Bipolar Disorder & Unemployment

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In relation to my lived experience of Bipolar Disorder, there have been some highlights of my career and some areas that I work to improve and I have come to recognise that both are interchangeable. A recognised trait of my workplace practice is that of ‘innovation’. I’ve worked managing programs for more than a decade, in fact it has almost been two-decades if I were to be honest. I bring to program management…

…and development an ‘outside of the square’ approach to development of content and the implementation of mentioned programs.

In this respect, I have found myself in circumstances whereby I rapidly progress through an organisation, since employers often see my innovation and creative approach to management as an enduring trait or feature, when in reality, I have come to see that it is one of many facets of my illness, bipolar disorder.

It isn’t unusual to read about the linkages between bipolar and ‘creativity’ (how ever this may manifest). For someone such as myself, this can work as an advantage, since it can set me apart from colleagues who have an alternative method of cognition. While I recognise that my illness is relatively well contained, (I can hold a job, even if temporarily and I have studied at post-graduate level, even if my study is punctuated with hospitalisation), and that others have difficulty managing day-to-day living, it all becomes relative and in my case what initially arises as an organisational benefit can (as does) become a liability given time.

I have come to reflect that there are particular symptoms associated with bipolar disorder which affect me in the workplace and not in my private sphere. Where as a private citizen I can ride the peaks of my euphoria through art, music and writing, this must be done within my own time and according to my own agenda. The organisational context simply doesn’t permit this. By this I mean that (even on medication) my euphoric states can see me create well into the night, with the obvious repercussion of exhaustion the day following and the day after that. This simply doesn’t work in an organisational context, where the hours I work are dictated by powers (and logic) beyond me.

As do many with bipolar disorder, I have bursts of engagement and clarity with the pay-off of down periods and depression (usually as a recuperative measure which is out of my control). This moments of elation see me producing some of my greatest works. When these episodes of mania go unaddressed or begin to spiral out of control, I lose the creativity, the insight and direction that I so desire.

Up until my latest role, I have never identified as having a lived experience if bipolar disorder, and so from the surface (resume in hand) I appear highly functional and able to ‘cope’ in the world created around me. Hiding in the closet tends towards me gradually becoming undone. I can tend towards spiralling into paranoia, and when very stressed, I head back towards my delusions and hallucinations. Looking at my current role, I can see the benefit of coming out of the closet, both for myself and the organisation. You see, my current role is an identified position. The organisation actually encouraged people with ‘lived experience’ to apply. This is most unusual, considering it is a senior role. In my new position I can head into work and disclose that “I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m feeling quite elated”, “I’m feeling exceptionally sad/down and I have no understanding of why”…these statements and the ability to express them, see my team gather around me (or give me space depending on what I need) and my manager allocate work that suits my current state of mind. This is hugely effective and I know I am fortunate to have such a position in such a supportive organisation.

This approach to enabling people to identify as having a lived experience acts to benefit the individual, the team and the organisation, since as we know, there are plenty of people in the workplace who are unable to disclose their mental illness, which undoubtedly (and through experience) only furthers the symptoms and effects of the mental illness itself.

Why can’t we have identified roles in organisations, such as we do for particular culturally diverse people and gender specific roles. Identified roles act to support the individual and to build work-place and personal esteem. It enables an organisation to experience first-hand the value of employing someone with a mental illness and to harness the unique capabilities a person with lived experience can provide. I don’t mean to romanticise mental illness by any means, since the employment of myself comes with some organisational cost…winter is a season when I require extra down time, while spring is a time to embrace my zest for life. I don’t ask for special concession in my identified role, simply because I don’t need to. Concession isn’t given, understanding and empathy are and in-turn I infuse my creative nature into my role and the programs I manage.

While in the closet I managed to have some great success in putting programs on the map. Taking local programs and receiving national recognition. While this was hugely advantageous to the organisation, this practice was not sustainable, since as a person with bipolar disorder, once I hit the mark I am looking for the next adventure, the next program to establish…I simply don’t do repetition well. I have found now, an organisation that actively moves staff between roles and programs in order to keep those who need regular (in my case 2-yearly) stimulation. It works well and it works to everyone’s advantage.

For people such as myself, those able to work while managing mental illness, I would call for more identified roles, which act to provide equity to those with lived experience while also harnessing all that such a diverse population has to offer. The identified role I currently have is not the norm. I wish it were. It is only a matter of time before my next creative influx that I begin to have a closer look at ‘identified roles’ – high level roles which harness intelligence and support all involved, all while offering an educational experience to the broader community. Here’s to the next 2 years.

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