“Hey, when are you free? I’d like to check-in with you.” That’s the message I got from a colleague of mine, with whom I volunteer. We normally don’t text each other at all, so I felt a little uncertain as to what it was about. Incidentally, I was in hospital for intrusive audible thoughts and low mood. I messaged her back, telling her that I was sick and in hospital, and would meet up with her once I was out. I handed my phone back to the nurses.
A few weeks later, the colleague and I met at a Starbucks. I asked her what she wanted to check in about.
She said, “First of all, I want to say I really appreciate you sharing with me about your mental illness the other week while we were on duty.”
We volunteer as first responders, and we were on duty at an event, providing first aid. While we were chatting, she had shared with me the fact that she also volunteers at one of the psychiatric units in a local hospital and for the local crisis line as well. Pleasantly surprised, I continued the conversation by disclosing to her that I had been in the same hospital a couple times, once for psychosis, and another time for depression.
“No problem. Thank you for sharing your experiences, it made me feel okay to share with you.”
“I just wanted to check-in with you and ask if there is anything I should be concerned about? From what you disclosed to me, it seems like your illness can affect your judgement.” She then proceeded to ask me if the safety of the public and the safety of our fellow coworkers are a concern when I am on duty, if I can perform my job safely.
I reassured her, “No, you have no need to be concerned. My judgement is fine. If anything, when I’m ill, I’m more of a safety concern to myself. Plus, I don’t come volunteer when I’m unwell.” She didn’t seem content with my response. She asked if I would be willing to meet with our supervisor and another coordinator to discuss my illness. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure how to respond in the moment, so I told her that I would go consult with my support system and get back to her.
After speaking to a few close friends in the mental health community, they told me that I am not obligated to disclose any health information to my employers/supervisors. They have never been asked by their employer about their health history and current health status or treatment plan. The only reason I would disclose anything, would be if I needed accommodations, and even then, I wouldn’t have to explain or give any details. When I brought it up with my psychiatrist, he was indignant, and said that my colleague had absolutely nothing to worry about, and that he was willing to back me up and talk to her if necessary.
Three days later, I called my colleague back. I told her that I’d spoken to my disability advisor at school, my psychiatrist and my friends, and all of them gave me the same advice, that I have no obligation to speak to our supervisor about my illness. I also pointed out that her questions were actually quite stigmatizing, assuming that my psychosis skews my judgement in a way that poses a threat to others. I ended with emphasizing that I disclosed my illness to her in confidence and hoped she respects that. My colleague thanked me for getting back to her, and admitted that she realized she had been unintentionally stigmatizing in our conversation.
We’ve since moved on, my colleague feels more comfortable with the information I’d shared with her now, and we continue to work well together as first responders in the community.
What strikes me the most in this situation was not only the fact that my colleague held misconceptions about what psychosis looks like, but the fact that she was not unfamiliar with the mental health community. As a crisis line worker and someone who volunteers on a psychiatric unit, her reaction to my disclosure came as a shock to me. Fortunately, we were able to get on the same page eventually, and dispel the misconception she had initially held.
Yes, it’s true that at times of acute psychosis, our judgement can be impaired, and we may become a risk to ourselves or others. When in psychosis, I have delusions that lead me to believe I must sacrifice myself for the greater good, I get paranoid that people are following me and monitoring me through security cameras, I isolate from people, I have audible thoughts that tell me not to trust anyone or to kill myself. Needless to say, I don’t go to school, work or volunteer when I’m in that state. However, when I am well, the delusions aren’t as intense, the audible thoughts are silent, and I feel safer around people, and I have insight into when I am able to be a functioning, contributing member of society. SANE Australia states that violence is not a symptom of psychotic illnesses, that if a person is being effectively treated and not abusing substances, there is no more risk they will be violent than anyone else. BC Early Psychosis Intervention Program (EPI) also reiterates that people with psychosis are rarely violent and, in fact, they are at much greater risk of causing harm to themselves than to others.
To the people (friends, colleagues, supervisors) who hold the misconception that people with psychosis are a danger to other people, this is only true to a small minority of actively psychotic individuals. Psychosis comes in many different shapes and forms; before you ask someone if they are at risk of harming others, ask them, what does your psychosis look like? Try to learn about their illness; because psychosis is unique to the person, it is not a stereotype. The thing to remember is that when we are well, our judgement isn’t any more skewed than the average person, and we can think clearly and perfectly fine for ourselves.