Just when I think our world has moved a baby step in the right direction regarding our understanding of mental illness, I get another blow that tells me otherwise. For example, awhile back I quoted an intelligent woman who wrote an article in a popular women’s magazine about dating a bipolar guy when she was bipolar herself. She recently discovered that she had jeopardized a job prospect because the article came up — as well as all those who referenced it, like Beyond Blue — when you Googled her name. So she requested everyone who picked up that article to go back and change her real name to a pseudonym.
Because talking about bipolar disorder in the workplace is pretty much like singing about AIDS at the office a hundred years ago or maybe championing civil rights in the 60s.
I totally get why this woman created a pseudonym. Trust me, I entertained that possibility when I decided to throw out my psychiatric chart to the public. It’s risky. Extremely risky. Each person’s situation is unique, so I can’t advise a general “yes ” or “no.” As much as I would love to say corporate America will embrace the person struggling with a mood disorder and wrap him around a set of loving hands, I know the reality is more like a bipolar or depressive being spit upon, blamed, and made fun of by his boss and co-workers. Because the majority of professionals today simply don’t get it.
Not at all.
They don’t get it even though the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, mental illness will be the second leading cause of disability worldwide, after heart disease; that major mental disorders cost the nation at least $193 billion annually in lost earnings alone, according to a new study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health; that the direct cost of depression to the United States in terms of lost time at work is estimated at 172 million days yearly.
I realize every time I publish a personal blog post — one in which I describe my severe ruminations, death thoughts, and difficulty using the rational part of my brain — I jeopardize my possibilities for gainful employment in the future. I can pretty much write off all government work because, from what I’ve been told, you have to get a gaggle of people to testify that you have no history of psychiatric illnesses (and, again, all it takes is one Google search to prove I’m crazy).
It’s totally unfair.
Do we penalize diabetics for needing insulin or tell people with disabling arthritis to get over it? Do we advise cancer victims to use a pseudonym if they write about their chemo, for fear of being labeled as weak and pathetic? That they really should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and heal themselves because it’s all in their heads?
But I don’t want to hide behind a pseudonym. I use my real name because, for me, the benefit of comforting someone who thinks they are all alone outweighs the risk of unemployment in the future. Kay Redfield Jamison did it. She’s okay. So is Robin Williams. And Kitty Dukasis. And Carrie Fisher. Granted all four of those people have talent agents ready to book them as speakers for a nice fee.
In their book, “Living with Someone Who’s Living with Bipolar Disorder,” Chelsea Lowe and Bruce M. Cohen, MD, Ph.D., list the pros and the cons of going public with a mood disorder. I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but here are the pros:
- There’s nothing disgraceful about the condition, any more than there would be about cancer or heart disease.
- Carrying a secret is an enormous burden. Sharing it lightens it.
- The more people who know and are looking out for you, the more likely you’ll be able to get help before the problems turn serious.
- Sharing the information lessons the burden on your partner.
- Lots of people have psychiatric issues; maybe your boss or family member does too.
- Taking about the diagnosis is an opportunity to educate others.
The authors suggest telling your employer under these circumstances:
- If you are taking a new medication and may need time for adjustment.
- If your schedule doesn’t allow for regular, restful sleep–which is an important factor in controlling the disorder–or if you need to request certain adjustments to your schedule, like telecommuting.
- If you need to be hospitalized or take a leave of absence.
- If the disorder is affecting your behavior or job performance.
- If you need to submit benefit claims through your employer rather than the insurance company, or if your employer requires medical forms for extended absences.
And the cons:
- Prejudice and stigma about psychiatric disorders are still common in our society. A disclosure of bipolar disorder [or any mental illness] will inevitably color your employer’s and coworkers’ perceptions of his job performance: “Did Jerry miss that meeting because the bus was late, or because he was off his meds?” Potential problems include discrimination, stigmatization, fear and actual job loss.
- You can’t un-tell a secret.
- Your chances for promotion could be hurt.
- The employer is under no obligation to keep your condition secret.
- Discrimination is illegal but difficult to prove.
- You could be written off as “crazy.”
Now that I have thoroughly confused you, I thought I’d ask you for your input on this very controversial topic. What do you see as the pros and cons? Would you advise, say, your son or daughter, to go public with a mood disorder? Why or why not? (You can use a pseudonym in answering, of course).