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When You’re Unsure Whether to ‘Lie’ About Your Mental Illness on a Job Application

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We all know when writing a resume, you should write either “good” or “excellent” when you refer to your health. Any other response will make it certain that your resume will be headed straight for the circular file.

But what about your mental health? Most resumes and job applications don’t include a space for that, but what if they did? What would you answer? What should you answer? And should you tell the truth?

In one corner of England, job seekers were encouraged to hedge their bets or flat-out lie. The British newspaper The Guardian reported welfare personnel “have urged jobseekers who have depression to hide their diagnosis and only admit on work applications that they are experiencing ‘low mood.’”

Fortunately, there has been a backlash from mental health organizations, who describe the advice as an “outrage” likely to increase stigma. They point out that “the law provided protection to disabled people, including those with mental health problems, if their disability has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on normal daily activities.”

The welfare department in question brushed off the controversy by saying the suggestion was only “well-intentioned local advice,” encouraging people seeking jobs to “speak freely about a health condition or disability.” But that’s not a choice everyone is willing to make.

Whether or not to disclose one’s mental health condition when applying for a job is not an easy decision. American law (at the moment) protects employees and potential employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But many people are rightly suspicious that disclosing a mental illness on an application is a one-way ticket to unemployment. Even when applications invite you to disclose and pointedly proclaim they abide by EEOC regulations, many people choose not to disclose.

Disclosing after you’ve been hired or have been working at a place for a while is another matter. Many people (including me) have lost jobs because their bosses and coworkers don’t understand mental illness. There is plenty of motivation never to mention it.

That may not always be possible, however. Sometimes, the symptoms of bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness are obvious and negatively affect work. (I’m included here, too.) If a person isn’t able to do the work — for whatever reason — it’s understandable they will be let go.

That brings us to the subject of accommodations that permit a person to do the work. Under ADA law, persons with disabilities, including mental disorders, are to be given “reasonable accommodations” to help them perform their job duties. For blind, deaf or mobility-impaired workers, these accommodations are obviously necessary and most employers can and will provide them. (There is also no question as to whether to disclose these disabilities or not. Invisible disabilities should be just as widely understood as visible ones.)

Accommodations for mental disorders need not be difficult, either. Solutions, such as flextime, work-at-home situations or time off for appointments are more and more being offered to all employees, regardless of ability level. These can certainly help people with mental illness, too.

Other reasonable accommodations might include flexible break times, an office with a door and full-spectrum lighting, or the understanding that phone calls and emails need not be returned instantly. Of course to receive these accommodations, one must disclose the disorder and negotiate the possible solutions, which can certainly be daunting — if not impossible — for those with anxiety disorders, for example.

But what we’re talking about here is not whether to disclose a disability on an application or to an employer. What we are talking about is misrepresenting a potentially disabling condition — or to use the less polite term, lying about it.

I don’t have “occasional mood swings,” I have bipolar disorder. My depression is not simply a “low mood,” it can be debilitating. And I suspect even admitting to a “low mood” might be greeted with something less than understanding by a potential or actual employer.

Ayaz Manji, a senior policy officer at a mental health charity in England, said of the semi-disclosure policy: “Anyone who discloses a mental health problem at work deserves to be treated with respect, and jobcentres should not be reinforcing stigma by advising people not to disclose.”

He’s right, of course. Disclosing or not disclosing is a hard enough choice for people with mental illness. Lying about one’s condition should not even be a consideration. And isn’t lying on resumes and applications an automatic cause for dismissal?

Image Credit: Janet Coburn

Originally published: November 6, 2019
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