May Is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US

May is Mental Health Awareness month at least in the US. What would you most like to see addressed with respect to mental illness in the next 5 years? Here’s my list:

  1. Find a way to describe people who are dangerous with an underlying mental condition as different from the bulk of people with mental illness who are generally not dangerous or are dangerous to ourselves. In other words, find a way to differentiate mass shooters from people in mental anguish who often suffer at their own expense rather than at others’. Find new and working vocabulary words to mark this distinction.
  2. Address mental illness stigma to where viable support may be readily given in the workplace, the place of worship, the neighborhood or within other community settings.
  3. Develop meds that don’t cause weight gain or other side effects like Type II Diabetes.
  4. Oh I am adding one – be sure first responders are trained to deal with mental illness particularly campus police as college is a time when many mental illnesses present. What’s your list?

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?

If you had a wish list for your mental health, what would it look like?

Here goes nothing….

  1. I wish for psyche meds to be 100% therapeutic 100% of the time.
  2. I wish for no side effects to meds like drowsiness or weight gain or Type II Diabetes.
  3. I wish to recover all those times when I was emotionally inaccessible to those closest to me due to my bipolar illness condition – this is mostly having to do with family and definitely has to do with my daughter.
  4. I wish for my bipolar condition not to be genetically an issue for my daughter.
  5. I wish to undo any harm / make amends for any harm I have brought to people because of or during my bipolar condition.
  6. I wish for the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction in society to magically disappear.
  7. I wish for the United States to have a healthcare plan that covers everybody at a reasonable cost including pre-existing conditions and including mental health and addiction benefits.
  8. I wish for the covid-19 virus to become a thing of the past as quickly as possible since it has so many emotional components that impact my mental health and the mental health of others.
  9. I wish for a covid-19 vaccine in the next 4 to 6 weeks or better yet now.
  10. I wish for a support team for anyone experiencing any sort of mental health or addiction diagnosis / symptoms and that that support team is always there for you.
  11. I wish for everyone with mental illness or addiction issues to never feel alone or never feel separate from the rest of the world.
  12. I wish the world to embrace and include all people no matter what their diagnosis, skin color, religion, etc.
  13. I wish I could return to the weight I was when I married or close to it…..

What would your wish list look like?

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Family Then and Now (part two)

After the postpartum period began to become more under control, my relationship with my own mother blossomed.  She was able to step in and care for my daughter when I was overwhelmed by postpartum depression.  In addition to her developing as a grandmother to my child, I felt that she over the years began to learn to let go of feeling responsible for my illness or for controlling my illness and was more able to be just “a support.”  She became someone to talk with about feelings and issues when needed.  At other times she was a person to bring the family together in a weekly meal at her house.

I attribute NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to a lot of my mother’s development and understanding of behavioral health issues.  NAMI programs helped her just to be there for me as a Mom and a friend.  NAMI taught my mother I believe the importance of just being there – not necessarily doing anything but just “being there.” Granted there were times in the past that I felt that she wanted to be intimately involved in my care and in my therapy in a way that I did not want.  When she gave up this control and decided to focus on being a support, our relationship blossomed as did the growing relationship between her and my daughter. 

Over the sixteen years of my daughter’s life, my mother has become a great presence in our family interactions.  We get together most times weekly or more than weekly for a meal or a soccer game or both. Today in covid-19 times that has migrated to a daily phone call and some outside social time with masks and social distancing. 

My relationship with my husband James has also matured as my health has progressed.  We continue to have our favorite arguments, but in general we are on the same page of putting our daughter first including school time, school work, hobbies like Cross Country, Track and Chorus and her spiritual development.

My husband has continued to be one of my most staunch supporters but not in a way that is easily described.  More than giving me a safe harbor in which to rest my myriad of thoughts and perceptions, he has challenged me to find my rock bottom and work my way out of it.   He is no way gets involved in my illness but rather gently or sometimes not so gently reminds me that my illness is mine to deal with.   This expectation that I will deal with my illness is both verbal and non-verbal.  In addition to working though my illness, my husband has largely been accepting of the fact that a high paying job is likely not going to be something that I can stick with and maintain.   It is with his support that I have been writing this text off and on for the last several years.

In addition to my Mom and my husband in recent years and my sister in years’ past, my in-laws have been extremely supportive of me and my efforts toward financial security.  From the beginning of my relationship with my husband, they have provided fiscal support that has allowed me to work from home on a variety of health and health measurement concepts. Through this work, I have traveled for presentations in Zurich, Switzerland as well as in Brighton, England.  Work also has been presented at CJR School of Public Health.  Without the fiscal support of my in-laws, none of this work would have been possible.  

My family support over the years has grown in parallel to the understanding of the illness among the public and among medical providers.  My family always has provided me support over the years even through some of the most heart-wrenching episodes of my life including fits of blaming them for my troubles. 

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Family Then and Now (part one)

That I have felt loved by my family of origin as well as my family by marriage including my in-laws who put up with a lot of crazy behavior from me in the postpartum period has made a huge difference in my ability to move forward in my prognosis.  Although it felt at times I was going it alone, in reality I have had and continue to have huge support from my family – as much as they were capable of providing given knowledge of the illness at the time.

Throughout my twenties and thirties, I seemed to pivot back and forth between the two models of successful marriages that I knew.  At times I would fall for a guy who had no delight in earthly things (more like my Dad).  At other times I would fall for a guy who was very established in his career and financially secure (more like my stepfather).  This back and forth continued through the time that I met my first fiancé and ended when I met my current husband.  My husband James was a perfect blend for the most part of the values of my Dad’s remarriage and the values of my Mom’s remarriage.

When I met James, he was very informed for a lay person about bipolar illness.  He was successful in his own recovery from addiction and had heard many stories of bipolar illness in that context before hearing mine.  Most of my prior boy friends had little if any experience with bipolar illness.  In addition to his familiarity with my illness struggles, another aspect of our relationship was that we tended to fight well.  Regardless of the topic, our fights were usually brief and seldom fell into the same old rut that marriage disagreements often follow.  We continue to fight well today although we do have our marriage ruts to get through.  The third aspect of our relationship which seems to help a great deal is that we share a faith journey.  This faith journey has shifted in the past year due to a situation at our church which caused a massive leadership change. James and I still stay vested in helping to develop a faith journey for our daughter even though we as a family are not in a church right now.

James’ and my shared goal right now is for me to be volunteering or working a stable but not particularly demanding job preferably part-time.  We are in agreement about what this goal is and what the desired future looks like. We continue to fight about money from time to time but in general our goals are on the same page. 

There is a fine line….

There is a fine line between telling your story and giving advice and I feel I have crossed that line in the past week or so.

If you follow the rules of AA, the idea is that you tell your own story and support others for telling their stories as well. What you don’t do in AA is give advice to people who are sharing. They may not want advice. The advice may be the wrong fit for that person. They may not be at a place where that advice is helpful. There are a million and one reasons NOT to provide advice whereas there are virtually no reasons for not being supportive.

I feel in the last week, I fell into an old habit of giving advice rather than giving support, and this is NOT ok. I would like to apologize here for that. Giving advice is / may be a way of compensating for lack of empathy and that too is not OK. It is some sort of distancing mechanism.

I am relatively new in the blogging community (March). What I have observed is that most people comment on posts that resonate with them and generally provide supportive commentary not advice commentary for a particular post.

At this time, I wish to call myself out for getting in the advice-giving mode in my comments instead of getting in the empathy mode. My apologies to all for this behavior.

So with that apology said, what type of blogosphere comments work for you? Should blogs follow the guidelines of AA where the focus is on telling your own story? Are there blogging rules somewhere that I should know about? Particularly about providing support versus advice?