Stigma about mental illness is largely due to misunderstanding or prejudice that stops people seeking help or disclosing their condition when it may be useful to share that information.

The reality is that most people affected by mental illness, with the right support, are capable of leading fulfilling and productive lives and make valuable economic and social contributions to our society.

Organisations are increasingly becoming aware of their duty and responsibility in ensuring their people feel supported at work, particularly in matters related to mental health. If your people are properly educated and on-boarded, organisational mentor programs can be an effective tool in raising awareness of mental health allowing people to be more effective in their work and life.

Therefore, it is important that organisations equip both their mentors and mentees to consider the issue of a mental health condition in the context of the mentoring relationship.

For mentees

Making a decision about whether to tell your mentor about your mental health condition can feel big. In a supportive environment, sharing this information can be helpful in ensuring your mentor understands your perspective and challenges in growing you in the ways you have identified together. It also gives you the opportunity to use the skills you have developed in relation to your career.

Some things to consider in deciding whether or not to disclose your condition:

  1. Is it relevant?

    Your mentor does not need to know all aspects of you and your life. For example if you are wanting to learn about financial management software, and it is a short term relationship, there may be no benefit to disclosure unless your work together is being impacted. If however, the focus of the mentoring relationship is about seeking promotion and you become symptomatic, disclosure may help ensure you and your mentor set appropriate timeframes around the goals you set.

  2. Is it safe?

    Do your trust your mentor to treat the information respectfully and confidentially? How has your mentor managed sensitive information in the past? Your mentor may want to talk with a trusted colleague to seek further advice to ensure you get the best support, but it would be reasonable to expect that the information not be shared widely. You may want to discuss what may be shared prior to making the disclosure. Consider the costs and benefits of accessing both within and external to the workplace.  

  3. What is your plan if the mentoring relationship is impacted?

    Do you feel confident to raise any changes that occur after the disclosure, initiating a conversation or seeking mentoring elsewhere if required? It may be worthwhile considering the benefits of accessing a mentor based at your workplace versus one which is external to the workplace depending on the issues being raised and your level of comfort in disclosing personal information.

  4. What steps have you taken to manage your own mental health outside the mentoring relationship?

    Are your expectations in sharing the information reasonable? Consider how you are hoping your mentor will respond, and how the relationship may evolve. In a healthy and safe mentoring relationship it will enhance both the quality of the relationship and the work done.

  5. Remember it’s a two-way street

    If you do decide to disclose, offer to share some resources that may help them to understand the situation better. This is an opportunity for you to help them test their own vulnerabilities and improve their EQ.

  6. Take care of yourself

    Make your mental health a priority to get the most out of your mentoring relationship.

For mentors

Sometimes, in the course of a mentoring relationship, a mentee will disclose that they have a mental health condition. This can be useful in ensuring that you have a complete picture of what the challenges and opportunities are for them in achieving the goals they have set for themselves.

It can be confronting as you consider what this means for how you interact with the person and what they are able to achieve. For example, identifying attending a large networking event may be problematic for someone experiencing high levels of anxiety, and a smaller event may be a more achievable goal.

Conversely, there may be opportunities for the person to use the skills they have learned in managing their mental health condition to maximise their potential for success. Considering your mentee’s mental state can enhance the work you do and create greater satisfaction in the relationship.

Here are five top tips for responding to mentees with a mental health condition:

  1. Ensure you develop your awareness generally of mental health issues.

    One in five Australians experience a mental health condition in a given year and almost one in two will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime.

    Suicide is the leading cause of death for males and females aged 15-44, and an average of eight Australians take their own lives every day.

    Given this, basic mental health literacy is a must for anyone engaging in relationship based work, whether you are aware of it or not, you are likely to have a colleague, mentee or mentor who has a diagnosed mental health condition at some point in your career.

  2. Having a mental health condition does not mean the person is always experiencing symptoms.

    Talk with the person about where they are at and what they need at that time.

  3. Listen respectfully and without giving advice.

    Your role is to support the mentee in the goals they identified, not to provide solutions to their mental health challenges. Refer back to the person’s support network (e.g. GP, psychologist, family) where necessary.

  4. Identify someone in your network

    Who has specific expertise in mental health to check in with or seek further advice if required.

  5. Believe in the capability of the mentee to achieve their goals.

    Continue to work with them collaboratively to make the most of the mentoring experience.

To learn more about your rights and responsibilities where mentoring occurs in the context of a workplace relationship, visit: https://www.headsup.org.au/healthy-workplaces/legal-rights-and-responsibilities

If this article raises concerns for you or someone you care about contact Lifeline for further information and support on 13 11 14.

Find out how to address mental illness in the workplace.