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How Should I Approach Stigma At Work?

Olivia Fuller

At work the other day I heard someone say something disrespectful about people who live with bipolar disorder. I think they felt comfortable saying this in front of me because they did not know I have a mental illness. I was surprised and offended when I heard it, but I didn’t know what to say. We work closely together every day, and I wouldn’t want to make things awkward or jeopardize my position. 

The story gets more interesting because I work in the mental health field where you wouldn’t expect to hear these things in the first place. 

I know “the right thing to do” is to speak up and tell them that’s not ok. But I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that. Especially when my first thought when I heard the comment was "wow, I guess I'm never telling you my secret."  

I didn’t know how to approach it. I acted like I didn’t hear it. 

Later I felt guilty about ignoring it and still do. But I also still don’t know the best way to handle the situation. I can continue pretending I don’t hear these comments, and maybe they will stop or become less frequent.  But that’s not benefitting me or anyone else. The only benefit is that I am avoiding anxiety that comes with confrontation, but this is just a short-term gain with a long-term loss. And am I enabling my anxiety by giving in to it?

I thought about disclosing my illness in hopes that it will change their image of the types of people affected by mental illness. But at the same time part of me wonders if that would really change anything, and the only thing that would actually change is that they would just stop making those comments around me. Is this a valid concern or is this just my depression shooting down my ideas? Is this just anxiety trying to find a way out of coming forward? Am I twisting the situation to justify not doing anything? I have a history of doing that with other problems in my life. 

I don’t have an answer yet. We tell people to share their story, but not everyone is ready to become the poster child of their diagnosis.

Is there anything in between disclosing everything and doing nothing? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Comments

I used to work in a creative field where it was well known that mentally ill, sober substance abusers were the highest rated, most original and irreverent disc jockeys in the 'alternative' format. So my bipolar disorder diagnosis....seeing as it was the 90's and heroin chic and musicians dropping like flies, the fact that I could show up for work on time every day and do an impassioned show each day rather than, as others tended to do, 'phone it in,' it was considered an asset. In later years, after radio, I found employment at a telephone sales branch of a marketing firm of generic WD40. The place was owned by a woman with dual diagnosis and she made it a point to hire people similarly challenged. This was the early 2000's in South Florida, a place full of people looking for a fresh start. We have more halfway houses per capita in Broward County than any other county in the country, from what I've read. Public assistance is everwhere. I've never been anything but open about my illness and for the first ten years I got a lot of "I'd never have known." But when my antidepressant finally stopped working, I was unable to myself. Work, I mean. This went on with a return to self medication and my condition was obvious. At that point I started hiding it. I would advise you to keep your situation to yourself and work as an activist through letters to senators, educating yourself on the lawmaker's campaigns, ballot initiatives etc. For all the public assistance I just mentioned, my state, Florida is number 49 out of 50 states for the lowest amount of money spent on mental illness, funds in the form of grants for behavioral arts focused drop in centers, etc. Part of that is our governer, who refused federal matching funds to expand Medicaid. He thought privatizing Medicaid a better idea. The statewide privatized Medicaid is linked to Walgreen's and CVS, and those hmo Medicaid patients are only allowed to fill their prescriptions there. But that's another subject. I'm looking at more self education with an online civics course and have written letters to senators and congresswomen about the situation I just mentioned.
The bill of rights university claims to have a free online civic couse and I emailed the address they showed but it's been a week with no response. I'm willing to pay for such a course if necessary. My point is that we can have a larger impact if we know what we are doing and why. Hashtag, Twitter campaigns just speak to the choir. We need to put our energy where it can do some real good. That's my take on it. I was fortunate in my professional life but that's just me.
I think you would hurt yourself at work by telling them something they clearly do not understand.
You'd always be looking over your shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop. You might look for work in a more understanding corporate culture, but work is hard to be found these days.
You are not rationalizing your silence. You are weighing it and for doing that alone, you are very brave.

I worked for a ngo teaching underprivilaged kids i was bullied extensively by my colleagues.and had to get medication. When i told my boss my problems i was thrown out do never disclose be on alert they are waiting for u to make a mistake

Olivia, I agree with Allison.
I only disclose my illness to the people I trust.
IMHO you cannot educate these ignorant people in the short term, if at all. If they haven't learnt by now, working in the health professions then they will never learn.
It is unfortunate but not all work places are as enlightened as they should be.
Personally I would not disclose to this group of people.

Hi Olivia,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have been in similar situations and I felt like I should say something but I didn’t because at the end of the day it might change how everyone sees me. I agree with everyone else. It’s not a good idea to disclose any of our diagnosis because people really don’t understand it. I work in a financial institution and I know that I’ll never advance my career if I were to disclose such information and in al honesty might lose my job since people don’t understand that a mental health diagnosis does not make a personal incapable of success. To be honest I shared my diagnosis with family and close friends and found that even people who knew and loved me treated me different, avoided me and in all honesty tried their best to forget me. These are people who’d known me for years and had been an integral part of my life. I can literally count the people who did stand by me on one hand and they’re mostly in the medical field so they’re more understanding. To be honest even my parents avoided me so... the sad truth is a mental health diagnosis has the same social stigma that the pride community faced decades ago. Revealing your diagnosis will cause more harm to you than good and we can’t educate people. We need to get humanitarian organizations to raise more awareness about this. I also find that I can be a mental health advocate without revealing my diagnosis by interjecting and saying “hey, I’m sorry guys but those kind of jokes really aren’t funny anymore ... millions of people struggle with mental health diagnosis’ everyday and joking about it is no different than joking about someone who has cancer. So let’s do better”

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