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Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, or How to Get Fired (Part I)

My friend Ricky – a coworker – is a photographer, and I asked him to take some pictures for my personal blog. Upon hearing the name he said, “you’re bipolar? Cool…” Ricky is the kind of person who appreciates shortcomings as character building. And he likes people with a lot of character.

image courtesy of nakeddivorce.com

Some time later, Ricky and I were discussing our department intern with another coworker, Holly. You should know that the intern is a little, well “slow” is the politically correct word. When faced with a street closing in Manhattan, the intern couldn’t fathom walking around the block to reach her destination. She also admitted to “practicing” transcription of a handwritten letter into Microsoft Word. This behavior was unfathomable to Holly, who offered that the intern must be bipolar, and that lithium must have addled her brain. My sarcastic yet impassioned response: “I’m bipolar, and I take a ton of lithium. I’m offended at being compared to someone as stupid as THAT girl.”

Legal Protection Does Not Equal Emotional Protection

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 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?

Honesty Might Not be the Best Policy for Mental Illness at Work

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 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.

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14 Responses to Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, or How to Get Fired (Part I)

  1. mef123 says:

    I agree with you that I would not disclose that I have bipolar to my employer. I used to work as a pharmacy tech and never disclosed beccause of the stigma plus I thought that they would think that I may steal pills, which I would never do. I see a psychiatrist and he gives me my prescriptions. I finally did disclose when I went inpatient but I never went back, I had to go on SSDI.

    Michele

  2. Deltra Coyne says:

    Michele – thanks for sharing. It’s unfair that we can’t disclose – what if you needed an accommodation, like different work hours or working from home on certain days of the week? Legally, one can ask for those things but because other people can’t see our disability, unlike, for instance, someone in a wheelchair, then the accommodation would look like preferential treatment and lead to resentment from coworkers.

  3. Greg Barber says:

    My son is worse off with schizophrenia, and he has been mentally ill for 20 years. Back in the 1990′s you wouldn’t dare say you or a loved one had a mental disorder.

    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.

  4. Deltra Coyne says:

    Greg, it’s great to hear about the support your community is giving you and your son with the worsening of his illness. I hope you’re right, that the younger generations will be more tolerant and understanding than ours.

  5. Caroline says:

    I agree that disclosure is a really touchy subject, and I empathize with your struggles with that. But may I veer off the subject a little and say that not too bright intern you were talking about could easily have been me. Though I have a couple of advanced degrees, I have slow processing that makes me look stupid when dealing with the present. It’s inattentive ADD, Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. But disclosure isn’t as much an issue as just moving on when people discover I’m a little slow–ha. So we’re out there everywhere!

  6. Sandra Sweeney says:

    I chose to share that I had bipolar disorder both at work and at graduate school, where I am getting my master’s in special education. After my experiences with both places, I would be incredibly hesitant to be forthcoming in the future with anyone.

    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.

    Sincerely,
    Sandra

  7. Linda says:

    I thank everyone for sharing I am bipolar and my sister has used it against me. It has made me stronger and more outspoken . I have become an advocate for educating the media, police department, and public at large. I have to say that some tv series are being more realistic about mental health and we have to thank them. We all just keep on going.

  8. Deltra Coyne says:

    Sandra – Thanks for sharing your experiences. I had a similar experience with another employer who didn’t “trust” me because of manic/depressive episodes. I don’t think that I’ll every officially “disclose” to my boss or to human resources, but I feel comfortable disclosing to certain coworkers – in a graduate setting, that would be like classmates or perhaps professors that don’t directly instruct you.

    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

  9. Margaret says:

    You, having been diagnosed w/ bipolar disorder – why would you call the intern you worked w/ “stupid”? All name-calling is hurtful.

  10. Jim Dickinson says:

    I was a minister for 35 years, and during my last 5 years became progressively ill with depression and some attendant disorders. When I went into an inpatient setting for a short time (3 weeks), things fell apart around me in my church/workplace. People were at first receptive, several sharing some of their own experiences, specifically with suicide attempts. By the end of my tenure, people were saying all kinds of critical and/or false things about me and my work. I was very close to having to charge one woman with libel and slander (a warning made her back down), and a few months later I began receiving SS disability, which allowed me to leave that position and retire, albeit ten years earlier than I’d have liked.

    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.

  11. Joanna says:

    I had worked for five years at Walmart without disclosing the fact I had been diagnosed with Aspergers (Which I am not public about in the first place because I do NOT want to be seen as having a disorder first and foremost) until they started to side with customers who were exaggerating about my behavior. I try to watch myself when talking to people, but I never did anything to insult the customer intentionally. I thought it would save my job as I also had to work with two people who had WORSE mental disorders (One was a compulsive liar, the other was regressing) and they NEVER were called out about it. In fact, when I asked them why they were never called out, I was accused of judging them! By their standards, I would be judging a meth addict. Long story short, I felt betrayed. I had been loyal to them without incident and all they were doing were finding reasons to fire me by exaggerating instead of doing the honest thing and asked me to take a paycut, which I feel was the real reason for this. What’s worse is that I got fired after I could not get anyone to help me deal with a woman who was berating me, and the manager on duty didn’t even bother to listen to my account of the story before making a decision, claiming it was misconduct on my part when it very well wasn’t. Now I’ve been out of work for nearly a year and a half, and I would love to find an employer who will not put me through the same hell as I had to endure over there. I have a lot of good things going for me, and I don’t want my internal struggle to be exploited and held against me. I deserve to get the same respect that I show others, which is a lot.

    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.

  12. Betty says:

    I have bipolar. I had worked as a social worker in a mental health center. They knew I had a past hospitalization for depression. I worked with a few others who the other social workers had no luck getting the clients to co-operate. But they worked well with me, so I was being praised and told I was a great social worker. I believe it was because I understood them as I had been there too. Then I started having more frequent symptoms. I decided to tell my boss hoping that would explain my sometime slow work. She decided I shouldn’t work directly with clients and work more on the paperwork and filing for awhile. Then she asked if I’d be willing to share with the other employees what was going on and why I was switching my clients(consumers). By law I didn’t have to but I did. It was a small company. Then they all, boss included started threated me as if I had a mental slowness. Always asking if I was okay or understood the instructions. I was never allowed to go back to working with clients. Eventually I quit. I’m sure I could have fought it but didn’t have the strength to fight it. I don’t think I would ever share again. If a mental heath company doesn’t understand, how can other people who don’t understand bi-polar?

  13. Kristy says:

    I have found it more difficult entering the workforce due to my mental illness. Eventually I gave up and at present I am on a disability support pension and volunteer three days per week in mental health. In Australia because I have a mental illnessd I was sent to a disability employment service where most staff do not have any training I mental health issues. Using a DES means you are pretty much forced to disclose due to pressure and otherwise employers wonder what is wrong with you and why you are using a DES. DES are full of discrimination and I was told once the best I could ever hope for is a part time job in retail despite not working in retail before and being 30 dispite going to uni and TAFE and being more educated then the so called employment consultant in the first place. This triggered a relapse in depressive symptoms. Now the only positions I would seek are peer/consumer positions.
    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.

  14. Janet Kirkpatrick says:

    I was let go today because of “strange ” behavior. She read two pages of “others ” observations and conclusions. It was very painful. Instead of sympathy or support, i got let go (like rejection) ouch and idea of jobs at grocery store…. I will never offer that about me again. She said I seemed like two seperate people! I am not! I gave the correct diagnosis. She said you are not coming back? Like I was the vampire. She heads a Community Center and Council on Aging. No end of disappointments! IT is so hard to stay together and not rage into pieces.

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