Disclosing your mental health problems to an employer By Alex the student

In this piece I wanted to share, for my first time ever really, the anxiety that arises from the decision as to whether or not to declare your anxiety to your future employer! I count my University as my “employer” by the way. I’m 38 now and have been battling anxiety since I was about 16 pretty much. I’m in a better place (psychologically) now with anxiety, but it wasn’t always this way. I still get days or weeks of severe anxiety, but not as bad as in the past.

I’ve been on/off anxiety related medication for most of this time-scale (aged 16 to 38). Mostly this has been lengthy periods on/off the SSRI anti-depressant Paroxetine (Seroxat) which was a God-send for me, honestly it was! I have also been on Propranolol (a beta-blocker) and at times when my insomnia was debilitating, sleeping tablets.

When I was about 24 (rough guess), so about 14 years ago, I was successful at a job interview for a job I really wanted. My career has basically been as a support worker (mostly mental health client group) since I was about 21. I knew I had done well at interview, I had that feeling. I then got a call the next day saying my interview was brilliant and they really wanted me for the job. I was in heaven. Then a few days later I was called in by this company’s Occupational Health dept. for an interview to discuss my pre-employment health questionnaire I had completed. I went to this apt and the person asked me about my anxiety and the medication I was on. I told them I was still being treated my GP but highlighted by sickness absence from work in the last few years was excellent (it really was) and that anxiety did not impact on my ability to be a good employee in the field of mental health support worker (again, true. I have always had good or great references). They basically said “thanks for coming today” and I thought nothing more of it. After all, I had virtually no sickness absence the previous few years. Why would they be concerned about me as a new employee? I had aced the interview and had very good references from my current company.

I then got a letter a few days later saying the offer of employment had been WITHDRAWN due to “health concerns”. I contacted their HR dept. and was told, based on the Occupational Health report, I was considered an “inappropriate candidate” to recruit for mental health support work. I was told that its “stressful” working in mental health and it might “aggravate” my “condition”. I was absolutely gutted. Mortified. I was someone with lower than the national average sickness absence in all my years working and on a maintenance dose of an SSRI anti-depressant for anxiety. I was a successful support worker, well-liked by every organisation I had worked for. I didn’t fight this, I didn’t have the stomach. I just swallowed the bitter pill and tried to accept that my new job and career with this company (it was a London Council) has been taken away from me before it started.

From this point onwards, between the age of about 24 and 38 I NEVER AGAIN declared any history of mental health problems on these pre-employment health questionnaires. I always ticked “no” on that box about mental health, depression, anxiety and medication. I wasn’t ashamed of my anxiety problems, and I really WANTED to help fight the stigma, but I’d be DAMNED if I was going to get shafted like that again! Stuff that! So between 24 and 38 I probably had about 5 or 6 jobs, all were successful (i.e. I did well, left on good terms, good references, low sickness absence). My anxiety was that I’d lied on my health questionnaire application form. I knew that if I ever went on long-term sick for mental health reasons, it would come up if my employer contacted my GP. I know I’d have to give consent for this, but still, it could be tricky.

Then, when I applied for what I am currently doing (mental health nursing degree), I didn’t really have a CHOICE but to declare. But it’s done me good! I had to get a health questionnaire signed by GP AFTER I had completed it, I would then need to send it to my University! So I could hardly say “no” to the mental health question and expect my GP to sign it off!! They have known me for over 10 years.

So, I had got onto this mental health nursing degree with a very strong interview (they instantly offered me a place at interview), but what were they going to make of an anxiety disorder and a history of SSRI anti-depressant medication? Well, all of us at Uni have to be “health cleared” in terms of the course which is understandable. We have placements in wards and even in nurseries during our course, so people need to know we are fit to function as a student nurse and be able to get registered as a nurse after the 3-year degree. Nearly all my colleagues were seen by a health-care practitioner or assistant for their face to face interviews about their health questionnaire but I was seen by an actual Doctor. When I asked why… it was because of my declaration about anxiety and meds.

How do you think I felt about this based on my previous experience of disclosing? Yep, anxious and then some!!!! Couldn’t sleep the night before my interview (with the Doctor relating to my mental health nursing degree).

Okay to wrap this up now…. I had my interview. The doctor was LOVELY. She was fantastic. I told her everything. I told her how anxious I was about today’s interview and my previous experience with disclosing “stuff”. She told me “Look Alex, I have no concerns about you being on your mental health nursing degree”. She then suggested she records on her Dictaphone the letter to be typed by her secretary to my University. She did this in front of me, recommending me as medically fit for the course. She told me that this should help me realise that I was DEFINITELY being passed as fit for the purpose of the course. This was a massive weight off my shoulders. It meant I was definitely on the course. The last hurdle had been cleared!

So, should we declare? I want to fight stigma as much as the next person. I will always declare from this point onwards. I’m just so much more confident in doing it these days, but there are practical implications involved that cannot be denied. For some people, it might not be the right thing for THEM to declare.

PS – I help out and support the website http://www.anxietyunited.co.uk @anxietyunited (Twitter) – a great source of completely FREE support & resources for people experiencing mental health difficulties.

Follow Alex on Twitter via @AJ628studentMH

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2 thoughts on “Disclosing your mental health problems to an employer By Alex the student

  1. Hi Alex,

    Thankyou for writing this and for letting us use it in Care To Share Mag. It’s a crying shame that people such as Occy Health professionals (who really ought to know better) don’t seem to understand the value of peer professionals. I think you’re extremely courageous to disclose as a student and then to publish this account on the web.

    It’d be fascinating to know what experiences you have looking for work after you qualify.

    Did you see what I did there? This is me preparing the ground for a follow up article.

    Cheers,

    Stuart

  2. Hey Stuart.

    I only just spotted your comment here. Thanks for this. Thankfully the Occ Health Dr I saw to get onto my nursing degree was very understanding and was quick to deem me fit for the role. My previous negative experiences with Occ Health had been partly responsible for me not declaring m/h “stuff” for over 10 years in job applications.

    I guess one of the things we will never know, is how many of these jobs (in which I did well in every single one of them) I have had in the last 10-15 years would I have been offered IF I HAD DISCLOSED a history of anxiety problems that sometimes needed medicating. We will never know!

    I’d love to write something every 2 or 3 months for you Stuart. Let me know if you think I might have an “angle” on a topic you’d like to appear in here and I’ll give it some further thought.

    Cheers

    Alex
    @AJ628studentMH

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