Bipolar Discrimination and Stigma – It’s Getting Old

There are a lot of blogs that I follow about bipolar and Struggling With The Elephant In The Room recently posted about mental illness stigma and work/school/etc.  I shared my story in the comments there, but I thought I’d share it here as well in hopes that one day this stigma will no longer exist and that people with mental illness will be able to be open about their illness without being treated as poorly as I was.

Here’s what I said:

“When I was pregnant with my son, I had to come off all my medication. Obviously, doing so did not have the greatest effects on me. From all the stress plus being pregnant I was constantly physically ill. My job threatened to fire me so I called HR.

I spoke to the “HR nurse” and explained my situation. I had doctors paperwork faxed over documenting my illness (length of time I’d had it, that I had been medicated prior to becoming pregnant, etc) and that one could, in fact, get sick from mental illness. The “nurse” yelled at me and told me there was no such thing and that I was just trying to get out of work. She said it was company policy that I couldn’t miss more than X number of days. I explained I was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said that basically it didn’t cover for days off due to mental illness as that was not “reasonable accommodation.” I broke down crying on the phone and said that it was unfair discrimination and that basically at this point I was just waiting to get fired.

I was two months away from qualifying from FMLA at which point I would be able to get a letter from my doctor which WOULD allow for days off (I still don’t understand why FMLA covers and ADA doesn’t). So for two months I dragged myself into work throwing up, crying, seeing things, no voice, too depressed to function properly. It was the worst two months ever. I made it, got FMLA paperwork filed ASAP, and took days off as needed. I even had scheduled “mental health days” to try to prevent further depression as just going to work literally sucked the life out of me because everything they put me through and how cruel HR was to me.

I begged to be transferred to a different department for about a year after my son was born and was finally moved in October of last year under a manager who is more understanding of my condition. The HR department is still regrettably the same, but since my manager allows me to take days off without reporting them to HR, it’s not an issue. He commented the other day that I rarely take sick days anymore. Well, yeah, because I’m not stressed 24/7 that I might be fired any second. Stress=sick.

ADA needs to be tweaked a bit for those with mental illness as it is more geared towards handicap, etc. For the mentally ill, it still allows people to discriminate, make life a living hell, and not provide what accommodations are truly NEEDED for someone with mental illness.”

I’m taking a politics class in school and this week’s chapter was about civil rights.  It spoke about the struggles of African American, women, elders, gays, and other minority groups.  It had a section on people with disabilities and talked about how handicap bathroom were required and elevators and such.

Where are the accommodations for those who have illness that is not visible?  Everyone feels sorry for the war vet in the wheelchair, but everyone gives the side eye to the girl talking to herself.  People look at me like I have two heads when I say I have bipolar even if they’ve known me for years and I’ve managed to act just quirky enough for it to go unnoticed.

Better working arrangements need to be made for those who are mentally ill.  I’m largely in favor of “mental health days” and not just those with serious mental illness.  I think everyone could benefit from a day a month or so off to de-stress and have some time to themselves that isn’t a Sunday.

Short term disability should be more accommodating to mental illness.  When I tried to claim short disability, I was met with all types of problems.  I was told I either had to leave work entirely or I couldn’t claim it.  There was no way I could take a week off as need be and be covered.  So if I had an episode and go too depressed to go for a week, it wouldn’t be covered if I applied in advance knowing this would happen at some point due to my illness.  Why not?  I know it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Why not just let me set everything up in advance?  Because you want to fire me, of course.

I also had a hard time getting accommodations for my anxiety about people sitting behind me.  When people sit behind me, it give me panic attacks.  I told management about this and explained to them they simply needed to give me at least fifteen minutes notice so I could take a Xanex.  I had two managers that REFUSED to do this and would walk in on me mid-conversation with a client, one time causing me to run out my office hyperventilating and crying almost to the point of having to go to the ER.

When the district manager was at my office and I didn’t even mention bipolar (I just said I had anxiety so it wouldn’t sound so crazy) she reported back to EVERY MANAGER IN THE STATE what I had said and pretty much stalled my promotion for a year.

By the way, they promoted a guy that performed FAR below me before me simply because he was African American (thanks, affirmative action).  How about some affirmative action for mentally ill?  I bet promotion numbers for us are even lower than African Americans or any other race for that matter if management becomes aware of the condition.  Talk about “discriminated or historically underprivileged” group.

We need our own civil rights movement.  Maybe we should all get together and do a sit in somewhere.

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About Kira

How do you say "I hate the about me section" without sounding cliche? I haven't found a way yet, so instead you'll now be subjected to random bits of info so you at least know what the blog is about. I'm a 26 year old wife and fairly new mom trying to make a life for myself and my family. These things should be run of the mill, but alas, I have Bipolar (amongst other diagnoses that I have long since lost track of). So here I am, trying to juggle a professional career, marriage, motherhood...and my own general crazy. All the rest of the "about me" sordid details will have to come in time, but the bottom line is that I need somewhere to vent that makes me feel like I'm being heard (even if no one ever reads this) and if along the way I can help another person or two then all the better. **Full Disclaimer** For the record, Kira is not my real name. Pretty much everyone I know is aware of all of my issues, but I do have a career and such and need to keep some level of privacy due to that. And, well, I'm paranoid. View all posts by Kira

4 responses to “Bipolar Discrimination and Stigma – It’s Getting Old

  • waywardweed

    Despite your illness, you have been able to accomplish so much. I hope the day will come when you can speak up without being afraid of any repercussions. Your story needs a face. You will be an inspiration to many, but I understand that you need to wait until the time feels right and you feel ready.

    • Kira

      Thanks. Maybe one day if my company changes their policies but as it stands they google search us pretty often and I can’t afford to lose my job. They don’t allow us to discuss work online even of it’s trivial non confidential information like the stuff I talk about. Plus I have clients who would probably run for the hills if they knew about my illness (save a few who are mentally ill themselves who will probably never talk to anyone but me because of our bond).

  • starsworth

    Kira, I am just now returning from a bout of oblivion after five days in the hospital, so I am woefully behind on all my reads, yours included. So I am sort of halfway apologizing and halfway simply explaining why I haven’t been around lately. I think this was a particularly outstanding post. You are probably already aware of this, but the organization “Stigma Busters” is very easy to join online, and I think that to upgrade to the full membership is only somewhere in the area of $35/yr. There are a lot of accounts their similar to yours (and ours, if I were to include mine as well.) I don’t doubt that sit-ins are already taking place, although I have not personally heard of any. I live in a densely populated metropolitan area where homeless rights activists abound, but it is rare that one finds a mental health patient rights activist — really. An activist? I can only conclude that, until some such time as the public is more enlightened as to the true nature of mental illness (that is, that mental illness actually *is* an illness and not a crock of shit) — what we must do is be very careful about to whom we reveal our diagnoses. I personally have discovered NEVER to tell any employer that I am bipolar, unless I plan on losing my job. As soon as I tell ANYONE that I have this diagnosis (unless they are in the general realm of mental health and understand such things already), the person IMMEDIATELY becomes on the lookout for “symptoms” — even though they know nothing of the illness, are totally unwilling to research any documented information regarding the illness, and soon begin to see “symptoms” that concern them about my behavior, even though the things that begin to bother them have nothing to do with bipolar, and are things that they undoubtedly would never have noticed or made an issue out of, had I not made the mistake of admitting that I was bipolar in the first place. GOOD ON YOU for all your hard work. I’m sure that it is paying off, though perhaps slowly — nonetheless, surely. God bless you.

    • Kira

      Hope your doing okay. Hospital stays are never fun…

      I’m pretty open with my managers, but not with my current coworkers. I used to tell everybody but I’ve been told that’s a bad idea which in hindsight I suppose is right. I guess I told everyone because I wanted people to see mental illness didn’t have to look like a serial killer. Also so that if I needed time off or started to act weird they would know why.

      I did notice thought that everything was attributed to my crazy, even things that had nothing to do with it. Some of it genuinely was bipolar stuff, but other things were just goofy. Most of my coworkers were sympathetic, but others were on the prowl. Some mangers were trying to get my fired and HR was living hell. They were, by far, the most uncaring, unaware people I have ever had to deal with in my life. I’m certainly more particular these days with who knows what. I think a lot of people heard through the grape vine though. A coworker once joked “jeez she’s so bipolar,” looked at me, and said hastily “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Hadn’t told him a thing. *sigh*

      I’ll look into Stigma Busters. I’d heard of them but not done a lot of research.

      Again, hope all is well.

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