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

“I’m bipolar, and I take a ton of lithium. I’m offended at being compared to someone as stupid as THAT girl.”

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.

Find Tracey on TwitterFacebookGoogle+ and her personal blog.

20 thoughts on “Disclosing Mental Illness at Work, or How to Get Fired (Part I)”

  1. In June, I was promoted at my job. I am a store manager in retail. My job is high stress and I have 60 employees. I went off my antidepressants in August/September through tapering because of weight gain. By October, I was experiencing very bad paranoia and mood swings. By November, I was having severe depression and panic attacks. In December, I chose to go back on antidepressants. I was straight forward about my depression with my bosses because it was affecting my performance at work and the were coming down on me very hard. In December, an employee of mine spread a rumor in my store that I was taking Xanax in the office and accused me of having a drug problem. I do have a prescription for Xanax for panic attacks but I am not currently taking it. I reported this to HR and had documented conversations with this employee who said this to other employees in my job. I spoke with my boss about it then. I have casually spoken about taking antidepressants for depression at work. I have only been on antidepressants for 2 years after I had a severe manic and a severe depressive episode after my divorce. I haven’t ever officially been diagnosed with anything other than depression and anxiety. In January, my boss offered me a lower volume store which I turned down because I was back on antidepressants and confident I could work better. My words have been taken out of context by my employees who reported to HR that I said “I need to take drugs to work here.” My bosses sat me down to tell me how serious it was that someone said that. I fear that I will face discrimination now and they will find reasons to terminate me for this.

  2. Has anyone considered filing a lawsuit for medical discrimination? I made the mistake of disclosing to my employeer my health condition, my story if identical. After asking for time off to get my health in order, I was treated terrible, when I returned to work.

  3. I understand exactly how a person feels with biploar disorder. My wife who I love dearly who I have been married to since 1987 has biplolar. She is a registered nurse and been nursing since the late 1980’s. She has done very well at it and having to deal with her illness. My sweet wife has been discriminated against so many times by more than one employer in the medical field due to her disorder. She has been forced to resign or be fired from previous employers but she chose to resign because she did not want termination to be on her job record. She just lost her job recently at Carolina Pines Hospital in Hartsville,South Carolina. She was forced to resign or be fired anyway. She was lied on and her employer or Director Of Nursing told my wife that she was untruthful because my wife did not tell her about having bipolar at time she was hired and she accused my wife of being a drug addict which my wife is not a drug addict. My wife takes meds to control her bipolar and is legally prescribed by her doctor. Now my wife is in the process of having to find her another job in the medical field all because of evil minded unprofessional people in management. My wife was given a drug test before hire and passed the drug test. Then she was tested again by Carolina Pines Hospital and test proved to be negative. During her time of working there this same Director of Nursing praised my wife for her well performance on the job as a real good caring nurse. Even one of the Doctors within the hospital always loved to deal with my wife and take report from her about his patients because of her work performance and professionalism. Now my wife is having to seek another nursing job elsewhere all because of being discriminated against but only this time she is seeking legal advice in order to see if she has a case to place a lawsuit against this hospital which I believe she does. She has been through this discrimination so many times,now it is time to fight for her rights. Enough is enough. All other employers got by with their disrespect toward her and she just did not want to deal with the stress of taking a lawsuit out on previous employers because she just felt like she did not have a chance to win. I hope she gets something out of this lawsuit because she deserves it. It really saddens me that people can be so cruel against people with mental disorders and my wife has not been hospitalized with her illness since the year 2010. One more thing. At the time my wife was being told she was being terminated from her job,remember she was accused of being a drug addict. Guess what? My wife was asked if she would be willing to take a drug test by this same Director of Nursing. My wife knowing she has no drug problem said yes no problem I will be glad to take a drug test. But guess what? Director did not follow through with my wife to take the drug test after falsely accusing my wife of being a drug abuser. How ironic. If there is any advice someone can give my wife and I or some legal advice it would be appreciated. Thanks.

  4. Where can a person with disabilities(mental) go for employment? Note: No recent work experience.

    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?

  5. I work in the transportation industry while on duty I was attack by a passenger, this attack left me traumatized and with severe eye and head injury. I went into severe depression and treated with counselors, neurologist and a psychologist for a year all have diagnose me with PTSD. After being release with restriction I asked my employer for a reasonable accommodation of reassignment to a different atmosphere. They offered me a different position at $8 dollars an hour lessor than my previous position. I’m 49 years old it would be a financial ruin for me to go that far down in pay from something that happen while I was on duty at work. Your all are right when you tell of people with no sympathy, respect or knowledge of what a person is going through.

  6. I have informed my supervisor of my “mental health problems” I am under the care of a mental health provider. I have started the process to be approved for FMLA coverage. My supervisor makes jokes about my condition. They are not willing to make reasonable accommodations. I feel like my employment will be terminated before I can finish the FMLA process. I am scared. I have 2 children to care for. It’s not fair. I get physically ill when they ask me to do some tasks. Certain supervisors take pleasure in assigning them to me knowing that it makes me ill. There are many other employees who are trained and able to do these tasks and plenty of tasks that do not make me Ill that I could do. Why, with a documented mental illness am I being forced to do things that exacerbate my illness?

  7. 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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