Bipolar in the workplace: ‘I was asked whether I was taking crazy people’s meds’

Michelle Lewis* has experienced a great deal of discrimination against her in the workplace for having a mental illness. In 2016, she suffered suicidal thoughts and knew she needed help. She was diagnosed with bipolar and admitted to a clinic.

“When I was discharged from the clinic, I returned to work as normal. Before my official diagnosis, there were no complaints about my quality of work,” Lewis says. But when she returned to the office she realised something wasn’t right.

She was called into a meeting and asked what was wrong. She believed that because she had worked for the company for six months, she assumed she could be honest.

Lewis explained she was seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist once a month. At first this was not an issue but it slowly became one.

“I was told that it might be better if I rather resign as, due to my new diagnosis, my work is now terrible. During this time they made my life really difficult. I eventually resigned on request from the company. It was also better for my health at that stage."

Unfortunately that was not the end of discrimination for Lewis. She needed to find a new job and went for numerous interviews. “During one of these interviews I was asked whether I take any medication “for crazy people”, because if I did, they didn’t want me. I immediately knew that this wasn’t for me. I was shocked.”

Lewis says she has had recruitment agencies ask about her mental health. “It feels like if you lie to them and get the job and then disclose your mental illness it feels like you were lying.”

“People never see bipolar as a disease you have, they see it is a thing you ‘are’,” she says. 

Discrimination against mental illness

Unfortunately stigma or discrimination against mental illness exists due to misinformation and ignorance around mental health conditions. Dr Lori Eddy, a counselling psychologist, says, “For example, that mental health conditions are a ‘sign of weakness’ or a ‘character flaw’.” 

In October 2017, SADAG released update stats showing that 61% of respondents had disclosed their mental illness at work. We conducted our own survey. Out of the 1 077 people who completed it, 57.8% said they would not disclose a mental illness to their employer.

However, only 54.2% said they would disclose mental health as the reason for taking a sick day. What is encouraging though is that 64.7% said their manager would approve the day if it was for mental health reasons, and 53.3% said their manager’s reaction would be supportive.

Although this does indicate that there is a strong move toward less discrimination in the workplace with regards to mental illness, discrimination still exists.

What HR says about mental health 

According to Jeannine Scheltens, divisional HR manager at 24.com, you should never be asked during a job interview about your mental health – unless you choose to disclose it then.

“In the same way you cannot be asked if you’re pregnant. That just sets up the possibility for discrimination. These questions shouldn’t be asked in an interview process.”

Scheltens says managers must handle cases of mental health with respect and not discrimination. “I think [mental health] is scary – it’s not tangible, so they don’t really know what to do. It’s also difficult because they don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s not like someone has flu and is booked off for three days. Mental health is ongoing.”

She says if the employee with a mental illness is willing to have the conversation with their line manager, then it’s much easier for the manager to come to some kind of reasonable accommodation.

Shelagh Goodwin, general manager of human resources at Media24, says that the stigma attached to mental illness makes a work situation that much harder for someone who is already struggling.

“It’s a tricky thing to handle, and education and awareness are important – especially as there are still some old-fashioned managers out there who think people are faking it.”

She does believe the situation is changing, however. “People’s attitudes are changing, managers have a much better understanding of what mental health issues involve and what they need to do to support someone who has mental health issues.”

To disclose or not to disclose?

“It’s against the law to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their health conditions or gender,” Goodwin says. “But it’s important as an employee to know your rights and that you cannot be discriminated against for disclosing.”

In fact, Goodwin says disclosing your mental illness actually offers you better protection.

“It means there is a statement on record from you that says, ‘I have a disability.’ And if the employer wants to dismiss you or discriminate against you, you have a strong case of unfair discrimination because you disclosed.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person quoted.

Image credit: iStock

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