People living with mental illness face this question all the time. “Should I tell my employer about my illness?” Supposedly the Americans With Disabililty Act provides some protection, but…..I think it boils down to a personal decision.
A friend of mine, Scott Whitley, is living with Bi-Polar illness, is in recovery and works as a Resource Specialist and Board member at NAMI of Southern Arizona and a tireless advocate for people living with mental illness. He agreed to share the following story about his non-disclosure and subsequent full disclosure. I thank Scott for being so honest about a difficult decision and hope it will provide some insight for employers as well as employees.
In peer support groups it has frequently been discussed if Manic Depressive Illness should be disclosed in the work place.
Often it comes down to what is the American with Disabilities Act position.
I would like to approach it by what it has meant to me.
I had to live with the consequences since I did not disclose. Not just for me, but my work place.
I have a form of Manic Depression Illness known as Bipolar 1 Disorder. This is what I will discuss. This is where my experience lies.
It was February 1989 when I was first introduced to mania. I ended up dropping out of school, ending a relationship with a woman, alienating my family for two years and finally landing in jail, a place I never thought I would be.
The depression was short; it only lasted about two weeks and then I bounced back. In the period of six weeks I had my first manic and depressive episode. They are connected with me. That is why they call it Manic Depressive Illness; they are both part of the illness.
The next step in this story was going to Mexico to work on a new crop project that I had been offered. This started a period in my life I call “Manic in Mexico.” It sounds like a Jimmy Buffet song- but it was no song- it was a life changing reality.
I was supposed to be an important part of the project.
I had been recently diagnosed and put on a low level of a mood stabilizer. I was told it would be a slow process to get to a therapeutic range and it was necessary to have blood draws. At first it was every two weeks, then once a month. It was a slow process, requiring a responsible attitude. Of course I did not listen. I was given a medication, and thought, as with antibiotics, I would be cured after seven to ten days. Isn’t this how it works with illness? Only with this illness you are not infected with a bacterium that goes away. Manic Depressive Illness is part of you, your make up, your being.
That May I went to Mexico. I was briefly educated about the illness and that it was an event for life. It would not disappear and medication was needed to control the illness. I did not listen. I wanted this dream job in Mexico. I was cured. Was I not cured? This is where a five minute decision changed my life.
I went to Scottsdale to have dinner to discuss the project with one of the organizers and money people. I was psyched. (Excited, NOT psychotic yet!)
I had put behind my behavior of February. It had not been me. Besides, I was on medication, I was cured. My behavior was a fluke.
After dinner we sat down to go over the final details. Then it happened! He knew the woman I was involved with when I had my first manic episode. He liked her and wondered why we had broken up.
I knew what had happened; over two hundred phone calls to her in a ten day period ending in a verbal manic rage at her 85 year old 4’ 10” Ukrainian mother; then getting arrested and put in jail for a night. This led to two weeks of not being able to get out of bed.
I did not know if I should tell him about the illness. Would I lose the opportunity to work on the project? My mind began to race over the decision. What was the worst that could happen? I reasoned out that I was cured. The work was important to me. What could happen?
The next day I left for Mexico. The racing thoughts had just begun. Over the next several months the symptoms of mania occurred; racing thoughts, grandiosity, insomnia, hyperactivity, black and white thinking, hyper verbosity, endless energy, intense passion about the work, then euphoria and finally a psychotic break with a manic rage. I was not of sound mind! The project ended.
I have often wondered if I had gotten the job had I disclosed my illness. Then the next logical point: if I had gotten the job and more education about the illness, would I have been likely to ask for help before the symptoms exploded into full blown mania?
This is what I believe of that situation in Mexico. When things were beginning to escalate into mania what if I had reached out for help, had the support of people around me and was willing to accept help? It might not have lead to mania; I might not have destroyed the project and my path in life.
Maybe I would have lost the job if I had disclosed. I did anyway because my behavior.
My illness is part of my being, therefore part of my work and my relationships. It affects my decision making when I am symptomatic, not only with mania but also depression.
This why I find support groups so valuable, to discuss these situations that are faced by those of us living with Manic Depressive Illness.
Do I really want to live hiding and hoping no one finds out, living with where to put medication bottles so friends don’t find them? Also when your mood starts to escalate, to whom do you turn?
Maybe the work place is still not the place for this. How do we change the environment? Do I hide, hoping that nothing goes wrong?
I know the Americans with Disabilities Act have the legal slant on this. However, being responsible is more than a law for me.
I live with an illness that can affect not only me, but the people and the work around me.
Yes I did suffer for my decision. Now I live with my illness. I am open.
I do not walk up to people and say “Hi, I have bipolar disorder.” For myself there is a time and place for disclosure.
After living with the diagnosis of bipolar 1 illness for over twenty years, I have learned that behaviors are symptoms and people judge you by your behaviors. I have learned through support, education and the right medication living with the illness is possible.
In my next work experience I handled things differently. This time I disclosed my Bipolar Illness. I felt it was necessary to do so because I would be going to Kenya on a new crop project as a volunteer. I knew I would need support due to the importance of the project. I learned from my previous experience that positive stimulus could throw me into mania. I needed feedback from the general manager and the colleague who accompanied me to Kenya; if I was to go hypo-manic (just below mania), their feedback could help me to prevent the mania from setting in.
At the end of the year commitment of volunteering my colleague and I were offered a contract to stay on in a paid position. Unfortunately, the funds for the project ended and I came back home. Nevertheless, I walked away with a valuable lesson. For me, I believe disclosure is necessary when I am seeking a position of responsibility. I am not saying this is right for everybody. What I am saying is take time to discuss it and think about it. This can be a life changing decision. It has been for me.