarely gotten a negative reaction from someone when discussing or revealing my condition for the first time, but I realize that it can be very shocking to some people, particularly in a professional setting.  My advice is to be as honest as you can be about your situation, as professional as possible in presenting the information, and as mindful of other people’s emotions as possible.


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