Stigma against mental illness can make the workplace a tough place to be for those battling the health problem.
People dealing with mental illness say some co-workers unfairly assume colleagues with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia will blow up or won’t be able to handle their jobs.
But a New Mexico lawyer who prefers to be identified only as Jane overcame those prejudices.
She controls her bipolar disorder through a combination of medications, therapy and careful management of stress, excessive amounts of which can upset her mental health.
The strategy works well enough to allow her to practice law.
“But what you have to remember – it’s very different for everyone,” she says. “Some people are incapacitated with their disorder more than other people are. I happen to respond very well to medication, and other people who have bipolar do not respond as well to medication.”
Jane recalls her first psychotic break as something like this:
“I was at my computer,” she says. “It was like this instant transformation where everything was just fine, and all of a sudden I felt as though something bizarre was happening where . . . the information was being picked up off my computer.”
Medication helped her emerge from the psychosis in about 10 days, she says.
Although her employer knows of her illness, she wouldn’t recommend other people follow her example.
“I feel fortunate to be in a place where people have accepted me and my limitations,” she says. “However, I’m a realist. I know that people stigmatize anyone who says that they are bipolar and immediately believe that they have a totally unstable person.”
Such stigma against people with mental illness is still prevalent, particularly in certain offices, says Mary Graham, senior vice president of development and strategic alliances for the National Mental Health Association.
But things are changing, she says.
“In general, over the last 10 years, there’s a lot less stigma for mental illness,” she says. “Our culture, our generation is more open to talking about it – talking about everything – than previous generations.”
The only prejudice that Pete Goldberg, owner of Pete’s Auto Care in Albuquerque, says he had against people with mental illness was that he thought they needed more help than they actually did.
Goldberg hires people with mental illness to work at his shop through Adelante Development Center Inc., a New Mexico nonprofit that helps people with mental illness and other disabilities get back to work.
“I’ve learned a lot about mental illness over the last five years,” he says. “They’re (people with mental illness) not bad-intentioned. It’s just their mental illness doesn’t allow them to do certain things.
“We don’t look down or feel bad or treat them any different,” he says. “They come in. They joke around with all of us, have a good time, but still get the job done.”
Getting a job done can be good therapy in and of itself for those with mental illness, says Melinda Garcia, director of employment services with Adelante.
“I don’t think we realize . . . how we identify with who we are by what we do and the self-esteem level that gives you and the confidence that builds within you,” she says.
“It can just be really good therapy for a person to be out there and have a purpose and need to be needed.”