Dealing with Bipolar Stigma and Prejudice in the Workplace
Many of us hear condescending, stigmatizing and prejudicial remarks about bipolar disorder in the workplace – a place where everyone should be treated with respect and as an equal. This lead one reader to ask me this question (reprinted with permission):
I’m not sure how to deal with an incident at work. The company brought in a trainer who when talking about difficult coworkers said “for example have you ever worked with someone who is bipolar.” I spoke with him afterwards and he said he meant to say when unmedicated. I’m disturbed because that seemed very stigmatizing and prejudiced either way yet it was accepted as appropriate . . . I hear how difficult people with bipolar are frequently, like we are 10 to 100 times more difficult than other people just because of our illness. Can you please offer any insight so I can stop feeling like a plague on humanity?
I read this question and I was pretty much incensed.
Dealing with Bipolar Prejudice and Stigma at Work
There are really two questions in the above. One is what to do when hearing stigmatizing and prejudicial remarks at work and the other is about how “difficult” we are to work with.
Now, if you happen to be “out” at work as a person with bipolar disorder, I would be tempted to say something to the trainer like, “Really? Because I’m a pleasure to work with.” (I’m not unmedicated but I think the point still stands.)
That would pretty much make the trainer swallow their tongue, I’d wager.
(And just in case anyone is unclear, just saying “unmedicated” doesn’t make it any less wrong.)
However, most people are not “out” in their workplace and people don’t know they have bipolar disorder. In that case, I think it’s entirely appropriate to say pretty much what the reader above said, like so:
“I find that to be a blanket statement that can’t possibly be true, is stigmatizing and pre-judges people with a mental illness unfairly.”
Now, I know those words might be difficult to form as sometimes it’s hard to stand up for ourselves, but, damnit, if we don’t stand up for ourselves, then who will? And just consider for a moment that you’re not the only person in that room with bipolar disorder. Consider that someone else is sitting there and internalizing that bullshit. Think about the gift you are giving that person by standing up to the prejudice and stigma of that statement. It’s a gift that’s worth putting yourself out there a little to give.
Are People with Bipolar More Difficult to Work With?
This falls under the give-me-a-fucking-break category. Are people with bipolar disorder harder to work with? Well, I’d wager that some are hard to work with and some aren’t – kind of like the rest of the population, but is the mental illness the determining factor? No, of course it isn’t.
And not to put too fine a point on it but I make a living working with all sorts of clients every day and if I wasn’t easy to work with, I would find myself not able to pay my rent. And, just in case you were wondering, I work very closely with and for another person with bipolar disorder and she’s a delight to work with. Is she more difficult? I’d say she’s less difficult than many of the people I’ve worked with in my lifetime. (Try working with Microsofties for a while. Now they’re challenging but not exactly in the DSM.)
Sweeping Prejudicial Statements about Bipolar are Never True
When it comes down to it, any time someone makes a sweeping generalization about bipolar disorder or any mental illness, it isn’t true. It couldn’t possibly be. We are individuals and our mental illnesses do not define who we are or what we do. Some of us work at gas stations, some of us work at software companies and some of us are mouthy mental health writers. We’re different. Like everyone else.
And while I completely understand why a person with bipolar might feel like a plague on humanity (I’ve felt it too) we have to remember that feeling is just because of the prejudice that other people are spouting against people with bipolar disorder. It’s our job to be strong, stand up to that prejudice and not internalize other people’s hatred. Because we deserve better than that. We demand better than that. And we will create better than that in every conversation where we don’t stand for that crap.