Embracing the Mentally Ill in the Workplace: My Work Wish List!

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I am currently appealing the initial denial of my SSDI claim for being unable to work due to my Bipolar I disorder, ADHD, and PTSD. I fought going on SSDI for nearly a decade which led to multiple failures and a disruption of my medical care and housing, resulting in an exacerbation of my illness. In my last employment experience, a state agency separated me from my probationary period, stating that I was disqualified due to my disability.  They fired me after a medical leave for my illness, at my very first accommodations meeting.  They were not interested in accommodating me and I lost a great job as a result.  This inevitably caused a relapse and after a year of decompensation, I am just now resurfacing.

And so, I am appealing the SSDI decision as a result of being unsuccessful for the past several years. I am trying to become more stable and acquire better coping techniques prior to ever returning to work. One of my greatest problems arising from my mania and ADHD is my inability to “self pace”. I can accomplish an amazing amount of work in a short time and I learn more quickly than others. But, on the flip side, my mania causes inconsistency that stems from insomnia that eventually leads to crashing in exhaustion, often suffering with severe migraines and IBS. As a result, I miss work and to those who do not understand my illness, they are baffled by my inconsistency.  They will often attribute it to my character which upsets me. I perform remarkably well for a time and receive praise, and then inevitably begin missing work. The lack of sleep and mania often will cause me to be more sensitive and short fused. I become drained by having to “hold back” the mania and come across as short and easily agitated.  This results in conflicts with colleagues and supervisors.  I have tried very hard to prevent this from occurring, but it always occurs in the same predictable fashion: performing well with praise, becoming increasing obsessed and driven, de-compensating both mentally and physically, and eventually collapsing to include conflicts, absences, and termination. It has been a major heartache in my life to not reach my full potential in the workplace due to living with a mental illness.

Sadly, most people attribute my failures to my personality and character, instead of my illness which presents itself in a variety of ways while working. It is soul destroying to disclose an illness and be raw and vulnerable only to be continually misunderstood and devalued.  The stigma surrounding the illness and the lack of sensitivity is traumatizing and I have had multiple nightmares with the theme of working with my illness. I have had therapist stop me when discussing my work experiences because I was getting too anxious and visibly upset. It has been that difficult for me.

I feel the workplace and community needs to embrace the mentally ill working. It truly has to be a compromise of sorts for it to be successful. The benefits far outweigh the risks on either side. I acknowledge that there are some workplaces that are truly sensitive and inclusive, it just has not been my experience, yet. I hope one day once I am recovered, I will be able to be myself, open and honest, about my struggle and I will be valued for my skills, education, and experience and my illness will fade into the background. I recognize the importance of a business running efficiently, I also feel that retaining employees, even those with mental illnesses, will benefit employers in the end. Often employers do not want to take the time to accommodate a person with an illness because they feel it will be time consuming and yet, hiring and training a new employee is more involved and costly. The accommodations process might take time initially, but once accommodations are in place they are often effective, benefitting both employee and the employer.

Here is my wish list should I choose to brave the work world again once I have recovered.

  1. I want to find a place that truly exemplifies a culture of diversity and inclusivity. I want to work for an agency that sees the value in employing people of diverse backgrounds.  A place that longs to hear the voice that often isn’t represented in an organization, the voice of one who is disabled.  I want them to see that it makes their organization stronger, not weaker.
  2. I want to work for an organization that is aware that I have a disability, but also is aware of my strengths and values them.  A workplace that gets that I am often more productive than most, but I do have the risk of decompensation due to my illness. I want an employer that accepts both and works with me to minimize the risk of decompensation so that I can continue benefitting the organization and remain successfully employed.
  3. I want to work for a place that acknowledges my struggle and sees that my intention is to do a good job always.  I don’t want to work for an employer that feels my accommodations request is to get special treatment or have an excuse to do less work. I am a conscientious worker and my intentions have come into question when I was trying to get accommodations in place. My only intention was to remain successfully employed benefitting the organization.
  4. I want to work for an organization that is versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act where they enjoy and value helping those with disabilities remain employed.

On a personal note, it is important for me to find an employment opportunity that will compliment my illness. I have been working primarily in healthcare and that is already a busy, stressful environment. If I am able to work again, it has to be flexible to accommodate my issues in self pacing. I am either lighting speed fast or at home nursing a migraine. My goal will be to explore opportunities that make sense with the illness I live with every day.

I hope this post helps some of you still working and struggling. Maybe you can share in the comments section your experience and what has helped you. I still feel our world has a long way to appropriately accommodating those who are struggling. It takes education and awareness to cultivate sensitivity in the workplace. Mental illness is highly stigmatized and many myths must be debunked for progress to truly occur. I’ve always wanted to work in advocacy and education regarding these issues. I believe everyone who wants to work should have the right to do so, with the support provided to ensure success. Working is such a part of one’s identity and I support anyone who is doing their best to work while living with a mental illness. It is an arena that has immense potential to help restore and remediate one’s health if the process is supported.

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