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.