How to talk about mental illness in job interviews

Well this is an interesting one.

Earlier this year I did a lot of job hunting. I job hopped quite a bit and couldn’t settle (much to the disapproval of others) but the good thing is that I interviewed a lot. Like, a lot.

Now the thing with openly managing a blog that is primarily about mental health, and then later publishing a book on the subject, is that it always raises questions from a potential employer. Everyone has different interview styles, things they like to know and focuses, but the one thing that always, always comes up is the “So why do you write a mental health blog?”

Then later, “Why did you choose to write a book about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?”

I always make the choice to be honest here – “personal experience” – then I get asked “Why do you have PTSD?” Or better still, “What is your PTSD from?” As in, “what is the traumatic event you endured that literally changed your brain forever because it was, believe it or not, traumatic?”

The first time I was asked this in an interview, I was very surprised.

I totally understand why you’d ask about somebody writing a blog and a book – especially someone usually in a content focused role, like me – but I thought that asking someone why they had PTSD was a bit much.

I’m an open person – we all know that. If you read my blog from the first ever post in December 2015 to this one, now, in December 2018, you’d probably find yourself going through a whole process with me about my mental health symptoms, treatment and recovery and, at the end of the day, I put my entire life so far into a book and published it. I think it’s fair to say I’m pretty open about this stuff. Which is why I always answer that inevitable interview question honestly, but I have to say that sometimes it’s really hard to do that. Sitting face to face with somebody I’ve never met before and telling them about the traumatic event that led to my PTSD diagnosis can be a bit uncomfortable – especially in a professional environment.

I think it’s because I’m so open online about my mental health and the difficulties that I’ve had with it that people assume that I’m happy to chat to them about it – whenever they want.

When I go into an interview I’m prepared to talk about my career, achievements and why I could be a good fit for a role or business, and springing questions on me about why I have PTSD can be very insensitive.

If I thought it would help somebody and could be a useful conversation I absolutely would have it, regardless of whether I knew them or not, but I’ve found potential employers meeting me for the first time and asking about my childhood trauma to be pretty not-on, to be frank.

Do I have to talk about my mental health in a job interview?

No. You do not have to talk about your mental health in a job interview.

Now first things first, let’s not forget that legally a potential employer can’t actually ask you about your health until a job offer is made – unless it’s likely to stop you from doing your job (so like unfortunately you can’t choose to be a pilot if you’re colour blind for example). So either my interviewers thought that having post traumatic stress disorder would hinder my ability to do my content-writing and/or social media management jobs, or they were asking questions they shouldn’t really have been asking.

I’ve even been asked outright “is this likely to have an impact on you at work?”

I wanted to say “Well are you abusive?”

But I didn’t. I told him I’d put in a lot of work to get to where I am now with some brilliant therapy and a lot of strength actually, so I’m proud of it.

To be honest I could understand why they would want to know this – if it was coming from a “how can we best support you?” place. But I knew it wasn’t. It felt like it was coming from a “will you need time off?” “Are you going to cause problems at work?” kind of place.

In the end I grew to expect these questions and tried to establish a balance of an employer trying to understand the implications that my mental health condition may have on my work life, and being what I found to be quite insensitive. And then, in the most recent interview I had, I was asked nothing about my mental health whatsoever. My interviewer told me he’d seen my blog and that I’d published a book and thought that it was all brilliant but focused on what I could bring to the job. It won’t be a surprise to you that this is where I decided to work.

ANYWAY so –

How do you talk about mental illness in a job interview?

1. If you don’t want to, don’t

2. Be aware that your interviewer can’t ask you about your mental health in any way other than to find out if it will impact your ability to work: the personal shit should not come into it

3. Try to pick up on the ‘vibes’ from your interviewer during this conversation (if you have it). I’ve turned down second interviews before because I got bad feels about an interviewer (and I stand by that decision fully)

4. Don’t be afraid to ask how the business supports employee wellbeing and if they have any initiatives in place (i.e are they sensitive and do they give a shit)

5. Allow yourself to focus on your achievements both inside and outside of your mental health experiences and be confident in your ability – bring it back to how it’s a strength of yours (because yes, it is) and focus on why and how you can do the job

6. Be honest. Even if it’s scary. I’ve always tried to be as honest as I can about this because I wouldn’t want to be hired and then find that my new employer can’t cope with any requirements I might have or are unable to support me if and when I need it. I’m true to my story: I do have PTSD, I’ve had a lot of treatment and I’m doing a lot better now being able to manage my triggers and symptoms day-to-day and I put a lot of work into that but of course, some days take a lot more work than others.

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1 Comment

  1. Kim
    July 9, 2020 / 12:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve never been asked about my mental health in an interview before, but now that I talk about it more on my blog, any prospective employers would be able to find out about it. I’m lucky we have some mental health support at work. If only my anxiety would stop getting my body to cry when I’m triggered that would be great!

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