Workplace and Bipolar Disorder

Author: Niki Castle

Disclaimer: Mention of Attempted Suicide

The stress of working in television.

As kids, we were all asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I changed my mind so many times. From cardiologist to artist and then an architect. By the time I graduated I was determined to make it in television as a sports reporter. My young ambition made me naïve to the juggernaut that is television news. It was once reported that television news producers have one of the fifth most stressful jobs in America. The others on the list: enlisted military personnel, firefighter, airline pilot, police officer. It’s no wonder that when I was working in television, I experienced some of my worst symptoms of bipolar disorder.

In fact, stress is considered one of the leading contributors to bipolar disorder. Many clinicians follow the diathesis–stress hypothesis which discovered that mental and physical disorders develop from a genetic or biological predisposition combined with stressful conditions. According to this model, stress is a leading contributor to bipolar disorder.

My first suicide attempt was a direct result of work-related stress. I was working for one of the three major networks when I found myself in the middle of a sexual harassment lawsuit. The VP of Sales forced himself on me at several work functions. When it was reported to HR my life turned upside down. I was whisked away and interrogated like I was the one at fault, never to return to my office again. My coworkers of nearly four years were forbidden from communicating with me. When information was leaked to the press, my underlying mental health condition made it impossible for me to manage the stress. The added angst of my father getting diagnosed with prostate cancer threw me over the edge. I felt I had no other way to get rid of the stress and pain than to take my own life.

Years later I began what was probably my favorite roll in television as a producer for a morning show. I loved the creativity and collaboration it took to put together a four-hour show. The excitement of line producing from the control room would leave me buzzing with exhilaration. And there was nothing like the adrenaline rush that came with breaking news. Unfortunately, the hours and level of stress were unbearable. I was supposed to arrive by 1 a.m., but I was always late. My executive producer leaned on me for leadership, so when I was late or missed a day of work, I paid for it.

I was constantly sick and calling out of work. One study shows that people with bipolar miss around 30 workdays per year, compared to individuals without the condition, who miss around 7 days per year. But, when I was “on”, I was on! Unfortunately, this was usually due to symptoms of mania. I could work all hours with no sleep. I would show up to work energized and confident. I had amazing ideas, and I could manage the multitasking that is essential to line producing a live show. But when I would crash and experience symptoms of depression, I was a totally different person. If I didn’t call out sick last minute, I would show up late, usually casually dressed, often accompanied by a hat so I could hide. I was tired, cranky, and moved slower. My brain was usually in a fog leading me to be ambivalent about my show and its content. I had difficulty concentrating and making decisions. I was literally two different people, and everyone noticed.

In a survey conducted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, almost nine out of every 10 people with bipolar disorder said the illness had affected their job performance. After two years of producing, despite my dreadful track record, my talent spoke for itself. I was a good producer, and I was on track to receive a promotion. One week before I was to negotiate my new contract depression hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been assigned to executive produce a live show at opening day for the Padres.

I worked 12–14-hour days for two weeks to get the show in order. By the morning of the show, my body was exhausted and couldn’t go anymore. There was no more gas in the tank. I knew I was on thin ice, but despite everything I tried, there was no way I could get to work that day. And with one phone call, my career in television was done. Studies show employees with bipolar disorder have a 33% higher chance of involuntary job loss, contributing to the 60% unemployment rate for people with bipolar disorder. Over my 20-year career I have been let go from six different positions.


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