Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, or How to Get Fired
My coworker Ricky is a photographer, and I asked him to take some pictures for my personal blog. Upon hearing its name he said, “You’re bipolar? Cool." Ricky is the kind of person who appreciates perceived shortcomings as character building. And he likes people with a lot of character.
Stigma Led to Disclosing My Mental Illness at Work
Some time later, Ricky and I were discussing our department intern with another coworker, Holly. When faced with a street closing in Manhattan, the intern couldn’t fathom walking around the block to reach her destination. This behavior was unfathomable to Holly, who offered that the intern must be bipolar, and that lithium must have addled her brain. My response: “I'm bipolar, and I take a ton of lithium. I’m not incompetent, and I'm offended.”
Unfortunately, the workplace perception of bipolar is probably closer to Holly’s than Ricky’s. The Americans With Disabilities Act states that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of a mental or physical disability, and that reasonable workplace accommodations should be made to allow the disabled person to work.
But the law doesn't regulate stigma, or the feelings I might have had when Holly compared my disease with incompetence. After my offhand disclosure of my disease, I wondered about future repercussions. Sure, my boss thinks I’m good at what I do, but what if he learned that I had bipolar? Would he be less friendly towards me? Would he refrain from giving me direct reports? Would he withhold a promotion?
Disclosing Mental Illness at Work Got Me Fired
At my last company, I’d started having panic attacks before work. I’d hyperventilate and cry, then I’d call in sick because I just couldn’t leave the house. Finally, I admitted the problem to my boss, then went to my psychiatrist who authorized a medical leave. When I returned to work, my best assignments were gone, and my decision-making permission with them. I asked how this could be, since I’d always received stellar performance reviews. Apparently they didn't think I was stable enough to do my job.
The lack of trust, along with my unchecked anxiety, made me more agitated, more prone to anger and crying. Eventually, I worried myself into mental health inpatient treatment, and then a bipolar diagnosis. In the end, it was a good thing: I got care I needed, and I’m healthier now as a result. Still, my former boss didn't trust my work in spite of a doctor’s note attesting that I was fit. That fact was very difficult for me - a chronic overachiever - to process.
What Did I Learn from My Horrible Boss?
In the next installment of Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, I'll share why, even though it might have been illegal to restrict my work, I became a really difficult employee with undiagnosed bipolar disorder (read about the effects of bipolar disorder). I can't say that I would have wanted to manage me, but I believe that I would have been a bit more compassionate, and a bit more attentive to the law, than my former employer.
Lloyd, T. (2011, August 11). Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, or How to Get Fired, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2011/08/disclosure-at-work-or-how-to-get-fired-part-i
Author: Tracey Lloyd
I looked into Pharmacy Tech. However, they may think I will take the medicine.
Have you heard (how do you use) of the USA Jobs website?
If I was to give advice to someone based on my experiences it would be only ever disclose to people who love you never in the workplace, BUT my partner had a positive experience with his boss when hospitalised for depression who helped him fill out his income protection stuff so he could have two months off on full pay so sometimes there is an individual who understands.
I have had two friends who were bullied in the workplace for having mental illnesses including a mental health Organisation.
I also don't like you using the word stupid this girl might have had cognitive issues because if mental illnesses or she might have a mild intellectual disability that she is scared to disclose. We need to be allies of people with disabilities in general.
For me the biggest problems are not my bipolar but stigma and discrimination.
Although in some cases, I'm kind of glad it happened. I am really wanting to be a performer and I could not do many plays as they wanted me to adhere to their schedule. But I still need money to support myself in it as well as move out to a big city with film/TV opportunities. I just hope I can find a job soon because I can't keep putting this off.
In general, there was a lot of miseducation, though I invited a counselor friend to address mental illness in a Sunday morning service. Some quit attending our church, which meant withdrawing their financial support. I was able to contribute to the faltering budget, because I had started receiving disability, by working pro bono my last six months.
Were I able to do it over again, I'd not publicly disclose my illness, either to the church as a whole or to individuals I thought were friends. There is a definite stigma attached to mental illness in the conservative church world, where faith is supposed to solve every ill, and where mental illness is even often connected in people's minds with Satan. My ill-health was much more favorably received and recognized by others outside the church. Because I was working in a very small, remote town of 250, everyone knew enough about everyone else that they would respond positively or negatively to any interesting news about a fellow community member. That period of my life was a very dark, lonely time, and if I had it to do over again, I'd find other ways to explain my behavior until I was able and ready to retire.
At work, I felt that I was seen not as a professional educator, but as a bipolar person (which is vastly different from being considered a person with bipolar disorder). Anything I did seemed to be chalked up to being hypomanic, if I went above and beyond the norm (and yes, it would be safe to call me an overachiever), or to being overly sensitive. The stigma I felt toward me only worsened with time and even one colleague who knew I had bipolar never admitted to me that her rude outbursts were most likely caused by her NOT being compliant with her meds one week. If anyone would have understood her, it was me. Her refusal to be as open about her illness as I had been with her about mine felt like a real slap in the face and the friendship we had evaporated. I lost complete trust in her.
As for graduate school, all you need to do is read Julie Fast's blog post entitled, "Sandra and the Teacher" and you'll have the story of a special ed professor who took me to task for asking for an extension of an assignment. Her email back to me clearly showed absolutely NO comprehension of what bipolar disorder was, yet she sought to tell me how to handle my bipolar disorder "better". An example: She berated me for relying on others to help alert me to mood swings (at the time, I found it exceptionally hard to recognize hypomania/mania setting in) and said I needed to be more self-reliant. Yet EVERY article/book about bipolar disorder that I've read talks about the support team those of us with bipolar disorder NEED to have in place.
While I would like to help pave the way for others with mental illness and chose to share that I have bipolar disorder, my experience has proven to me that this is not the best thing for me to do, either professionally or emotionally. The stigma I have felt from those who should know better has been very, very difficult to deal with. I've lost all trust in any future attempts to share about this disorder. I hope others have better luck than I have had.
Your description of the friend with bipolar who didn't disclose sounds remarkably like relationships I've heard of between gay people who are in or out of the closet - the person who is "out" finds it hard to support the other person and eventually their relationship falls apart. Friendships are about support and understanding, and your friend probably wasn't able to provide the public support you needed because she was hiding her bipolar. Hopefully you've found other friendships in the academic environment that give you the kind of support that you need. - Deltra
Now, after Neil's graduating class at Manhasset found out Neil is hospitalized they chose to help Neil raise food for Homeless Families on L.I and to encourage him in his pursuit to get better.
I established http://www.neilswheelsny.com and NAMI did a documentary on Neil, myself, the two coaches who knew Neil before getting ill, and the Manhasset Community. That documentary should be out this coming fall.
I speak at schools and said to a group of kids at ST Marys in Manhasset, that you are the first generation that CAN TALK comfortably about mental illness, drugs, alcohol etc.
I feel one day it will be OK to say you have Bi Polar or any problem. The present generation gets it.