Abandoning my alterego

Clark Kent takes off his glasses and suddenly he’s Superman.

Jo Farmer leaves work and suddenly she’s a person experiencing mental illness.

The facade is superficial but somehow works.

For a long time, this was me. A mental health consumer who happened to also work in health policy. I kept the two sides – the personal and professional – entirely separate.

But there came a point where this didn’t seem to work for me. I was increasingly using my spare time to work on advocacy projects and using my lived experience in an advisory capacity on policy and evaluation projects.

My manager at the time asked me if I was ready to make my illness a part of my professional identity. He didn’t mean the question in a bad way – disclosure is not always a positive thing. I didn’t answer straight away. His asking of that question has rung in my mind for the two years since.

He reminded me recently that he’d asked that question and that clearly I had now come to an answer – a resounding yes.

But what does that mean for me?

Disclosure is not my choice

I have written and spoken publicly about my mental illnesses for more than two years now. The cat is well and truly out of the bag.

In some ways this is a positive – I didn’t have to navigate the complex disclosure terrain of disclosure in seeking my last two roles because it was simply part of the package – get me and you get all of me.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I, like many people with mental illness, can point to numerous times when my disclosure of mental illness has affected me professionally (thankfully not recently). Those experiences carry scars that shape my self-stigma – the nagging voice in my head that disclosing my condition is a bad decision.

Wellbeing at work

But now I have no choice over disclosure, I see it as my duty to use that voice as much as possible. I am in a privileged position to be able to use my experiences to demonstrate that people with mental health conditions can (shock!) have both a diagnosis and a flourishing career.

This informs many of my actions at work. As a people leader, I aim to lead by example and for all the buzzwordery around ‘authentic leadership’, that’s the kind of leadership I aspire to. Strength in vulnerability.

I share my experiences and the techniques I use to rein in my brain in the hopes that I can contribute to the environments that allow other people to flourish. Not just people with mental health conditions but people in all their diversity and the challenges and opportunities that brings to work.

Make the world a little bit better

Having a mental illness has given me some of the worst times in my life but knowing I can use my professional skills and personal experience to make the world a better place gives me a purpose in life I didn’t know was possible.

I’ve been through some stuff. (Who hasn’t?!) And throughout, my goal is always to make the world a little bit better than it was before for all the other people out there going through their own stuff.

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