Story of Bipolar Tolerance in the Workplace

These next several posts will be dedicated to stories about how my mental illness was accepted or not by my various employers over the years.  This first story is about my first job out of college as a paralegal for a law office in a major New England city.  In the post below, I compare paralegal work and project management work.

When I started working as a paralegal, the Americans with Disabilities Act had not yet been passed.  This was 1986.  When I signed up to work for this law firm, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire.  As memory serves, one of the questions asked about whether I had a mental illness.  This was before it was illegal to ask this question.  The ADA did not get passed until 1990.

At the time in 1986, I opted not to be truthful in the questionnaire.  I felt it was my right and my knowledge that the employer could not or should not access.  This created the start of the process of always wondering whether it was good to declare my bipolar illness or not with an employer. 

During the two years that I was a paralegal at this law firm, I exhausted my sick leave due to the bipolar diagnosis.  I was still in process of getting the right combination of lithium and Tegretol together.  I was also adjusting to taking meds on a regular basis.  As many may know often it takes a year or two before you can accept your illness and that you will need to stay on meds likely indefinitely. 

I don’t recall whether I was put on short-term disability during this time or not.  But there was never talk of letting me go or firing me because of the bipolar illness or because of exceeding the allotted sick time for my station at that law firm.

In general, the lack of a negative reaction to my being out ill was a positive outcome in the long-run.  Today I consider this “tolerance” of my mental health needs to be a very positive outcome with an employer.  I had not yet been certified as a project manager – that would come later in 2002.  All in all and in retrospect, I found that working as a paralegal and having a mental illness were a combination that was somewhat manageable for me and for the employer. 

Years later in the 2000s I found that working as a project manager and having a mental illness was not a manageable combination at all.  The stigma associated with the mental illness particularly in the project management workspace was just too great.  This stigma has been discussed at various of my former blogposts.

What appears to be a deciding factor between “tolerance” and “intolerance” of the mental health condition is whether the specific job is in a supporting role rather than in a leadership role.  As long as I was a paralegal and providing support to a team of attorneys, the idea of having some sort of mental health complications was “acceptable.”  However, a project management role is/was a leadership role and therefore creates/created less “accepted” or “acceptable” responses proffered by the project management organization in the project/program management workplace.  I wonder if I had been an attorney at the same law firm whether the same level of “tolerance” would have been extended to me.  Or, if as an attorney I would have been in a leadership role and, therefore, the complications of mental illness would have also been less “accepted” and “acceptable.”

Stigma Resistance and Existence in the Project Management Workplace:

I have found in my 35-year career mostly doing project management work that the company you work for is only as accepting as the people who make it up.  When I have experienced a supporting atmosphere for my bipolar illness (which is extremely rare), my mentor or my boss has come from a place where mental illness was in their family.  One a husband, one an aunt.  This was volunteered information to me from them.  I find the ability of the workplace to be supportive is in direct correlation to the boss or mentor having first-hand experience with mental illness.  For all intents and purposes, the individual and not the company is the determinant of a supportive environment for working with a mental health condition.

It should not be this way.  The company as a unit in and of itself should be able to show understanding and support for mental health challenges particularly with such advances as the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

In my experience, the company is more prone to act out of fear or out of ignorance and assume someone with a mental health condition is dangerous to themselves and to others around them.  There is a tendency to criminalize people with mental health diagnoses in the workplace when that mental health diagnosis is exposed. 

Not uncommon is the ushering out of the office by building security when the mental illness surfaces.  Is this ever done when you have diabetes?  Or a brain tumor?  Or cancer?  No, you are not humiliated and meant to feel you are criminal just for being ill.  These other illnesses are accepted as part of the risk profile for managing employees.  People are given support for their illness by co-workers and by management for these other non-mental illness profiles, while for mental illness profiles the employee is considered an immediate and unsurmountable threat and treated as a criminal.

Again, I would hope in the US the Americans with Disabilities Act would change this criminalization of people with mental health diagnoses in the workplace, but in my experience it has not.  That sounds out as a sad state of affairs for employment for people with mental health diagnoses.

Have you ever been treated poorly at the office because of a mental health diagnosis or break-through event? Have you ever been treated well for the same? What causes some employers to act in a way that is supportive and others not?