Stigma around severe mental illness (SMI)

One topic that comes up frequently for debate at peer support groups is the world of work. As a group we have never found consensus on whether it is a good idea to inform an employer that you have bipolar disorder. We all agree that good work is good for your mental health. We also acknowledge the huge amount of stigma that exists around mental health in general and Severe Mental Illnesses (SMI) in particular.

As such, we all agree that it is best not to inform an employer during the recruitment process, and the earliest time to broach the subject would be after having signed a contract. Even then, it can be a minefield to disclose the condition. Personally, I have made the choice to be open about my bipolar disorder with my workplace - but I did so after I felt confident that the manager I revealed my diagnosis to would be supportive and would not summarily sack me on finding out, as it has happened to many people I know.

Overall, I think it has been beneficial for me to have been open about the condition in terms of job stability. However, I am in no doubt that my disclosure of my diagnosis has been career limiting and I have been the subject of discrimination in terms of promotion. I am comfortable with the unspoken agreement I have with my employer - I get to stay in a job long-term but the downside is I don't have a meteoric career. I am reconciled and broadly content with this deal.

Telling your employer about bipolar

I think it can be tricky to broach the subject of a diagnosis with an employer. If you approach it by saying 'there's something I need to talk to you about. I've got bipolar' and leave it at that, essentially what you are saying is 'I've got bipolar, now you've got a problem'. Your manager will not know how to react and is unlikely to have come across this before. If you do decide to be open, and that is a big decision, I would suggest educating your manager about the condition. Give them a mood scale  and explain how it affects you, and how you can use it to keep them informed of your risk of mania/depression. Find a way to work with them so you are managing and mitigating risk together.

A good way to do this is with an Advance Statement, a document in which you state how the condition affects you, how you might behave in each of the mood scale sections from 0 - 10, suicidal to manic. You could include what you will do in terms of action plans to stay well and what would be helpful from your employer in terms of reasonable adjustments, for example being able to work from home if at risk of mania, or encouragement to come back into work as soon as possible if you're off with depression.

Bipolar UK can help you prepare a full Advanced Statement and can work with your employer to ensure you have the understanding and support you need. I have found this to be a very useful tool and I use it as a reminder for my manager any time I am at risk of a serious episode.

Useful Links

Writing an Advance Statement  

David is the author of his ‘Bipolar Life Hacks, A Personal Guide to the Self-Management of Bipolar Disorder.’ He has lived with the condition for over 30 years and has kindly made his book available free of charge in the hope that if you find something useful in its pages, you will make a donation or regular giving to Bipolar UK to help other people affected by the condition. You may also be interested in reading. David’s life hack series:

#Life Hack 1 Advice on preventing mania 

# Life Hack 2 Advice on food and the importance of nutrition 

#Life Hack 3 Navigating life triggers 

#Life Hack 4 tools to manage your condition 

*David has kindly made his book available free of charge in the hope that if you find something useful in its pages, you will make a donation or regular giving to Bipolar UK to help other people affected by the condition.