“Who Can I Trust?”: Mental Health Communication, Privacy Management, and Organizational Socialization

“Who Can I Trust?”: Mental Health Communication, Privacy Management, and Organizational Socialization

Sarah E. Riforgiate, Alexis Madson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-3753-7.ch001
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This case study serves as an impetus to begin discussion about how communication theories uniquely contribute to understanding mental health communication during transitions from organizational life as a college student to subsequent post-college workplaces. This case illustrates communication privacy management theory and the organizational socialization model by following a student, Valerie, as she enters college, works through mental health issues, and enters her job after college. Through conversations, internal dialogue, and events, the case reveals the ways that communication functions to shape Valerie's understanding of what and with whom she can share her mental health needs.
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College is an important organization that shapes work communication expectations for many (Kramer & Dailey, 2019). College is designed to help students enhance their knowledge base, develop skills, and prepare for future careers through coursework (Ruder & Riforgiate, 2019) and internships (Woo et al., 2017). Additionally, college is often the first occasion when individuals live independently, necessitating the development of life-related skills for self-care. These numerous experiences inform future work communication expectations, including what emotions and information are appropriate to communicate and how to seek necessary assistance.

Importantly, college students require active, healthy minds to learn what is needed while balancing the demands of coursework, paid work, and other adult responsibilities (John Hopkins University, 2021). However, college students also experience considerable stress that manifests from many sources including academic demands (Alsulami et al., 2018) and financial strains (Student Loan Hero, 2021), among others. COVID-19 compounded mental health concerns as many students faced increased challenges related to food insecurity, unstable housing situations, and reduced technology access (Lederer et al., 2020). In 2020, 71% of students reported feeling greater anxiety over concerns about the health of loved ones, decreased ability to complete coursework, difficulties getting adequate sleep, and feelings of isolation from social distancing restrictions (Son et al., 2020). These demands contributed to mental health declines, and college student mental health issues are on the rise (Lipson et al., 2019). The 2020 Healthy Minds Study found that 39% of college students reported having either moderate or major depression. Further, Chen and colleagues (2019) shared that 87.3% of students indicated that at some point they “felt overwhelmed by all [they] had to do” and that almost 10% of students seriously considered suicide (p. 445).

Taking these statistics to heart, colleges continue to develop resources to assist students with mental health concerns (Carrasco, 2021). Unfortunately, numerous barriers prevent students from seeking help and using resources including a lack of perceived support, concern about stigmas (e.g., shame, guilt, regret, embarrassment, etc.) (Vidourek, et al., 2014), and fear of technology privacy violations (Joyce & Weibelzahl, 2011). Experiences before and during college influence help seeking behavior related to mental health concerns (Meluch & Starcher, 2020). Learning what and to whom to disclose is an essential step in locating and using resources, and these communication behaviors have implications in future organizational contexts.

This case study is designed to generate discussion about how students and new employees make communication decisions when disclosing mental health concerns using two theoretical lenses: communication privacy management theory (Petronio, 2010, 2013; Smith & Brunner, 2017), and organizational socialization (Jablin, 2001; Kramer & Dailey, 2019; Riforgiate & Kramer, 2021). The case follows Valerie as she enters college, addresses mental health concerns during college, and subsequently enters a professional organization as an employee. Through conversations, internal dialogue and events, the case reveals the ways communication shapes Valerie’s understanding of what, how, and with whom she shares her mental health needs.

The next section describes mental health and mental illness. Then, communication privacy management theory and organizational socialization are detailed as frameworks for understanding communication patterns. Subsequently, the case study is provided, followed by a section synthesizing Valerie’s communication and the theories. Finally, discussion questions are included to facilitate conversations about communication, disclosure, and mental health.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Anticipatory Socialization: The first stage of the organizational socialization process that involves communication encounters prior to entering an organization and how those exchanges shape expectations of organizational member behaviors (Ruder & Riforgiate, 2019).

Privacy Ownership: When an individual believes that information belongs to themself or specified others (Meluch & Starcher, 2020).

Privacy Control: When an individual has the right to contain or disclose personal information (Meluch & Starcher, 2020).

Risk/Benefit Assessments: Individuals anticipate potential negative consequences and positive outcomes to determine if they will share private information (Wilson et al., 2020).

Metamorphosis Stage: The third stage in the organizational socialization process when an individual feels like a full-fledged organizational member (Jablin, 2001).

Vocational Organizational Anticipatory Socialization: This represents part of the first stage of the organizational socialization process in the anticipatory socialization stage and involves communication related to how individuals learn what it means to be a member in a particular field, industry, or type of position (Kramer, 2010).

Contextual Criteria: The circumstances that influence disclosure decisions such as “life experiences (e.g., traumatic life events) or other contextual circumstances (e.g., the appropriateness of a topic being discussed at work)” (Meluch & Starcher, 2020, p. 770).

Organizational Anticipatory Socialization: This occurs during the first stage of the organizational socialization process in the anticipatory socialization stage and involves refining general expectations by obtaining information specific to a particular organization (Kramer, 2010).

Privacy Boundaries: Barriers created through communication rules that delineate what personal information belongs to individuals and others and how that information is allowed to be shared (Wilson et al., 2021).

Organizational Socialization: This four-stage model explains how individuals learn about, enter, become members, and leave organizations, including specific communication behaviors that are prevalent during each of the stages (Jablin, 2001).

Communication Privacy Management (CPM) Theory: This theory explains that individuals experience a dialectical tension between keeping information confidential and being open to predict communication disclosure decisions. Factors such as privacy ownership and privacy control predict if individuals will experience privacy turbulence when dealing with personal information (Petronio, 2010).

Organizational Exit: The fourth and final stage of the organizational socialization process when an individual leaves an organization for a variety of reasons (Godager et al., 2021).

Privacy Turbulence: When boundaries around personal information are ruptured because individuals have different understandings of information ownership and control (Meluch & Starcher, 2020).

Encounter Stage: The third stage of the organizational socialization process that occurs when individuals become new members of an organization and use direct and indirect communication strategies to learn what it means to be an organizational member and what behavior is appropriate (Heiss & Carmack, 2011).

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